He may have been tutored by the great Jacques Plante but the Leafs new goaltending coach found his first mentor when he was eight-years-old.
“I was playing in my hometown of Kenora, Ontario” said former NHLer Rick St. Croix. “A coach came into the room and said ‘who wants to play goal?’ I threw up my hands and said ‘I do, I do.’ My brother Vic was there. He’s 10 years older than me. He had played a little bit of goal so he gave me equipment and helped me get dressed. My brother, he was my hero.”
And so began a private tutelage. Vic shot pucks or tennis balls at his brother year round.
“Every day, two hours a day for five years,” said Vic. “When Rick played junior hockey here we would talk about every shot he stopped and every goal he gave up. I was newly-married at the time. My wife had to put up with a lot.”
It worked out fine. St. Croix played 130 NHL games over a 10-year professional career (1975-1976 to 1985-1986) that included 48 Leaf games. St. Croix worked for five years as a goalie consultant in the Dallas Stars organization and coached with current Leaf coach Randy Carlyle during a six year stint with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. St. Croix continued to coach the team’s goalies last season when the franchise moved to St. John’s.
Leafs GM Brian Burke confirmed St. Croix’s hiring today.
“I won a Calder Cup with the Saint many years ago,” Burke said. “He was calm, intelligent-a student of the game. I think he’ll be a great addition to our coaching staff.”
Mapleleafs.com caught up with the 57-year-old St. Croix and talked about his goaltending philosophy, Plante and James Reimer.
Mike Ulmer: Goalie coaches hate to be classified as butterfly style, or hybrid style, or any style of coach. Do you have a label you’re comfortable with?
Rick St. Croix: My view has always been these are the goalies given to you. I tell the goalies ‘I’m not out to change you. That’s not my right to do that. I will identify your strengths or weaknesses or red flags. I’m not going to say you should be this or that. I’m hoping to help you be the best you can be.’
MU: But every position evolves. The butterfly style was in vogue.
RSC: I think the butterfly save is a great save to utilize. In my day there were a number of goalies who didn’t have the butterfly not because they didn’t want to but because they didn’t have the flexibility or the hip rotation. Eventually the goalies who could not butterfly were weeded out.
MU: So where does the butterfly fit in?
RSC: To me a butterfly is a bread-and-butter save. Goalies don’t have to go down every single time. There has always been a combination of butterfly and standup. I’m looking for percentages. What move, nine times out of 10 is going to be the best choice. What made Terry Sawchuk or Johnny Bower so good? We have to indentify all the elements every goalie needs for success.
MU: What did you think of James Reimer when the Moose played him in the AHL?
RSC: I liked him. I even wanted us to try to get him. The games I saw I thought he didn’t beat himself. He contributed in the wins. Even the games we won he kept it close and gave his team a chance to win. I thought his rebound control was solid. I thought his positioning was good.
MU: How good a goalie were you in the NHL?
RSC: I always felt I underachieved. I ended up being a backup goalie and I always felt I could have done better. I don’t think I’d want a complacent goalie. I wasn’t complacent. I was always striving to play more games but hopefully I was a good team player too.
MU: You were a stand-up goalie?
RSC: I learned to stand up because that was the theme of the time, just the opposite of what we did later. Many years later I was fortunate to have Jacques Plante as my coach for three years in Maine. Jacques said: “I don’t want you going down once in practice.”Can you imagine that comment in this day and age?
MU: What did you take from having Plante as your goaltending coach?
RSC: Jacques and I were pretty good friends. I had him over to the house for dinner. He would take notes every game with fine little sheets of paper and everything would be written out with fine penmanship. He looked at every little part of my game. I give him a lot of credit for getting me into the NHL but I think I became a little too structured. I’m just one goalie coach in a player’s journey. Hopefully everyone has something that has will hit home.
MU: What did you take from Ed Belfour in Dallas?
RSC: I learned a lot. I didn’t teach Eddie anything. I would never profess that I had much to contribute in them winning the Stanley Cup other than I was part of their program. Eddie was the best in the world at that time. He was unbelievable. His ability to follow pucks was amazing. He had done his homework, he had done his time, fallen off the horse, gotten back on, fallen off again. He knew where his strengths were. He was the stud every team would love to have.
MU: What’s the takeaway from that?
RSC: When you bring in someone too early I think history has shown you that player may not have the longevity. Unfortunately a lot of programs bring players in too early. The strength of a program is in bringing in players when you choose to, not when you have to.
MU: Tell me about your first NHL moment.
RSC: I remember the very first NHL game I saw. I got to see Chicago play Boston and I watched the warmup. Gerry Cheevers in one end and Tony Esposito in the other and they don’t stop a puck in the warmup. The game starts, the shots are like 48-43, the game was tied 2-2 and they stood on their head. The light went on. They stop the puck when it counts. I realized I had lots to learn.