Thursday, October 7, 2010

Halak-ed and loaded

Blues netminder leaves past behind,
ready for fresh start with Blues

ST. LOUIS -- Instead of focusing all his attention on learning to walk and talk, Jaroslav Halak was into hockey. Becoming a goalie and wearing all the cool hockey equipment when he was a toddler was all he cared about at the time.

Pads, mask, paddle -- this kid was on Cloud Nine.

"Ever since I was three years old, I just wanted to be a goalie," Halak said. "I don't know, maybe it was the equipment — the mask, the goal stick. ...You've got only two goalies on a team. It's a different position and I just love it."

By the time he was eight years old, the Bratislava, Slovakia native took an even greater liking to hockey full time. His other love (soccer) was put on the backburner.

"Ever since then I’ve just loved it," Halak said.

By the time he was a tennager, Halak began working with Roland Melanson at the age of 16 at Melanson's goalie camp, according to Halak's agent Allan Walsh. Melanson, who is in Vancouver as the Canucks' goalie coach, has been instrumental with Halak's development ever since.

"He really helped me a lot to develop the system I have," Halak said. "He really helped me get to where I am right now.

"He always told me to play big. I’m not a big goalie with big size, so he tried to teach me to play as big as I can. That’s what I’m trying to do on the ice."

Halak has been defying those odds ever since, even after becoming a ninth-round draft choice.

Fast forward to 2010 and things really took off for Halak, when he played big -- really big.

Halak has had one special and unforgettable year in 2010. It all began wearing the colors of his native Slovakia at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where the Slovaks finished fourth.

From there, it carried over to Montreal, where he put the Canadiens on his back and went on an incredible playoff run that was unforeseen by many.

Even though it ended a bit prematurely for the Cinderella Canadiens, who came in as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and were knocked out in the Eastern Conference final by Philadelphia, an entire hockey community passionate for its hockey team embraced Halak as the second coming Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy.

The Canadiens first disposed of Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, with Halak backstopping puck after puck. It was as if Halak was a force field in net that propelled the Canadiens into the next round. Then, it was time to dispose Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Halak was in top shape in that series as well. Both series ended with Game 7 victories for Montreal -- each on the road.

"We got on a roll and we were just trying to do the same thing," Halak recalled. "The first round, we got in a 3-1 hole and from that point we just said we really have nothing to lose. All the pressure was on them, they had to win, we wanted to win.

"We ended up winning and it was unbelievable to experience the playoffs and to play against the two best team in the East was such a great honor."

Halak-mania was running rampant in Montreal, even after the postseason ended. This was the start of a relationship right out of a fairy tale. The most popular player to grace the streets of downtown Montreal since the days of Roy was Halak.

But then, the unthinkable occurred, not only to loyal Canadien fans but for Halak himself.

It all began with a phone call Blues general manager Doug Armstrong placed to fellow GM Pierre Gauthier in Montreal. Armstrong gauged interest to see if Montreal would be willing to part with either Halak or fellow netminder Carey Price.

"The initial call was just to say we may be in the market for a goaltender," Armstrong said. "We were negotiating with Chris Mason. They had two young goaltenders, and I asked (Gauthier) what direction he was going to go in. He told me he was going to keep Carey and made Jaro available and that spurred the conversation onto the first stage of the assets that he would need back in the call."

On June 17, Halak became a Blue.

Halak was dealt to the Blues in exchange for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. Canadien Nation was in shock, disarray and in disbelief.

"That day when I found out, I was excited that I was traded but at the same time, I was (also) happy I'd get the chance to play more hockey," Halak said. "When I got the news, obviously I was surprised by it."

As a parting gift, fans of Montreal flocked to a local mall where Halak drew more than 5,000 fans wanting one last glimpse of their hero. It was roughly five times the size they were expecting. Halak signed autograph's for $20 apiece to benefit Ste. Justine Children's Hospital in Montreal, which raised roughly $22,000.

"I just wanted to say goodbye and thank you for all the support I had in Montreal and all the years I played there," Halak said. "At the same time, I got to raise some money for charity. We raised over $20,000 and it was a great experience. We didn't really expect that many people to show up. Many, many people showed up and I couldn't get to everybody and that was the sad thing because the store was closing already."

Both Halak, 25, and Price, 22, were set to become restricted free agents on July 1. It was obvious to Gauthier that the Canadiens were not going to be able to keep/afford both. Each was ready to take the reigns and become the No. 1 goaltender.

The Canadiens obviously felt that trading away the No. 5 overall pick of the 2005 Entry Draft was not the way to go. They felt it would have sent the wrong message, admitting that they wasted a high first-round pick. So they chose Price instead.

"This was not an easy trade to put together when you think of the time and effort we put into helping to develop these two players," Blues President John Davidson said of Eller and Schultz. "In turn, we needed to do something here. We had to give to get. It's that simple."

What Halak did in the postseason last spring was remarkable, but the question that everybody throws out there is how will Halak handle becoming the guy, something that was never the case in Montreal. How will he handle playing 55, 60, 65 games? Can he be the guy?

"I want everyone to realize we didn't bring in Jaro here with a cape on and an 'S' to save our franchise," Armstrong said. "He's not needed to do that. Why Jaro is here is he's an excellent young goaltender that can grow with what we believe are excellent young players.

"He's going to get the opportunity to be a huge part of our team. I'm not trying to deflect any pressure from Jaro because that's not needed."

In 101 career games, Halak is 56-34-7 with a .919 save percentage and 2.62 goals-against average. He was 26-13-5 this past season with a 2.40 GAA and .940 save percentage and five shutouts. He was 9-9 with a 2.55 GAA and .923 save percentage in the playoffs

Halak was originally drafted by the Canadiens 271st overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, but the Blues feel like they have the right guy and wasted little time in giving Halak a four-year, $15-million contract. He instantly replaced Chris Mason, who the Blues were negotiating with at the time of the trade, as the top goalie here and will team up with Ty Conklin.

"From the very beginning, St. Louis made me real welcome," Halak said. "I'm still getting used to the guys and the new city, but hopefully I'll be ready to go. That's what I'm here for, to help the guys and help them get to the playoffs."

Halak, who was 2-1 in three games this preseason, has shown the drive and dedication in the early stages of his career here. It's very obvious he's determined by the fact that there is something to prove since Montreal gave up on him. His ultimate goal is pushing for a Stanley Cup ring and even though he may not admit it publicly, that he is a better goalie that Price.

"We know what he's capable of doing," Blues coach Davis Payne said of Halak. "We thought the Dallas game wasn't as good as the game prior against Chicago, but we also know he's had October 9th circled on the schedule. ... I know he's gearing up, focused and ready for Saturday."

Halak's teammates have taken the time to get to know him throughout training camp. They seem very receptive by his work habits and his desire to be as successful as possible.

"Jaro's a very calming person," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "He's confident in his abilities. When he's out there, he's not very tense, but he's very focused on what he has to do. It's kind of calming to the rest of the team.

"Mase was more than capable to stop pucks. He did a great job for us, but Jaro definitely has a lot of hype coming in. So far in camp, he's definitely lived up to it. When you have a goaltender that can stop the puck -- and Conks too, when he steps in he's great. With our two goalies, we don't have any excuses that we're panicking or afraid that the puck's going to go into the net."

Have the Blues found their franchise netminder? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, all Halak wants is the chance to prove his value and show the people of St. Louis that he's challenging himself to be the best every time he steps on the ice to protect the space between the pipes.

"I'm looking forward to new fans, a new team and a new organization," Halak said. "I think in the long run, everybody's going to be great hockey players here. For everybody and for the organization, the goal is to make the playoffs. Each organization has the same goal and when you get to the playoffs, you never know."

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