Ask A Pro with Jose Theodore: overcoming adversity in the NHL
Jose Theodore is no stranger to ups and downs on and off the ice.
From a Hart Trophy winner to unwanted in Montreal, he enjoyed a resurrection of sorts after being traded to Colorado for the immortal David Aebischer (and to make room for Cristobal Huet) by backstopping a first round playoff upset of his new team, the Minnesota Wild, in 2008. He continued the comeback after signing in Washington and posting 62 wins over two seasons, only to be quickly cast aside in the playoffs both times. But that was nothing compared to the personal loss Theodore suffered while with the Capitals.
In August 2009, as he prepared for his second season in Washington, Theodore and his wife, Stephanie Cloutier, lost their newborn son Chace to respiratory complications just two months after he was born premature. They paid tribute to his son’s short life by founding Saves for Kids, a program to raise funds for the Noenatal Intensive Care Unit at the Children’s National Medical Center.
Theodore won the 2010 Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication, but has admitted it still hurts to think about the loss. All of which put things in perspective when no NHL teams came calling for his services as unrestricted free agent last summer. But that didn’t make it any easier to deal with being out of a game that provided his best escape from the grief.
“It’s one place where it’s easier – I wouldn’t say easy, but easier – to forget about some of the personal stuff,” Theodore said Sunday.
Not having that as August wound down and the phone didn’t ring, wasn’t easy to understand. But it wasn’t hard to get through either.
“Last summer wasn’t tough because I really had this sense – and whoever really paid attention to the season – I felt like I did everything in my power to make it easy on myself,” said Theodore, who was 30-7-7 for the Capitals and went undefeated in regulation the final 24 games of the season. “Not only that I had 30 wins and a .911 save percentage, which for an offensive team I was pretty happy about, but you can see this year their focus is changing their style and I had as many scoring chances there as I ever have. And overall I just felt like I did everything I could, and then in the playoffs it didn’t pan out like I wanted to. But then it’s out of my power if I don’t start after one game, you know, so I felt like I could look at myself in the mirror and say I did everything I could. But obviously when the phone didn’t ring I was disappointed because I felt like I was in good shape and I wanted to keep playing.
“I was really surprised,” continued Theodore. “I knew the salary was going to go down because of what was happening with all the goalies and it’s not like I was asking for too much money. I just wanted to play for a good team and it didn’t happen.”
The phone finally did ring after Minnesota’s Josh Harding tore his ACL and MCL in a September crease collision.
Five months later, Theodore is 12-9-3 with an impressive .919 save percentage, and even won an extra stretch drive start ahead of Niklas Backstrom as the Wild battled for a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference. More importantly, the soft-spoken, polite puck stopper is still around to graciously take questions from InGoal Magazine readers for this week’s Ask a Pro:
~ We’ll start with InGoal subscriber Janet Wamsley, whose thoughtful list of questions would have done any professional interviewer proud, covering off a lot of feature angles most reporters seek out from Theodore, and even generating part of the response used in the introduction above.
~ Wamsley starts by asking, how has your preparation (mental and physical) for games changed or evolved over your career?
“Through experience you just learn to relax more before a game. You pretty much know what you have to do to be ready. You know if you are not feeling good what you should do to get yourself in the game, or if you have a bad goal how to react. Or some games that you don’t have a lot of shots and when you are younger you kind of lose your concentration because you have no shots, and now you know how ot deal with it. It’s more about knowing yourself. Maybe you are not as quick technically as you get older, but you can compensate with the experience.”
~ Wamsley continues: In situations where there’s something to prove about your play, how do you use that as motivation?
“You know what, there is always something to prove, for whatever reason. It could be like you win the Vezina, you want to prove that you can do it again and try to do it again. Or if you have a bad season, you want to prove that you can bounce back. There’s always something to prove, but at the end of the day we’re playing a game and I’ve been playing in the NHL for what, 13 years now? So I’m still here and I feel great.
“Maybe there are times when you are not playing as much as you want so that it’s not as fun. But overall I find a way to have a good time. Even if I’m not playing I am going to have a good time with the guys, I am going to practice hard. Maybe the last year in Montreal after the lockout, when they traded me, those five or six months weren’t much fun because it was at a point where everything got blown out of proportion and it wasn’t fun. But if I can complain only about six months out of 13 years, that’s pretty good.”
~ One last one from Wamsley: Over the course of your career, there have been very high highs, and very low lows on the ice, and difficulties and tragedy off it. From the more recent interviews and recent stories about you, it seems that you’ve been able to find strength to face your challenges honestly, without giving in to bitterness and/or despair. Can you speak to where you’ve found sources of strength and hope in that process?
“I think it’s just about hockey as a place where you go and it’s one place where it’s easier – I wouldn’t say easy, but easier – to forget about some of the personal stuff. So when I am out here with the guys and practicing, I really rely on hard work and just having fun and a lot of times the arena was the only place I could kind of forget about anything else and let down my guards and have a good time. And a lot of time, until pretty much this year, I was able to always be a No.1 guy, even if some seasons didn’t go as well as I wanted to, but always bounce back and that’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in is bouncing back.”
~ InGoal reader JR Cruz asks: With the trend going to “bigger is better” for goalies, what kind advice would you have for younger kids or adults that do not have the luxury of a larger frame and “pucks just hitting them?”
“At the end of the day it’s all about stopping the pucks. You can say he’s small in the net or he’s a small goalie or whatever, and obviously when you are a smaller goalie you gotta play big and be quick and challenge, but at the end of the day if you win your games and have a good save percentage, I don’t care what size you are. Just make the big saves and make the difference.
“That said, obviously when you are a small goalie you gotta learn to play big. You can’t be going down on every shot, you have to be able to read plays. I always think if you are a big goalie and you play deep, or you are a small goalie and you play out, at the end of the day it’s the same thing. It depends on the style you play, but at the end of the day it’s about stopping pucks and that’s all that matters
“When I was with (new Canucks goalie coach) Rollie (Melanson during their time together in Montreal) – and he was a guy that really brought my game to another level – I remember we worked a lot on at least I would have my toes or my heels on the line so I was a little bit further out in the blue. For me what I remember was always toes on line or on top of the blue all the time. Not over the blue, like you don’t want to be two feet out – unless you read the play and sometimes that you can really challenge a shot. I think that’s a good spot for me is when my toes are on that line on the top of the circle.”
~ InGoal follow up: That sounds a lot like how Dwayne Roloson used to talk about his initial depth positioning under Minnesota goalie coach Bob Mason. What has it been like building a relationship with a new goalie coach yet again?
“I remember my first practice with me, Bob and a couple of guys, right away I was really happy I was going to work with a good goalie coach and a guy that’s been there and he doesn’t over coach, he just gives you good advice. I really have a good relationship with him and he’s a big part of why I think me and Niklas things have been going well. And Niklas is a quiet guy but a good guy and he’s fun to work with and I am supporting him 100 per cent and when I play, even if I play a couple of games back to back, he is behind me and supporting me.”
~ InGoal follow up: Speaking of starting, will you look for a No.1 job this summer?
“I think this year I felt like I could have played 40, 45 games, but obviously Nik is a great goalie and he’s had a great year. But we’ll see, things seem to change so much. A lot of teams have two goalies and they almost want to split, so we’re going to see what’s going to happen but for now I can only control what I can control.”