On March 22, 1989 there was a scramble in front of the Buffalo Sabers net and a skate came up, slitting the jugular vein in goaltender Clint Malarchuk’s neck.
With a large scar still visible above the blue, long sleeved t-shirt he’s wearing, Malarchuk talks of the experience and how the trainer saved his life by stopping the enormous flow of blood, allowing his career to continue for another eight years.
Malarchuk came to Prince George this past week to serve as a goalie coach for the Prince George Cougars, bringing with him a wealth of experience and knowledge from his career spent in the NHL.
One of his favourite stories to tell involves him and his brother. His brother was a goaltender who played pro, seven years older than him. Same coaches, same people saw them play. “He didn’t pursue it any longer, he would have made it to the NHL for sure. Here I come along, not as much skill, but I wanted it bad. You can do absolutely anything if you want it bad enough, if you want to pay the price.”
Malarchuk also wanted to be a veterinarian but he didn’t excel at school. “When it comes to school I was dumb as a post so I wasn’t about to crack the books because it would have been a really huge price for me to pay I wasn’t going to do that. But this idea of hard manual type of labour with hockey, lifting weights, running, training, conditioning and mental concentration exercises, you name it I did it. If there was an edge I found it and followed it through.”
It got him there but it also ended his career. “I cracked at the end. The pressure of maintaining that pace. I was in my early 30s still doing things daily, routinely that I was doing when I was 18 and 19. “I really didn’t have much confidence in my skills and I thought everything I did depended on what I did before a game or in a prior practice. So my work ethic was ridiculous, it was off the scale. It paid off for a while, for ten years in the NHL and five in the minors.”
In the end Malarchuk was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and started taking medication for it. “I’ve been fine ever since,” Malarchuk says with a laugh.
His fondest memories from the NHL were being named the player of the week and player of the month on several occasions. “That was with Gretzky and Lemieux and everyone else so that was pretty neat to be honoured that way, when you’re going against those guys. Any time you go into the playoffs it’s always memorable times, pretty intense battles.”
Other memorable times are the ones that the Cougars are going through right now. He talks of how many of the professional players look to their major junior days as the best and how none of them ever realized it until later. “You’re striving for the ultimate goal to be in the NHL but you still have a lot of naive misconceptions about what the NHL is. It’s a ton of pressure, it’s a business and I think that junior hockey is still the family-oriented game. Your playing for coaches who care about you as a human being and a hockey player.”
As far as teams go, the Cougars are near the top of their division, playing better than most people ever predicted. “I am so impressed with this team. They have great leadership and a lot of character. They’ve done a great job here from the coaches, players, organization, to the fans in the seats. Ed (Dempsey, head coach), runs a terrific practice. He handles the kids so well he treats them with respect and like young men. On that same note you can sense the same respect back.”
“We’re really happy with how it turned out. Clint did a great job and Billy (Thompson) and Kyle (Stanton) were very receptive to his ideas, he had a lot of good ideas,” says Dempsey. “Goal is a tough position so not everybody in the world is a goaltender. So when you get a chance to talk on an experience base and share different situations that only goalies can go through you can definitely put that to good use.”
Malarchuk didn’t get a chance to see Kyle Stanton play any games but used his own experience in junior for him to relate to. “He’s got a great work ethic in practice. It looks like he has a great upside. He’s a battler and a competitor. He reminds me of myself, a guy who made it on hard work. I did everything I could and it worked out.”
Malarchuk comes in as a tutor, not a mechanic, just someone with guidance and some new skills that the goalies should practice at a lot with before trying out in a game. He feels that goaltenders at this level don’t handle the puck very well. He teaches them how to play the puck, if it goes behind the net to stop it, set it up, and pass it to your defenseman or leave it for him, all those things. That’s something he wants to give them confidence in.
“It took me a long time to be able to handle the puck very well and to be aggressive with my stick around the net. In the NHL they tell you this is your territory, any puck that goes through there, if it goes in the net or if it’s a pass across the crease or if a guy walks out from behind the net that’s your puck. I stopped and thought wow that’s a big responsibility. I didn’t realize that’s the way it was.”
Malarchuk had a good opportunity to see Billy Thompson play and was impressed with what he saw. “He’s very technically sound. I rate them, and on my scale he rates very high. He’s very confident, very composed on and off the ice. You can see the players feed off of him. That’s a rare thing. He’s a big part of this team. It’s a great hockey team so he doesn’t have to stand on his head every night. I guess what I’m saying is sure he’s a good goaltender, anyone could see that but technically he’s got something over other goaltenders, but also the other side, getting to know him as a person. I bet money that he plays in the NHL.”
“Being a goalie, it’s a very attractive position in a lot of ways. Your kind of a loner in a team sport in a sense. There’s that spot light yet it’s not a glorious position all the time because that’s a goal scorers place but there’s something about making a save, the challenge of stopping a team. The courage it takes to be a goalie. Those pucks aren’t sponge rubber. It takes some guts to play the game and I think that attracts a certain personality somebody who’s got some grit to him.”