When the Washington Capitals introduced their new goaltender at a press conference last spring, Mike Palmateer sipped champagne and predicted that the team, which had compiled the worst record in the National Hockey League the previous six years, would make the playoffs. Palmateer, who will be 27 in January, always has been known as a Chatty Kathy on skates, the acrobatic boy wonder who just might be the best goaltender in the NHL. Last year, Palmateer battled almost daily with Toronto's management over contract problems and a controversial ankle injury. He was traded to the Capitals in the off-season for defenseman Robert Picard and forward Tim Coulis. The teams also exchanged draft choices.
Leonard Shapiro, deputy sports editor of The Washington Post, recently interviewed Palmateer for Inside Sports magazine. Shapiro spent three years playing goal for a senior men's team in Northern Virginia. He sold his pads last fall because he was tired of being called a sieve.
Shapiro: Your father once said you were "frightening fearless." What did he mean by that?
Palmateer: I just find that things are fun when they are dangerous. I like a little challenge. I want to try everything once. I went cliff-diving off Acapulco. I wanted to drive an old VW off a cliff a few years ago, just to see what would happen. At least I can say I have done something like that.
Shapiro: What's your biggest fear as a goaltender?
Palmateer: In a game, a goaltender hasn't got any fears. If you do, you have to master it, put everything out of your mind except what's happening. In practice, you are a little afraid. You don't want to get a shot in the head or in the throat. It's one of the reasons I don't like to practice. Why get hurt when it doesn't count?
Shapiro: Could you envision yourself going back to the good old days, when goalies were playing without masks?
Palmateer: I get hit more on the mask than anywhere else. My face is always down in the traffic. Twenty years ago, when goaltenders didn't wear masks, they also didn't have curved sticks, so the shots weren't rising the way they are now.
Shapiro: How would you describe your style?
Palmateer: Well, I guess it's the wildest, most unorthodox in the league.
I try to make them do what I want them to do. I like to make the first move and, the way I play, I can either look great if I make a good play or I look terrible.
Shapiro: You've said you take it as a personal affront to have a player parked in your crease.
Palmateer: The whole game of hockey comes down to this: their guy has to stand in front of me and bother me. My job is to keep the net clear. A lot of times, my defensemen can't do the whole job because there could be two guys in front of the net. You've got to lay down the rules. Believe me, I don't get a great deal of enjoyment whacking guys, but I'll do anything to win a game.
Shapiro: Would you actually hurt somebody?
Palmateer: If I have to hit somebody in front of the net to get him out of the way, then I will. I can also understand that if I'm out of the net and guys are running at me or trying to take me out of the play, that's part of the game, too. I don't want to hit anybody in the face or anything, but that's part of the game -- for the goaltender to crank 'em. I don't have to do it now very much. Most guys know they better stay out of the way.
Shapiro: Are you at all concerned about the implications of what you're saying, particularly involving younger players?
Palmateer: I don't want to see kids turn to violence. But you've got to face it. When it gets to this level of hockey, winning is the most important thing. You do what you can to win. If you cheat a bit and get away with it, which everybody does -- holding, grabbing, anything -- then do it.
Shapiro: What happened in Toronto last year? Why the bitter dispute with the owner, Harold Ballard, and the general manager, Punch Imlach?
Palamateer: It started at the beginning of the season because Darryl Sittler and me wanted to play in that Showdown Series on Hockey Night in Canada. They didn't want me to. It's one of those deals where they take the top goaltenders and the top scorers and you go one-on-one, competing for the money. The NHL owners had agreed to let their players go in, except Toronto. It's a chance to make $10,000 or $5,000 in the off season. It ended with the Leafs trying to get an injunction so it wouldn't go on TV.
Part of the hassle also was my contract. I wanted so much money and they didn't want to give it to me. About a million for five years. I didn't want to bargain. But I'd been playing for the Leafs for probably less money than any other NHL goalie. My average for the four years was about $58,000 a year. When you think about it, all I was asking for was back pay.
Shapiro: What about the war of words?
Palmateer: Well, the Leafs kept talking cheap shots at me.They were trying to affect my value in the open market.
Shapiro: There was talk that you were malingering last year after you hurt your ankle.
Palmateer: Yeah, that happened in December, against Washington, as a matter of fact. I came back too soon on it . . . after about three weeks, the doctor gave me the okay to play and I knew I wasn't ready. If I'd waited another 10 days to play, I'd have been fine. The guys on the team actually had a pool on how long I'd be able to last. Ian Turnbull had 10 minutes. And 10 minutes into the first period back, I wrecked it. So I missed a couple of months. If I'd been allowed to stay off it, I'd have been fine.
Shapiro: Do you think athletes should play in pain and possibly endanger their careers?
Palmateer: There are a couple of things you have to look at. In the playoffs, you've got to play no matter what, as long as you can stand on your skates. During the season, it's different. Some teams will let you heal, some teams won't.
I'm sure that everybody that quits hockey will have pain later in life. I know I won't be too mobile in 10 or 15 years, but right now I'm doing what I love to do.
Shapiro: Ballard said last year that, just once he'd like to send a detective to follow you around after a game to see what sort of mischief you get into.
Palmateer: Yeah, that really bothered me. As a matter of fact, I confronted him with it the day after it came up. He said to me, "I didn't really say that."
Shapiro: Still, I do keep reading and hearing that you are a wild guy, that you chain-smoke, you like to drink, that you're known to have a little marijuana now and then.
Palmateer: I haven't had weed in eight years. That came out last year and I was really offended by that. I don't mind a buddy sitting next to me having one.
Shapiro: What made you decide on the Capitals, the worst franchise in the league the last six years?
Palmateer: Well, I had about a half-dozen offers. The money was basically the same. I talked to a couple of guys and I knew that Washington was a pretty good place to live. Washington also had a club that I was accustomed to -- a lot of spirit and a lot of heart and maybe not a ton of talent, though we do have that but nobody knows it yet. Also, Washington is centrally located and I wouldn't be on those long trips the way West Coast teams are. And they had Gary Green as the coach. I knew he was very good. Finally, here was a guy close to my age I could talk to and relate to.
Shapiro: When you came here, you guaranteed the Caps would make the playoffs. Doesn't that put a lot of pressure on you?
Palmateer: I don't feel the pressure. Of course, I love to come in and read all about myself in the papers. But I know that it can't happen alone. It takes a whole team.