The puck was coming at him. “Uh-oh,” he thought. “I gotta stop it. . . . Am I gonna stop it? . . . How do I stop it?”
He had enough time to think all this, because the puck was shot from the other end of the ice and was moving pretty slowly. Even so, it went between his legs before he flopped backwards, landed on it, then reached behind him.
And then, a smile.
“I did it,” he told himself, looking at the puck. “I made my first save.”
He was 8 years old.
He had just become a goalie.
Never mind that it was an accident. (Don’t most goalies become goalies by accident?) Never mind that his team needed someone to play net and everyone else had already taken a turn. Chris Osgood had reluctantly pulled on the mask, gloves and pads. He tried it. He liked it.
He . . . became it.
“It was hard on my parents,” he said Wednesday after practice at Joe Louis Arena. “Being the mom and dad of a goalie can be pretty stressful.”
In fact, they tried to talk him out of it. Today, having failed, they watch their son via satellite from the same place where he made that first save, Medicine Hat, Alberta, one of those quirky Canadian towns near the south Saskatchewan River, where Osgood says “you can leave your car running with the doors open and nobody will touch it.”
In other words, a long way from downtown Detroit. And Chris Osgood is a long way from that first day in the net. When you look at him, with his thatch-blond hair, small nose, apple cheeks and backwards baseball cap, you half-expect him to hop on his bicycle and ride home.
But if hockey season has shown us anything so far, it’s that Osgood is a long way from his beginnings, a long way from the boyish rookie who cried when the San Jose Sharks eliminated the Wings, a long way, even, from the kid with the shaky confidence we sometimes saw last season.
He is now one of the NHL’s hottest goaltenders, a guy who says “I don’t even think about the possibility of losing when we go out there now.” The face may say high school, but the performances say all grown up.
The Oz-Man cometh. Flashy style is over
“I used to jump around too much,” he says, when I ask what he does differently now, why he leads the NHL with three shutouts, and has the third-best goals-against average. “I used to think you had to be flashy with saves.
“But I watched guys like Patrick Roy. So many pucks go off his chest and shoulders. It was because he was in such great position before the shot, he didn’t have to move.”
Less is more. That goes for thinking as well. When Osgood arrived, he took every criticism to heart. He worried about every performance. He fretted over every goal. “If someone said I didn’t play so well that night, it would stay with me,” he admits. “Now I can say, ‘Hey, nobody plays perfect every night.’
He lifts his cap, pushes a fist through his moist, clumped hair, and pulls the cap back on, backwards of course. Osgood is a visual contradiction. Even now, at 23, you can see why he was stopped at the gate by a security guard on his first day with the Red Wings, and not permitted to enter because the guard thought he was some kid trying to sneak in.
Yet by everyone’s account, Osgood is a fierce competitor. “He really gets into it,” says coach Scotty Bowman. “He’s aggressive, he gets intense. The more he plays, the more focused he seems to get.”
And he is playing more. Osgood didn’t know where he stood a few weeks before the season. Mike Vernon hadn’t signed and for a while it looked as if Osgood would be No. 1 by default. Then Vernon reached agreement, and some thought for all that money, he would certainly be the star and Osgood part of the chorus. Teammates play hard for him
Instead, it is the kid who is earning the big starts, such as Tuesday night’s game against the hot Canadiens, another Osgood win. His 11 victories are tied for fourth-best in the league. On nights when he’s hot, the Wings need only score once. On nights when he allows two or three, the Wings seem to score four or five.
“They like him,” Bowman says. “They play hard for him. That’s not true of all goalies. I’ve seen some talented guys never reach the top because they were such jerks their teams didn’t get behind them.”
No such problem here. Osgood is no prima donna. He shares an apartment with Kris Draper, and is one of the guys when the team goes out to eat. Of course, if they go anyplace where alcohol is served, it can be a problem.
“If I go in first, everyone gets carded,” he says.
So he waits behind the others. He has done that before — including last year’s playoffs, when he waited behind Vernon, who started nearly every game. Don’t expect that to happen again. The fact is, this season Osgood is exceeding the Red Wings’ hopes. And he wants no dissension with Vernon.
“Mike and I get along so well, we’re beyond being jealous. As soon as Scotty says who’s starting, the other guy encourages him.”
So let’s see. He’s smarter in the net. He’s tougher about criticism. He’s mature about sharing the job. And he’s playing like a maestro.
The Oz-Man cometh.
Now. When does he start shaving?
Mitch will sign copies of his new book, “Live Albom IV,” 7-8 p.m. Friday, Media Play, Oakland Pointe Plaza; 1:30-2:30 Saturday, B. Dalton, Oakland Mall; 2-3 p.m. Sunday, Waldenbooks, Ann Arbor.