For me, the quality that separates real-deal winners from phonies and front-runners is resilience. Having the wherewithal, call it mental toughness if you like, to bounce back when things go sideways, when confidence wanes and performance dips.
It’s the ability to put an awful effort, be it a shift, a period, a game or even a stretch of games, in the rear-view mirror and climb back on the top of your game rather the going the other way – letting doubt creep in and fretting about what’s already done instead of focusing on what’s next. That quality is particularly important when it comes to playing goal in the NHL.
For all his physical and technical skills, it’s that ability to bounce back that stands out for me about Cam Talbot. He displayed it during his first season with the Edmonton Oilers and he found it again at the World Championship in Russia, backstopping Team Canada to 2-0 win over Finland in the gold medal final after getting lit up by the Finns earlier in the tournament.
Talbot has brass. He doesn’t fold when it goes bad.
THE WRONG STUFF
I had a brief stretch of playing goal as a bantam lacrosse player, one which proved beyond any reasonable doubt I didn’t have the resilience I’m talking about to play the position, even at a level that is, obviously, worlds away from the NHL. While that experience did provide me a sliver of insight into the challenges of manning the crease, I’ll defer to Ken Dryden on that.
“Because the demands on the goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself. Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style,” Dryden said. “The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all symptoms of his position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing.
“The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accept them, and put them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots. His body quickly follows.”
The unsuccessful goalie? That would be me. Back in bantam, I was the designated back-up goaltender on our team. I practiced some in net, but never even dressed for a game – until our starter got injured. I started and went the distance in three or four games and did OK. Not great, but OK.
Then came the el-foldo. Late in a tie game with the final seconds ticking away, I made a save. Eager to make a play, I scooped the ball up in the crease and reared back to launch a pass to teammates breaking down the floor. First rule in that situation is to step to the side of the net. I didn’t. The ball popped out of my stick and I turned just in time to watch it bounce into my net as the buzzer went. As the other team celebrated in disbelief at their good fortune, my teammates stood in stunned silence. Crushed.
Rattled? The next game, I allowed five goals on the first five shots I faced. I didn’t stop one of them – I didn’t even get a piece of one of them. During the intermission, the coach told me he was putting somebody else in. I peeled off the gear. I never put it on again, even in practice. I’d made bonehead plays before that contributed to losses. I’d lost fights. But not as the last guy back. Not as a goaltender. Different cats, these guys. Anyway, enough about my Tommy Salo moment. Back to Talbot.
After allowing three goals on seven shots in the second period on the way to a 4-0 loss to the Finns, Talbot showed a lot of moxy the rest of the way – in a 6-0 win over Sweden, a 4-3 nail-biter over the U.S. and again in the rematch with Finland for the gold medal. Simply put, Talbot refused to let one bad game tarnish a tournament in which he played eight games, recorded four shutouts and finished with a .940 save percentage. Resilience.
We saw likewise from Talbot this season with the Oilers, a pressure-cooker situation if ever there was one with all the questions about whether he was ready to grab the starting job in the crease after being acquired from the New York Rangers. We had our doubts early, and with good reason.
Talbot would allow a bad goal here, a bad goal there – a loss in the final seconds against the Calgary Flames on a shot from the corner by Michael Frolik and a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings come to mind. Thirteen games in, Talbot was 3-8-1 with a .889 save percentage. Anders Nilsson had put together some solid outings. Talbot seemed to be on the ropes.
Turns out Talbot had lots of fight left. The rest we know. By the time the season was done, Nilsson was out of here and that .889 had turned to .917 as Talbot buckled down and went 18-19-4 after that through 56 appearances. Now, more of the same in Russia. Resilience. Mental toughness. Real-deal attributes.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.
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