Published in The Sault Star March 8, 2022
We all know who’s to blame for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, don’t we?
Goalies. Yeah, goalies.
I say that not just because goalies always get the blame for everything. If the rest of the team allows 25 breakaways and the goalie stops 24, his teammates talk about the one their backstopper would “like to have back.”
(To be fair, so would the goalie. Tony Esposito didn’t go by the nickname “Tony 1,” after all.)
No, I blame members of the goaltending fraternity because they’ve helped convince Putin he’s a hockey god. Or, at least, they’ve encouraged his belief that he can score on every shot.
That sort of ego-stoking is bound to carry over into off-ice activities, such as invading neighbouring countries.
Just take a look at any of several videos of the Russian president-for-life playing hockey and you’ll see what I mean.
A scant 15 or so years ago, Vlad the Impaler was using a chair to learn to skate. He still skates like he’s leaning on an invisible support.
Now he plays hockey, wearing a national team jersey with the number 11. And when he plays, usually in charity games featuring former pros, he’s always the leading scorer. Always. By a ton.
Eat your heart out, famed No. 11s such as Mark Messier. Putin’s the shining red army star.
In a game last May the dictator of the duma scored nine goals before doing a major face-plant during the victory celebration (a sign of things to come, we hope). In a 2019 match he scored 10.
In December, playing on the same team with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, a passionate hockey fan, Putin potted seven goals to Lukashenko’s deuce.
Smell a Russian rat, anyone?
Yet as a goalscorer, Vlad sucks. Or he would, if everyone on the ice wasn’t letting and/or abetting him to dent the twine.
It helps that he centres a line between former NHL greats Pavel Bure and Valeri Kamensky. My mother, aged 99, might pot a few goals with those ringer wingers setting her up.
But it’s pathetically obvious that all of the opposing forwards skate as far as possible away from Putin, in the arena lobby if they can.
Defensemen turn the wrong way, catch a rut and lose their footing, allow themselves to be blocked out or give Putin the most halfhearted of hooks.
That leaves the goalies. We’ll get to their tactics soon.
Why would someone who was a champion wrestler in his youth tacitly allow so many people to go to such great lengths to make him a scoring machine? Would a serious athlete seriously want opponents to take it so easy on him?
Leonid Bershidsky, addressing this question in a Bloomberg News article last year, puts it down to noblesse oblige in reverse.
“He knows he’s a terrible hockey player. . . . (but) in Russia, letting no harm come to the leader is taken for granted. . . .
“Putin appears to enjoy this layer of protection as a kind of superpower that puts him on an equal footing with much better players. He doesn’t appear to see it as obsequiousness but rather as recognition of his value off the ice.”
As well, the opposing team is “packed with recipients of government contracts.”
So if every player on both teams is conspiring to inflate the Putin ego to Hindenburgian heights, why do I think it’s the goalies’ fault?
Because after Putin stumbles his way through the entire team and unleashes his Tom-Thumb-calibre wrist shot, it’s the goalie who decides if he scores or not.
Unlike their teammates, goalies can’t just get out of the way and let that pretender to the Mister Macho throne have his way, as if they were Belarus or China.
If they make giving up on a shot too obvious they might find themselves playing for the Gulag All-Stars or the Siberian Tortured Hockey Veterans or the Formerly Living Soviets.
There’s an art to letting someone score while leaving at least some doubt in everyone’s mind that you did it on purpose. Most pickup hockey goalies have cultivated it.
Some friend’s kid or grandkid or new girlfriend is in the stands and the goalie’s five-hole becomes a seven-and-a-half, or he flashes the leather dramatically but with a half-second delay, or he bites on a deke like it’s a slice of pizza.
That’s the sort of thing I see from goalies in those videos celebrating Putin’s prowess on the frozen pond.
And I wonder, as he bombs Ukrainian civilians because attacking that country’s army proved too difficult, what might have happened if every goalie Putin has faced played him honestly.
I don’t buy Bershidsky’s belief that Putin knows how bad he is.
A megalomaniacal narcissist like him probably believes that his superiority to the rest of us allows him to excel and succeed in anything he tries.
If some self-sacrificing goalies had shown him that’s not how things work in hockey, or in the real world, would it have shake Putin’s confidence as he set out to restore the Soviet Union?
But at least those goalies could have tried a little harder.
Jeez, now I sound like a forward.