BEHIND THIS MASK LIES THE STORY OF THE GAMES

MERIBEL, France — Sometimes your moment comes right on schedule, when you are young and ambitious, ready to snap it off with your teeth. And sometimes, you wait for that moment a long and winding time. The big leagues never call. Your life stops in truck driver towns. You begin to wonder, as you pass another birthday looking out the window of a bus, whether perhaps you are meant to be no more than this, some sort of lyric in a bad country song.

You do time in Ft. Wayne, Ind., playing for the Komets; you do time in Indianapolis, playing for the Ice. You work two years as a goalie in North Carolina, Spruce Pine and Winston- Salem, something called the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. Night after night, you pull on the pads, the gloves, the mask, you take pucks in the gut, you sweat a swimming pool inside your uniform and maybe a few hundred people clap. Then you go home and flip on ESPN and see kids you used to play against skating across the NHL. You go to sleep thinking about the house payment. The years pass.

A few months ago, during the tryouts for the U.S. Olympic hockey team, Ray LeBlanc, 27 years old and a veteran of just about everywhere except the big time, asked the coach whether he could go home for a few days. He wasn’t getting much work, they were bringing in other goalies to look at, a guy who had played for the Boston Bruins, a guy who had played for the Los Angeles Kings, and maybe this whole thing wasn’t going to work, why should it, who was Ray LeBlanc to think he should be Olympic goalie anyhow? So he asked Dave Peterson for a break.

“Everything all right?” Peterson said.

“Yeah,” LeBlanc said. “I just need a few days to paint my house.”

Paint his house? Uh, couldn’t someone else do that? LeBlanc shrugged. Maybe he didn’t want to say that someone else would charge about $1,500, and that was money he didn’t have to spend right now. You do six years in the International Hockey League, you get financially realistic.

Peterson gave his blessing. The tryouts continued. And Ray LeBlanc, never realizing his moment was just around the corner, went home to New England to apply a fresh coat. Finns applaud what’s-his-name

Thursday night, in this spirited little ski village, Ray LeBlanc stood on the Olympic hockey ice, wearing the red, white and blue mask, and he made the boys back in Ft. Wayne proud. He took all the team from Finland could throw at him — and the Finns are one of the best teams in the world. He caught their shots. He smothered their shots. He fell on their shots. In three periods, they fired at him 30 times and only once did the shot get by, a point-blanker that Grant Fuhr might have missed. In his last two games, LeBlanc has made 75 of 76 pucks die unfulfilled.

The Americans haven’t lost yet.

“They are a very good team,” said Finnish assistant coach Sakari Pietila in the press conference after the United States upset his group, 4-1. “They did not surprise us. They played hard. And they got a very good effort from
–“

He looked down the podium where LeBlanc was sitting and realized he didn’t even know his name.

“– from, eh, the goaltender.”

LeBlanc almost grinned. How far was this from the Flint Spirits and the Saginaw Hawks, for whom he played just three years ago? How far was this from riding the bench in Indianapolis, while the team played a younger, high-round draft pick who needed development for the NHL? LeBlanc was already Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham,” a career minor leaguer, a veteran whose time had never come. But this night, on a mountain full of snow, he had just given America its best Olympic hockey game since that Friday in Lake Placid, a dozen years ago.

What is Winston-Salem thinking now?

He’ll have souvenirs to cherish

“I’m keeping everything they give us,” LeBlanc admitted in the hallway.
“I have this box full of souvenirs. Some guys are selling them. Not me.”

His voice cracked. He has a face like Bruce Springsteen’s and the halting speech of a man who’s really not sure how he got here. He falls back on cliches like “One game at a time” and says, “My teammates are doing it, not me.” Yeah. Tell that to his family back home. LeBlanc says he calls, and all these people are screaming at the other end.

“They yell, ‘Keep it up, Ray! Don’t stop now!’ “

No. Don’t stop now. Maybe this will be a new story. Nobody needs that more than U.S. hockey, which is force-fed stale crumbs of 1980 wherever it turns. Perhaps a team like this, no- names who are virtually interchangeable, can do enough magic to finally make us forget Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig. Perhaps a guy like Ray LeBlanc will lead the way.

“Do you have any idea what’s happening to you?” someone asked, flipping open a notepad.

LeBlanc paused. Of course he did. He remembers every minute in the IHL, the ACHL, the alphabet soup teams that have swallowed his life. He knows this is that moment he has always dreamed about, that maybe after this, nothing will be the same. He knows that. But he absorbed the question, and he said the right thing and this is why you like him:

“What’s happening to me,” he said, “is happening to all of us.”

I bet it was a good paint job, too.

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