|Wednesday, May 28
Roy's greatness goes beyond hockey
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
Certain athletes transcend their sports and project auras that don't necessarily require a fascination with that pastime to comprehend. Usually, the phenomenon involves a combination of competitiveness, talent, success and unrelenting perfectionism.
They were the greatest at what they did.
Even their enemies or their detractors finally get around to the grudging admission (perhaps after eight or nine beers): They were the greatest.
Patrick Roy, the Colorado Avalanche goaltender who announced his retirement Wednesday in Denver, did all of that. And that's why his exit from his NHL leaves a void on the sports scene, even for those general sports fans who might have trouble explaining offsides or naming more than 11 NHL franchises.
As a player, Roy was respected, revered and reviled, whether those contradictory emotions came from the stands at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, in his own dressing room, or from the guys in the other uniforms on the ice.
But he was universally recognized as a man who revolutionized his craft, with his drop-to-the-ice butterfly style that has been at the heart of a wave of French-Canadian goaltenders spreading through the NHL, and didn't just set records.
He established new parameters of greatness.
Roy's position, the most influential in all of major-league sports (as we argued in a previous treatise), adds to his uniqueness. His greatness also isn't just influential; it's just different. Maybe the pitcher shares this, but a goaltender can get away with being consumed by the self-centered quest to look good, to get credit, to rack up numbers, and -- yes -- even to avoid accountability and blame.
Roy had all of that down to a science, and it rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way.
Above all, he wanted to win.
He wanted to win because it made him look good. He openly and unembarrasingly coveted Terry Sawchuk's record for career victories, and openly talked of how central that standard should be in any evaluation of greatness at his position.
He wanted to win because that meant on a very basic level that he allowed the puck in the net fewer times than the guy at the other end, whether that was Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur or Mike Richter or some kid just called up from the Kentucky Thoroughblades.
He wanted to skate around with professional sports' most famous championship symbol -- the Stanley Cup -- because he not only could join in the communal experience of team achievement, but because it inevitably would add to his acclaim and his resume. And he got to do that four times, twice with Montreal and twice with Colorado, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff most valuable player three times.
Know what? The fact that his teammate, Joe Sakic, won the Smythe in 1996, probably diluted Roy's enjoyment of that title run, but there isn't a teammate in the Avalanche dressing room who didn't understand and accept that.
The fact that Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who still has a Roy-signed stick as one of his prized possessions, has stolen some of the spotlight, and even got to sit where Roy never has -- on "The Tonight Show" couch -- undoubtedly bugs Roy.
Think it's an accident that Roy and the Avalanche decided to go ahead and violate the unofficial NHL prohibition against making major announcements during the Stanley Cup Finals?
Roy doesn't mind nudging the spotlight back in his direction. After all, more than any other goaltender of his generation, he owns stock in the Stanley Cup Finals, in line with his name being etched on the trophy in four different places and winning the MVP trophy three times.
The other quality great athletes often have is the ability to have their teammates say: "Aw, that's just ..."?
Aw, that's just Patrick.
On the surface, the most curious aspect of his career was the storied Montreal Canadiens' ultimate inability to keep saying that.
Aw, that's just Patrick.
When he was such a pain in the posterior during the Canadiens' struggles at the start of the 1995-96 season, it set the wheels in motion that led to his December 1995 trade to Colorado. He had been abrasive and troublesome long before that. And the reality is that he wants to win so badly, he is absolutely intolerable in a losing situation.
Is that a bad thing? No.
But in Montreal, the veneration of the Habs' tradition includes a component of expected respect for the echoes of the past. So when he hissed that he had played his last game for Montreal during a famous meltdown after being tardily yanked in a decisive loss to the Red Wings, the reaction was a short-sighted move that made his pronouncement a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Canadiens were looking to get rid of him, and they had their excuse -- one that was understood and supported to a degree in Montreal that to this day seems almost ludicrous, yet understandable at the same time.
The Canadiens' deep-rooted traditions blinded them to something that is at the core of his greatness. His undeniable selfishness was manifested at one of the few positions in sport where it is enabling, not counterproductive.
So he moved on to Colorado, where he was playing for better teams during his title seasons and didn't have to be as great as he was during the Canadiens' 1986 and '93 runs to add to his championship-ring collection.
Hockey's proponents hate it when we resort to explaining the game with comparisons to the other major-league pastimes. Why can't hockey be its own standard, its own basis of comparison? Why can't we ever say, "Michael Jordan is the Wayne Gretzky of basketball''?
That's a fair point. But in this case, the comparisons are appropriate.
In Denver, he was the John Elway of hockey.
And the other comparisons abound. The fact that Patrick Roy evokes such a combination of allusions is another compliment.
This might seem strange to some, but he is like Ted Williams -- who played as if he had a chip on his shoulder and was self-centered to the point of obnoxiousness -- with a deeper desire to win. That doesn't mean Ted Williams didn't love to win or that Patrick Roy is more noble. It means that Roy is at a position where winning is such an important component in the evaluation process of greatness, even in retrospect, and he knows it.
Like Williams, Roy had some revolutionary ideas and strategies that seemed quirky to some, but he has had an amazing influence on young athletes and his craft.
Above all, he wanted to win.
And he both damn well did it, and did it damn well.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, Simon and Schuster's "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.