By Arden Zwelling in Montreal | Photography by Andre Ringuette
DEEP IN THE woods outside Kelowna, B.C., a cool mid-August breeze brushes past a serene Carey Price as he sits in a tree stand 20 feet above the ground. The Montreal Canadiens goaltender has been camped in this tree with his compound bow for nearly a week. He rises every day at 3 a.m. to climb up while it’s still dark, sits tight for the morning before going home for a break midday and returning in the afternoon to resume the wait until sundown. He’s watching for that 10-point whitetail deer—the burly, reddish-brown buck he’d captured on a trail camera when he was scouting weeks earlier. The buck likes to take a route that runs under this tree on his way to drink from a nearby ravine. Price figures it’s only a matter of time before the buck wanders along—creatures of habit, these beasts. And when he does, Price is going to shoot him.
Bowhunting is a lot like goaltending. You need patience, timing, instincts. You endure long periods of inaction before rapid bursts of intensity. You have to settle your nerves to near-permafrost level, separating mind from body, thinking clearly, acting swiftly. You must sense what will happen before it happens; it takes tremendous mental and physical endurance. Like many things, some people are just born with it.
Price is one of those people. He’s the starting goalie for the world’s most celebrated hockey club; the latest in a long line of phenomenal netminders to stand between the pipes wearing that red-white-and-blue sweater. He’s thought by most to be the best goalie in Canada and, as February dawns, is the favourite to start for his country at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He does his day job in one of the toughest environments in sports, a city where the squeeze of the media and fan base has crushed many men, and, in a couple weeks, the pressure will expand from the desires of one Canadian city to the desires of every Canadian city.
Just 26 years old and in the midst of his most important season yet, Price has reached a sudden juncture in his career. Things are about to go either very well or very badly. An Olympic triumph this winter and a Canadiens Stanley Cup run in the near future could immortalize him. Failure in either of those arenas could stunt his career. No goaltender in the world has more riding on his performance right now than Carey Price.
No wonder the guy spends his summers in the woods where no one can find him. Where he’s alone, where he’s at peace. Until, just as Price was beginning to consider climbing down and returning home for the night, there’s a sudden rustle in the trees and the buck ambles out of the brush. He’s beautiful, in that imposing-yet-graceful way wild animals are. This isn’t the kind of deer you see wandering on the golf course. This is true nature; an untamed creature in all its raw magnificence. Price draws his bow.
THE CREEK IS called Corkscrew. It winds through the 35-acre lot in tiny Anahim Lake, B.C., where Price grew up in the early 1990s. The winters would get awful cold and Corkscrew froze thick. That’s when Jerry Price—a former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick who made goalie masks in his spare time—would set up the flood lights, shovel off a portion of the creek, siphon water from beneath the ice and flood the surface to create a makeshift rink. It was on that ice that his three-year-old son, Carey, learned to skate.
Price wasn’t born in Anahim Lake; that happened in Vancouver. But when he was three, his mother, Lynda, a Native Canadian and former chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation, moved the family back to her roots. Where every winter night after dinner, Price would go out on Corkscrew with his dad and mess around—skating laps, taking shots and eventually, when he was old enough, putting on the goalie mask his dad made for him and stopping pucks. “My dad showed me a lot,” Price says. “There’s lessons he taught me at an early age that I still use today.”
When Price turned nine, he wanted to play a more organized form of hockey. The closest place with a team was Williams Lake, a tiny town in the Cariboo region of B.C. that Google Maps will tell you is a five-and-a-half hour drive from Anahim Lake, though Price swears they could make it in less than four. Three times a week Jerry loaded up the truck and ferried his son out to Williams Lake for practices and games. Eventually, after too many eight-hour round trips to count, Jerry acquired a small bush plane and they made the journey by air.
By 2002, Price was being recognized as one of the best young goalies in the country and was the first netminder off the board in the WHL Bantam Draft, selected seventh overall by the Tri-City Americans. Just 16 years old, Price left home to live in Pasco, Wash.—a city of 60,000, which would have seemed like Tokyo next to Anahim Lake and its three general stores—with Dennis and Jill Williams, longtime Americans fans who billeted players for the team. They noticed instantly how placid Price was; a reserved, low-key kid adjusting to a completely different way of life. But no matter the location, boys are boys. “Carey was the biggest eater I’ve ever had,” Jill says. “He could put down a couple steaks and a few twice-baked potatoes in one sitting. Anything that you put in front of him, really.”
When he wasn’t emptying the Williams’s fridge, Price would fish and hunt with Dennis at one of the nearby ranches. “We went out for pheasant, ducks, geese, deer, everything,” Dennis says. “He was a natural.” And when he wasn’t stalking animals with a bow or a gun, Price would chase after them with a lasso. During his time playing in Williams Lake—a town so rodeo-mad that the hockey team is named the Stampeders—Price developed an affinity for team roping. He grew up with horses running through his parents’ property in Anahim Lake and learned to ride at a young age, but the lassoing, a deceptively difficult art, was a constant work in progress. When Price would sit on the couch and watch TV, he’d do it while twirling a lasso at his feet. In the Williams’s backyard, Price affixed plastic horns to the bale of hay that he used for bow practice so it doubled as a mock bull. Eventually, Price grew tired of his stationary target, eager for more challenging game. One day, as Jill walked through the main floor with a basket of laundry, a lasso suddenly smacked her in the face. “That really smarted,” Jill says. “But you couldn’t ever get mad at Carey because he was such a nice kid.”
Of course, Price played a bit of hockey too. He began his first season backing up Tyler Weiman, a 19-year-old who had already been drafted by Colorado. Price spent so much time working the bench door, the Williamses put a can of WD-40 in his Christmas stocking. But down the stretch, Weiman struggled and Price earned more starts from Don Nachbaur, a former NHL grinder in his first year coaching the Americans. “Carey was competing as hard as any goalie I’ve ever had. He was 16 years old and he was outplaying a guy that was on his way to the NHL,” Nachbaur says. “It was obvious to me that Carey was gonna be our guy.”
When the Americans opened the playoffs against the Portland Winterhawks, Nachbaur made Price his starter and was rewarded with a five-game series victory. Price stood on his head to keep the Americans alive as they struggled to score, a trend that caught up with them in the next round, where they fell to eventual Memorial Cup champions Kelowna. Though disappointed, Nachbaur knew he wouldn’t have to make a starting goalie decision for three years. “You don’t see many 16-year-olds winning rounds in the playoffs,” he says.
Price was so far ahead of his peers that he had to find new challenges during practices to keep himself entertained. When the Americans ran shooting drills, Price would stand on the goal line hugging a post and throwing out a pad or a blocker at the last possible second. Nachbaur skated over and barked: “Would you start trying?” Price just shrugged: “Coach, I know where all these shots are going. It’s too easy.” Antics like those, and his effortless, casual style in net earned Price a reputation as a lazy player less interested in practice and preparation than in games. That notoriety spread through the major-junior ranks, and Price started to hear it from fans in opposing arenas. At times, it seemed the only people in the hockey world who didn’t think Price was lazy were the players trying to score on him. “We all heard that perception of him, that he didn’t like to work or whatever. But it was totally wrong,” says Shaun Vey, who played with Price on the Americans. “We would get so frustrated in practice because you had to put it in the perfect place to beat him. It might look like he’s not working hard, but that’s just because he’s so talented.”
Opponents knew Price never took a night off, either. In one game against the Winterhawks, the Americans were two men short with Price backed onto his goal line as Portland attackers buzzed around his crease, screening and bumping him. “A lot of junior goalies would shrink from that,” Nachbaur says. “But I’m looking at Carey and he’s cross-checking one guy and punching another in the back of the head with his blocker.” Price stopped every backside play Portland ran in that five-on-three, sliding post to post to kick away one-timers. He took a penalty in the process, for roughing one of the players stationed in front of his net, and then stopped every shot on the ensuing power play.
The day after the Americans were eliminated from the 2007 WHL playoffs, Price boarded a plane for Hamilton to join the Bulldogs, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, who had drafted him fifth overall a year earlier. The Bulldogs were starting their playoffs and although he had never played a game of pro hockey in his life, Price immediately took over as the team’s starter. The 19-year-old was phenomenal, posting a 2.06 goals against average and .936 save percentage as the Bulldogs romped to their first Calder Cup. Price was named playoff MVP, just the third teenage goalie in AHL history to lead a team to the title and the first since Patrick Roy did it in 1985. That MVP award was added to the one he earned winning gold with Canada at that year’s IIHF World U20 Championship and the WHL’s top goaltender award.
It was a transformative year for the teenager. Just a season earlier, he’d been cut from the U20 team and suffered his worst season of junior hockey, his GAA creeping up toward 3.00 and his save percentage nearly dipping below .900. “That year really bothered him, especially getting cut from the juniors,” Nachbaur says. “He never complained, but he was really focused all of a sudden. You could tell something changed.”
Actually, everything was about to change. The pressure, the scrutiny, the attention and the enjoyment. Nothing would ever be the same. Everything so far had been cake compared to what awaited him in Montreal.
EVERY TIME Carey Price walks through the tall, blue double doors leading into the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room at Bell Centre—beneath “PAS D’EXCUSES” in big white type—he passes the gleaming black wall covered in white etching that stands opposite his locker. The wall stares directly at him as he gets changed and as he catches his breath between periods; it stood there long before he arrived and it will be there when someone else sits at his stall someday. It’s called the Honour Roll and all that white etching is names, listed chronologically, under each of the NHL’s major awards. Bob Gainey’s four consecutive Selke awards; Guy Lafleur’s three Art Ross Trophies; Doug Harvey’s six Norris Trophies, followed by the one P.K. Subban won last year. There are an awful lot of awards.
By far the longest list, a total of 35 entries when you count the years the trophy was shared between starter and backup, is beneath “Vézina—the Georges Vézina Trophy, awarded to the league’s best goalie and named after the Hall of Famer who died a Hab, succumbing to tuberculosis in his 16th season with the Canadiens. There are numerous repeats: Bill Durnan and Jacques Plante each appear six times; Ken Dryden has four; Roy, three. It’s a constant reminder for Price of how important goaltending is for this franchise, this city, this fan base whose universe revolves around an arena on the corner of Montagne and Saint-Antoine. The Canadiens are big on these sorts of things. A ring of head shots depicting former Habs legends encircles the room. The face peering down from above Price’s stall, naturally, is Roy’s.
On this night, a crisp one in November, Price is staring at that wall as he unlaces his pads and piles them into big, red equipment bags. It’s Saturday night and he is not in a pleasant mood. The Canadiens just dozed through the final period of a 1–0 loss to the New York Rangers. Price did everything anyone could have asked, getting in front of 33 of the 34 pucks sent in his direction, including all 10 in the third period when the Canadiens attack went about scoring goals with the same haste and vigour as a teenager approaches homework. Unfortunately for Price, it’s not an entirely uncommon occurrence. It’s the fifth time in the season’s first 21 games that Price has held an opponent to two goals or less and the Canadiens have still lost. It doesn’t matter how hardened you are to the cruel realities of professional hockey or how mentally adept you are at moving onto the next game—at some point that gets a little old. Making matters worse is the fact that the night’s lone goal, officially credited to pesky Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, was a fluke deflection that Price had no chance of stopping. Price played every other shot perfectly, cutting down angles, reading stick blades, taking away space. And that’s the one—a throw-the-stick-at-the-puck, pinball goal—that decides the game.
So you can really feel it bubbling beneath the surface as Price sits at his stall, wiping down his skate blades while the press barrels into the room. No one scored for the Canadiens, so the duties of explaining what just happened fall to the team’s leading men—captain Brian Gionta and Price. And Gionta isn’t here yet, so the media form an awkward semicircle around Price, hesitantly nudging voice recorders in his direction, waiting for him to put on a ball cap and rise. “We put in an honest effort tonight,” Price says, diligently following the media playbook. “The guys in front of me are playing really good defensive hockey.” These are the things you’re supposed to say after a disappointing game. And if there’s one guy who’s going to go off script and admit to his annoyance or irritation at how things are progressing, it’s not Price. Someone asks him if he’s frustrated with the lack of offence. “Our guys are playing excellent defensive hockey,” Price repeats. “That’s all that matters to me.”
Playing hockey in Montreal will do this to a guy. You start answering yes-or-no questions with repetitious platitudes, lest you actually say something unique or forthcoming, because doing so means answering questions about the unique, forthcoming thing you said for days to come. You can never go wrong with boring.
On the ice, though, there’s less you can control. During Price’s first three seasons in Montreal, from 2007 through 2010, he split time between the pipes, first with Cristobal Huet and then with Jaroslav Halak. None of the goaltenders put up phenomenal numbers, but in 2010 Price’s performance took a noticeable dip. Whether it was his fault or not, Price was in net for nearly two-thirds of the Canadiens’ 33 losses that year, despite starting fewer than half of the team’s games. Fans had come to expect great things from Price, considering his draft position and world-beating junior career. And so, when he struggled, they turned on him. They gave him a Bronx cheer when he made routine saves; they taunted him by chanting “Ca-rey, Ca-rey” while the opposition was on the attack; they booed even when he was announced as one of the three stars. One night, when Price turned away a clearing attempt from centre ice that found its way to the net, the crowd cheered wildly and Price sarcastically acknowledged them by raising his arms in the air, exactly like Roy did while getting shellacked during his infamous final game in Montreal, the night he decided he’d had enough of playing in such environs.
Things would only get worse from there. In the 2010 off-season, the Canadiens traded Halak to St. Louis and re-signed Price, officially declaring him the team’s No. 1 goaltender. The move surprised many, even Price, and angered the fan base, which was given plenty of reason to dig in its heels when Price allowed four goals on nine shots in the first exhibition game of the next season. The boos returned and the crowd gave its biggest cheer of the night midway through the next game, when the Canadiens made a scheduled goaltending change. This is hockey in Montreal, home to the NHL’s most decorated club, which has, for one reason or another, failed to win anything of consequence for 20 years. More specifically, this is goaltending in Montreal, a role that has been filled by so many legendary figures in the game’s history that the position has taken on a mythology of its own. As if it’s bigger than everything else happening on the ice. “Guys could go nuts playing net here,” Price says. “It’s definitely taxing mentally. You learn a lot of lessons playing in a place like this; you face a lot more pressure than other teams. But winning is the cure for everything.”
Sure is. After the 30-minute horror show in his first action of 2010–11, Price went to work on the best season of his career. He set a Canadiens record by playing 72 games, led the league in wins and posted the best GAA (2.35) and save percentage (.923) of his NHL career. The Canadiens made the playoffs and, even though the team’s season ended with an OT loss in game seven of the first round against Boston, the fans slowly returned to Price’s side. The Canadiens remained lacklustre, but it was in spite of Price, not because of him. Price earned himself a six-year, $39-million contract in the summer of 2012 and took a massive step in 2013, his best season to date. Through his first 22 games, Price’s save percentage was .937. In that stretch, he led the NHL with 16 quality starts (a stat earned by stopping more than the league-average percentage of shots or by stopping 88.5 percent of shots while giving up less than three goals). But as winter dragged on Price’s numbers suffered, that once gleaming save percentage dipping to .921 by the end of January, as he struggled to turn in quality starts while playing behind one of the league’s worst puck-possession teams. On top of it all, Price found himself having to win over a crowd even bigger and more obsessive than Montreal fans. A crowd that stretches from coast to coast.
IF YOU HAVE one prevailing memory of Carey Price, it’s likely the shootout. It was at the 2007 world juniors in Sweden, where a tall 19-year-old goalie from rural B.C. with blond streaks in his hair was beamed into living rooms and bars across this country, carrying Canada to its third consecutive gold. The gold medal game was anticlimactic, though, after the shootout to end all shootouts in the semis against the Americans. That triumph was a defining moment for Price, a signifier of clutch performance that has lived on—one you can be sure that Price and the rest of the country will hear an awful lot about in the lead-up to Sochi if he’s starting for Canada.
But these past glories tend to form a false history in our collective memory. We remember them as being better than they actually were. Many will say Price was brilliant in that shootout, frustrating the Americans with save after save. But in reality, he was mediocre, beaten on four of seven shots—unable to make the stop three times with the Americans facing elimination. Without Jonathan Toews’s three goals, Price’s history with the national side could conjure a very different memory. Imagine how fans and media would frame the Carey Price discussion going into Sochi if the juniors had lost and Price was to blame.
Which isn’t to say Price doesn’t deserve to backstop Canada’s entry in the Olympics, only that these competitions can be career damaging. Consider, for a moment, Marc-André Fleury. A guy whose numbers this season are comparable to Price’s, and were actually far better in last year’s lockout-shortened campaign. A guy who has played 50 more NHL playoff games than Price, and has a Stanley Cup. He’s older, wiser, more experienced—he’s even been to an Olympics already. But Fleury never got close enough to sniff the Olympic roster while Price was considered a lock since summer. That’s because few can go three sentences without mentioning Fleury’s epic clearing attempt blunder against the Americans in the gold medal game at the 2004 juniors. And that only serves to remind you of when Fleury allowed the game-winner to the Russians in the third period of the tournament’s gold medal game a year prior. This gives hockey pundits all they need to make a strained argument about how Fleury chokes under pressure at the international level—about how he shrivels under the spotlight.
This is the danger of being Canada’s goaltender. Narratives are inflated; overreactions are plentiful; careers are broken. Frankly, seeking the starting job in Sochi may be a fool’s pursuit. With no clear-cut, consensus No. 1—many believe Roberto Luongo, who won the gold medal game in 2010, should be the starter—going into the Games and what will be an Apollo-16-on-re-entry level of pressure directed at the chosen one from every corner of this country for the duration, it will be an extremely intense task. Canada won at the last Olympics with 22 million Canadians watching, and even if you can somehow forget that moment, you must recognize that this is a country that reacts poorly to losing at hockey, especially when it’s due to bad goaltending. For every Justin Pogge (remember him?) and Martin Brodeur achieving incredible international heights, there is a Mark Visentin and Mike Liut, failing spectacularly.
So, we’ll see. Price wants the job, and even with the stress that likely comes with it, it’s not exactly the kind of thing you turn down. “It’s a lot of pressure. But when you’re a hockey player and you win playing for Canada, there’s no greater feeling,” Price says. “It’s a goal of mine to make Team Canada and hopefully to start. I want to put on the maple leaf and represent my country.” What that could mean for Price and his career is not to be underestimated. His performance in Sochi could be decisive in determining how he will be remembered; second in importance only to one thing: bringing a Stanley Cup back to Montreal.
TWO DAYS AFTER the sleepwalk against the Rangers, the Canadiens hosted Minnesota, victors in 10 of their previous 12. The Wild were rolling and they were rested—it was going to be a test. But then it wasn’t, as Montreal scored four goals in the second period and ran away with the game. Price let just one shot past him—off the stick of his own defenceman, Subban, whose attempt to bat the puck away from a goal-mouth scramble cruelly floated over Price into the net—until, with two seconds left in the game, he let in another. This one was at least earned as the Wild—with the crowd in full “ole, ole, ole, ole,” chant—capitalized on an intricate passing play. Price, sprawled in near splits across his crease, hung his head to the ice. The crowd started up the familiar “Ca-rey, Ca-rey, Ca-rey” chant he’d heard so many times on long, defeated nights earlier in his career. But this time it was different. The energy was positive. It was encouragement, not mockery. It’s taken him six seasons, but it seems Price has finally endeared himself to this city. When he’s winning, at least.
Still, there is a tendency for fans and media in Montreal to demand ever more of Price. They want him to look like he cares obsessively, to be overtly passionate, to be angrier. To be the goalie smashing his stick over the crossbar and chucking trash cans down hallways when he’s pulled. To be more like Roy, throwing off equipment every time there’s a fracas and taunting the goalie at the other end to come fight him.
That’s just not Carey Price. More than anything, he is content with his place in the universe. He is happy with his family, happy with his job. Happy with his Labrador retrievers and his horses and his three acres in Kelowna. He is free of the nagging feeling in the back of so many of our heads that life could be better if only things were different. That feeling that we must settle because as we get older, something better feels less attainable. Dreams fade; reality strengthens. Like a spruce, as time goes on we grow further rooted in our surroundings until we’re practically immovable, whether we’re pleased about it or not. Price is simply happy with who he is and the things that he does. And isn’t that how we all want to feel?
Or maybe we’re meant to find the places that bring us peace and fulfillment and exist within them as much as possible. For Price, that place is in this tree stand, bow raised, 10-point buck beneath him, the countless hours spent scouting, stalking and planning his hunt about to pay off. In this moment, he doesn’t think about the pressures of playing hockey in the world’s toughest market for goaltenders, or carrying the once-every-four-years hopes of a nation on his back. He doesn’t think about the boos or the city that refused for so long to accept him, or the endless doubts about his mettle and ability that the insanely critical world of pro hockey subjects him to. He doesn’t think about much. He just focuses on the task.
Then, a slice. The arrow plunges into the whitetail like a candle into cake—swift and clean, right through the lungs. Price watches from the tree as the massive beast, startled and confused, runs away wildly, its white tail flashing through the trees. It won’t take Price long to track the footprints and blood to the fallen carcass that will soon fill his deep freezer with enough steaks, jerky, sausages and pepperoni to last him a year, even after he hands a significant amount over to his grandmother, who grew up on game. Don’t get it twisted: This isn’t about the kill. It isn’t about the size of the rack. It’s an honour to harvest a deer of this size. To dedicate so much of yourself to the pursuit of a difficult goal. Like learning to play on a frozen creek and becoming one of the best goaltenders in the world; like making the NHL out of a tiny rural town without a hockey rink; like maybe someday winning it all.
Every success you earn is a privilege; you can find clarity in gratitude. Above all the noise around him, Carey Price has that much figured out.