It’s May 6, 2015, and we’re huddled at least 20-deep around Carey Price’s stall in the visitors’ dressing room at Amalie Arena. The Montreal Canadiens are but moments removed from a devastating loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that has them down three games to none in their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series and we’re trying to extract the answers to questions nobody feels entirely comfortable asking.
The Canadiens dominated the game, holding the Lightning to zero shots over a 19-minute span at one point, but they lost 2-1 on a goal scored by Tyler Johnson with 1.1 seconds remaining. Walking into their dressing room, you could sense a how devastating and shocking the blow was. The players sat at their lockers sullen, shaking their heads in disbelief.
There was no good question to ask the guy at the centre of it all, the guy who didn’t come up with the stop that would’ve kept alive the hope a 110-point season and a division title inspired. We all knew that even though Price had turned miracles for the better part of a banner year, there was nothing he could do to stop the pass that slid across his crease from Victor Hedman, certainly nothing he could do to keep Johnson from scoring his eighth goal of the playoffs by sneaking it through his legs as he shifted from post to post to cover the far side, and there was nothing else to discuss with him about it.
He was standing there because he was expected to be standing there, and so were we. It’s why the scrum lasted less than a minute and failed to produce any noteworthy quotes.
But just as Price walked away from it and put his hand on the door that led to the showers, the Montreal Gazette’s Pat Hickey said, “Carey, one more question: Do you believe you should have stopped that last shot?”
Price looked him in the eye and said with full conviction, “I believe I should stop all of them.”
It is this indelible moment in my memory that resurfaces so vividly every time I hear someone question Price’s effort, like former Stanley Cup-winning-goaltender-turned-TVA-analyst Jean-Sebastien Giguere did on Sportsnet 590’s Good Show on Friday afternoon, couching his comments with a precursory, “I was his biggest fan,” before saying, “I don’t like the way he competes out there.”
“I don’t like his body language,” Giguere added. “He’s supposed to be the leader of that team. A leader should show a good image and that’s not what you get sometimes from Carey.”
Here’s the thing about Price: He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. He’s not one for theatrics, and his image is likely the furthest thing from his mind when he’s doing what he’s being paid to do. And when he’s doing what he’s paid to do well, it appears almost completely effortless — as it did in a 43-save win over the Calgary Flames this past Thursday.
Unfortunately for the quiet man who hails from one of the most remote pockets of Western Canada, all of that has opened him up to widespread criticism and created the perception that he’s too cool for school. That losses are filed and forgotten without much suffering in between and that he is indifferent about it all.
But reality, as it often does, provides stark contrast. Price is among the most fiery hockey players I’ve encountered over nearly 12 years of walking in and out of NHL dressing rooms. If I recognize it, his teammates undoubtedly do, too.
But I can’t blame others for not knowing. They haven’t watched him break his stick over the crossbar at practice because he allowed one puck to squeeze through after stopping 25. They haven’t witnessed him seething at his stall as he peels off his equipment and throws it in his bag with disdain and disgust after a loss. And they haven’t been exposed to him leaving a scrum, turning a corner to the inaccessible part of the Canadiens’ dressing room and cursing at the top of his lungs while smashing whatever’s in his path to oblivion following a bad one.
Moments like those mostly occur behind closed doors — there have been too many of them to count over the years — and are typically left there by the witnesses. They aren’t explicitly off the record but it’s generally understood that if they were meant for public consumption, they’d play out in public.
That’s why Price’s out-of-scrum interaction with Hickey after Game 3 never was the central focus of a piece in the Gazette — or anybody else’s post-game wrap that night.
But it seems clear to me we’ve been doing Price a disservice by not disclosing some of these instances. Particularly in times when people misconstrue his guarded nature for indifference.
“I’m sure he’s a tough competitor but I want to see that on the ice. I want to feel that,” said Giguere. “Too often in the last year or so, when things have been tough in a game, you don’t feel like he’s competing at his highest level.”
That doesn’t mean he isn’t, though. You can pick apart his technique — Giguere did, saying he’s too often on his knees — but Price didn’t establish himself as the consensus best goaltender in the world from 2013-17, collecting Olympic gold and the NHL’s most prestigious individual awards along the way, by just cruising on his talent alone.
And to think he hasn’t done everything within his power to maintain that level, to double down on his efforts when times have been tough (like he did in returning from an injury that kept him out of 70 games in 2015-16 to post 37 wins and a .923 save percentage in 2016-17) is preposterous.
If redeeming himself from a horror-show 2017-18 — which saw him post the worst numbers of his career — was simply about trying hard, Price would be flying high right now. The fact is, it took almost a full year for his confidence to unravel, and building it back up to where it was is a process that boils down to much more than just effort.
“It’s all upstairs,” said Price after a loss to the Buffalo Sabres a little over a week ago dropped his 2018-19 numbers to .892 in save percentage and 3.07 in goals-against average. “I gotta figure it out.”
Trust that no matter what he projects, he’ll put all of his effort into that. Especially now that you know he doesn’t just want to stop all the pucks; he expects to.