October 20, 2009

Interview With The Author: Sebastien Tremblay

I recently was able to sit down with goaltender guru Sebastien Tremblay and discuss goalies, goaltending and his new book . Buy it today at www.goaltenders.info or at Lulu.com, where it is also available in ebook form.

How did you become such a big fan of goaltenders?

It was a love at first sight situation. I fell in love with the equipment when I was very young and from that point on, I was never interested in any other positions than the goaltender. I remember that when it became time for me to learn to skate, my parents enrolled me in figure skating and while on the ice I was duplicating the moves of goalies. The following year they enrolled me in ice hockey and I immediately volunteered to play goal. I wasn’t talented enough to make it to any competitive level but like most successful goalie I was a student of the game and of the position. My love affair with the sport and the position grew every year and is still more than alive today.

Who were your favorite goalies growing up?

My favourite goalie has always been Daniel Bouchard. I was unfortunately too young to see him play with the Flames but I quickly learned to love the way he played when he joined the Quebec Nordiques in 1981. He had been my favourite goalie before joining the team because I fell in love with the mask he was wearing during the 1975-76 season. One of my uncles who was about 12 years older than myself had a collection of posters from hockey players and goaltenders and for some reason Bouchard’s shot in the Flames goal became my favourite.

My other favourite goaltender was Pete Peeters and for a very special reason. A few years after Bouchard joined the Nordiques, I was hospitalized because of meningitis and by the time I had regained consciousness the NHL playoffs were in full swing. The Nordiques were playing against the Bruins and having been told by my parents that I liked hockey, the hospital staff would turn on the tv for the games. As I was drifting in and out of sleep what struck me was the way the Bruins’ goaltender was battling to stop the puck during that series. It might sound strange but the way he was fighting drove me to fight too and in my mind there is no doubt that the performance by Pete helped me recover. From that point on, I followed his career pretty closely.

Your new book is Goaltenders: The Expansion Years (1967 - 1979). Why the love affair with goaltenders of the 1970s?

That generation of goaltenders was a very disparate group and featured some of the great characters to play the game. Nowadays you do not have personalities like Gilles Gratton who would decide because his horoscope was bad that he would not play or that in order to win a bet he would skate around the rink wearing nothing but his goalie mask. Nor would you have a Gary Simmons who came to the games on a Harley-Davidson and had a clause in his contract specifying that under no circumstances he was to wear a necktie. Today, all of them dress the same and have the same speech for journalist game in and game out. On the ice, you could easily identify a goalie like Doug Favell even if he hadn’t worn his colourful masks or most of the other goaltenders of the era. Each of them had a style, an identity on the ice that was unique to them. Today, you would be hard pressed to distinguish between goalies if they had all the same sweaters and no distinctive paintings on their masks.

I guess I am nostalgic on the way the game used to be before the mid nineties.

Goaltending has changed significantly since then. They goalies nowadays are much better, but also more generic. Are goalies really that much better nowadays? How hard is it to compare goalies of different eras?

Indeed goaltending is the position that has seen the most progress in the last few years with the advent of goaltending coaches and the widespread use of the butterfly. Unlike popular belief, I do not think that goalies are that much better today than they used to be, they just adapted to the new style of game in over a shorter period of time. Let me explain what I mean by this. In the late sixties and early seventies, the game was more defensively oriented, players who possessed a hard shot were few, offensive tactics were simple so goalies could perform well if they were using the traditional stand up style. During the seventies, with the help of European influences, the game began using more sophisticated attack schemes and put more and more emphasis on the offensive side of the game. Still goaltenders did not differ in their approach to the game, remaining faithful to their traditional ways. By the end of the seventies, the offensive ways had taken a solid hold on the game but the merger between the WHA and NHL would bring a new level of offensive thinking to the game. The WHA had been playing a more offensive brand of hockey than had the NHL for years and three of the four clubs to survive the league were using a philosophy that said if you score five goals against us we will simply score six.

In the early eighties you can clearly see that frame of mind in the game and with players like Gretzky, Hawerchuk and Stastny, shootouts were common place. Yet it was only midway through that decade that Francois Allaire would revolutionize the goalie position by bringing in a scientific view that simply stated was to play the percentages. The butterfly style was the perfect tool to apply that philosophy and Allaire had the perfect pupil in Patrick Roy to prove his theory. By the early nineties, the philosophy was not fully adopted by the mass but the arrival of Ed Belfour and Felix Potvin contributed to reinforce the style and philosophy of Allaire and made it the standard by which goalies are brought up. Today, the philosophy has been pushed to the extremes where equipment is no longer used to protect the goalie but to increase the blocking area of the goal essentially increasing the percentage of the puck staying out of net.

In your opinion, who were the best goalies of this era? The most unheralded?

The best goalies of the era were without a doubt Ken Dryden, Bernard Parent and Tony Esposito. All three were dominant for a significant period of time during that span but I think I could even add Jacques Plante to that list. He was at the tail end of his career but he still managed to be one of the best throughout the entire era and to put two of the best single season performances. If he had been a bit younger, I think we would talking of Plante as being the best of the era.

I have a couple of candidate for the most unheralded goalies of the era, Rogatien Vachon and Daniel Bouchard. Rogatien spent the most part of the decade playing out on the West Coast and I think it did damage his stock as one of the best in the game. If you compare his statistics to Hall of Famer Ed Giacomin over the same period you will notice that Vachon was superior to him in almost every category. I strongly believe that the Hall should correct this injustice and allow Vachon into its ranks.

Daniel Bouchard never played for a contender, instead spending the entire era with the Atlanta Flames, a team who was regularly in a fight for a playoff spot and never made any giant strides towards becoming a league powerhouse. He quickly established himself as a solid goaltender in his first season and constantly improved. He was regularly among the best in the league in save percentage and if you compare his stats to legendary Bruins’ goaltender Gerry Cheevers you will see they are almost identical. One is seen as one of the best clutch goaltender in the history of the NHL, the other just as another goalie of the era. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened to Bouchard’s career had he not left the Bruins organisation in the 1972 expansion draft. If it had been the case, I think Bouchard would be seen as one of the best of the era.

In the book you compiled a statistical compendium that all hockey researchers owe you a debt of gratitude for. Give the readers an idea of just how painstaking of an undertaking that was.

I began putting together the game by game feature of the book together back in 2003. At the time, I began by putting together the stats for each game from one source. Then, as I finished putting together the first set of data, I started the process all over again from a different source and kept the data separate. I did it this way for at least three different sources before doing my first unified data source. It allowed me to have at least three quarters of the data acquired. The remaining quarter was the most difficult and hard to get. Newspapers, actual game footage, media guides, official NHL game sheets were all necessary to be able to complete the data set from 1967 to 1979. That last quarter of the data was extremely hard to complete and at one point, with about %10 of the data left to gather and validate, I was beginning to think I would be unable to complete the project. But thanks to some very helpful fellow hockey enthusiasts I was able to put together the 16,367 entries necessary to complete the project.

What goalies' save percentage surprised you as being either better or worse than you expected?

I was really surprised when I took a look at what Jacques Plante was able to do so late in his career. I was expecting his two seasons with a goals-against under two to be good but not as good as what the save percentage reveals. I think we were all stunned when Dominik Hasek put together two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres with a %93 save percentage and how dominant he was then. Just put yourself back twenty some years earlier when Plante was having seasons with a save percentage above %94 and keep in mind he was 40 years old by then. He must have been simply marvellous.

On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed by the numbers put up by Ed Giacomin and Michel Larocque. Being a Hall of Famer, one would have expected Giacomin to be dominant on a regular basis but that was not the case. He was a solid goaltender playing for a defensively oriented team which improved his numbers but I do not think that if he had played anywhere else than New York he would be in the Hall of Fame today.

If you read articles from the era you often read that Larocque was one of the best goalie in the NHL but was stuck behind Dryden with the Canadiens. You can even read in some french language articles that he was as good if not better than was Dryden. After you look at the stats you realize that Larocque was far from being as good as Dryden and was probably one of the most uneven goaltender in the league at the time. His goals-against average and his overall performance looked good because he played for the Habs.

You also profile every goalie who played, and even some who never got off the bench. Which was more fun to research - the stats in the compendium or the circumstances in their life stories?

I actually enjoyed the circumstances in their life stories a bit more than I did the statistics. The statistics research was a mammoth task and at times it felt more like a chore than anything else but the life stories was always enjoyable. To tell you the truth, if I hadn’t done the stats research there are some details of their life stories I wouldn’t have found nor would I have been able to identified half of the goaltenders who never left the bench. I was even able to identify a couple of individuals who warmed the bench for the Canucks and Seals but did not include in the book as I was unable to gather any life story information on them.

How many years has this book been in the works?

It’s difficult to put a precise length of time for which the book has been in the works as the project evolved from my original idea back at least a decade ago. Back then, my idea was to produce a single publication profiling every goaltender from the NHL and WHA from 1917 to 1991. While I was in the beginning stages of the research, I realized that there was way too much information to be included into a single volume and that I would have to split the project in multiple volume. At the time, I had no idea yet I would be putting together a complete game list for every goaltender. As I continued gathering data for the various profile I often came across articles that would try to compare goaltenders from different time periods and invariably they all had the same conclusion that it was very difficult to have a good basis for comparison. In my mind I always thought that the save percentage statistic was the best way to compare between goalies from different eras but since the data was non-existent it was a lost cause. My idea changed when I visited the National Archives in Ottawa and consulted the Jacques Plante Archives. I was extremely surprised to see numerous instances of complete save percentages that existed and were published in the fifties. So it became obvious that there was a possibility to compile the entire set of data until the NHL caught up to that stat in 1982. So once again I modified my project to be split even further and to include that statistic and all the proof for the numbers by publishing the entire list of games. From that point, which is in 2003, the current project has been pretty much set and I am very happy to see the first instalment finally available.

Do you have future books about goaltenders in the works?

Yes. As I previously mentioned, my original idea of a goaltenders encyclopaedia type of publication as grown into a series of book rather than a single volume. “The expansion years” is the first in the series and I am currently working on the second book “The WHA” which you can guess by the title will focus on the rebel league goaltenders. This upcoming book will have the same basic features as “The expansion years” but will include interviews, more detailed profiles, and profiles and European goaltenders who played pre-season, regular season or exhibition games against WHA teams. I hope to be able to include more pictures than I was able to with “The expansion years”. Following “The WHA”, there are three more books planned but as of yet untitled.


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