Playing goal is not fun. It is a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative, requiring little physical movement, giving little physical pleasure in return. A goalie is simply there, tied to a net and to a game; the game acts, a goalie reacts. How he reacts, how often, a hundred shots or no shots, is not up to him. Unable to initiate a game's action, unable to focus its direction, he can only do what he's given to do, what the game demands of him, and that he must do.
-- "The Game" by Ken Dryden
Pat Riggin was born to be a goalie. His father, Dennis Riggin, was a goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s. This was when the National Hockey League had only six teams, and goaltenders played with no masks. A different era. The elder Riggin took a puck in the eye -- detached retina -- and was never the same. But he had a son whom he took to the ice, and pointed out the ends where the nets were. It was meant to be.
"It was tough at home," says Riggin, the Capitals' No. 1 goalie, "because he applied a lot of pressure. Desire, dedication, attitude . . . How many times did I hear it? There were always sacrifices. You can't go skiing, you'll break a leg. You can't play football, you'll get hurt. But I could stand up there in front of pucks for an hour and a half and not get hurt, why not football? Dad would never let me play forward. 'You'll screw up your ankles.' I didn't understand. I was 6 years old."
Thus he was molded. Soon he was different. Goalies aren't like the other five on the ice, no matter how dissimilar among themselves. Of the Capitals' goalies, Riggin is the most outgoing; the now-injured Al Jensen, introspective; the youthful Bob Mason, perhaps somewhere in between. But they are fundamentally the same.
Take Dryden, the former Montreal Canadien. Cerebral. Graduate of Cornell. Lawyer, writer. A tall, rangy, cover-the-whole-net style of modern goalie.
Riggin. Worked in a sporting goods store for one year after graduating from high school, then off to Birmingham, Ala., to earn his living in the now-defunct World Hockey Association. He became one of the youngest starting goalies in pro hockey -- just 19. Squat at 5 feet 9, a throwback almost, more the shape of the redoubtable Gump Worsley, former New York Ranger, than Dryden.
"A goalie is more introverted than his teammates, more serious," Dryden has said. "While a goalie might sometimes be gregarious and outgoing, it usually manifests itself in binges -- when a game is over, or on the day of a game when he isn't playing -- when he feels himself released from a game."
So it is with Riggin. "I'm not a rah-rah guy in the dressing room," he says. "My game's a mental game. I shut myself in. I talk a lot between now and then." Between games. When he's "released."
No matter what he looks like, what he seems, a goalie must possess, says Dryden, "a mind emotionally disciplined, one able to be focused and directed, a mind under control. Because the demands on a goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself."
So Riggin has discovered. "I didn't help myself along the way," he says. "When I first came into the league, if I lost a couple of games, I'd be sour for a couple of days. If you get beat, you've got to get it out of your mind. It can be tough. It's tough to get a bad goal out of your mind. You let the team down. Some guy beats you from 60 feet out. But you've got to pick up. I finally decided, you're going to give up bad goals, then other nights you're going to make some saves. Once they're in" -- once a puck is in the net -- "it's too late to worry, 'til tomorrow, or 'til later on."
The goalie's thinking must be done in advance -- in the game, it's all reaction -- and on this day, the eve of a Capitals' game in Chicago, Riggin has begun thinking about the Black Hawks. He says a goalie has to have "an edge." His edge against Chicago is this simple: "We're going good right now, they're not. We've got 20 points on them (in the standings). But they're tough in their own building. They'll play the whole 60 minutes."
He foresees a close game, plenty of pressure. "We want to be even or ahead after one (period), then go in (the dressing room) and reevaluate. If we're up by two, we shut the door on them. If we're down by two, we've got to make some adjustments. It's going to be low scoring."
Thoughts of Chicago ebb. This is more a day when Riggin feels "released." He's spending the afternoon at Laurel Race Course with teammate Darren Veitch and another friend, Joe Monahan, a jockey's agent. During lunch, they study racing charts. Riggin loves racehorses -- he co-owns four standardbreds, he's been a trainer, he bets.
He sees himself akin to former Boston goalie now Coach Gerry Cheevers. "He mixed hockey and horses," Riggin says. "I got to meet him three years ago. He was known as a money player. He always played well in the playoffs. My record in the playoffs is 7-11. Not so great. But I never played on too many Stanley Cup contenders. We're just coming into it."
Monahan, who has a short cigar in his mouth, looks up from his charts. "As long as you don't lose the seventh game of the Cup, it's all right," he says, and goes back to his paper.
Riggin's interest in horses is almost as ingrained as his goaltending. He grew up in the suburbs of London, Ontario, between Toronto and Detroit. "Dad had a cottage in Kincardin, which was on the lake, about 90 miles. We'd go there in July and August. I'd always be playing baseball. I was a pitcher. But where we played was right in the middle of this race track. The horses would be going around. One day I went over and got a job walking horses. I did it for three summers."
Riggin still looks almost young enough to be walking horses. At 25, he has a cherubic look. Out from under his shiny red helmet and bird-cage mask, he appears to be merely any youth enjoying a day at the races, not a known pro athlete. He's wearing a red Molson's jacket -- his father is a district manager for the brewery -- and white sweater and blue joggers' pants. Distinctive as the garb is, he blends with the race patrons.
"Dad said, 'Is it going to be hockey or is it going to be horses?' He didn't think it could be both. But the opportunity in hockey outweighed everything else, so there was no doubt which way I was going to go.
"We were on the ice every day. September to April, two hours a day and enjoying it. That's how you get better. That was the key, the edge."
"You've got to have an angle," says Joe Monahan.
"On Saturday night, Dad and I would watch the hockey game," Riggin says. "We'd get the Leafs. (Mike) Palmateer in the goal. He'd be flopping up and down, doing everything wrong. I'd say, 'Look, Dad, he's doing this.' Dad would say, 'Well, fundamentally, that's wrong.' "
To this day, his father's words stick. "You might see a goalie go out and shoot the puck on a dead day," Riggin says. "I won't do that. I don't want to mess with what he told me then. It's probably a crock, but no sense changing it."
Riggin played junior hockey three years. Then came a hegira. First Birmingham. Then in 1979-80, with the WHA merged with the NHL, he moved to the Atlanta Flames. To Calgary, when the Flames shifted there. To Washington in a trade three seasons ago.
In Calgary, "I thought I could play with the top 10 (goalies) in the league," he says. But the maturity would come later.
"In Calgary, the mailman would tell me I played a bad game."
"Maybe you played a bad game," says Monahan.
"Yeah, but I didn't need the mailman to tell me."
Real mental toughness -- the ultimate "edge" -- came early last season when Riggin went 0-8-1 and was farmed briefly to Hershey. He didn't want to go, now he's glad he did.
"I just couldn't win for anything, but he kept me up," says Riggin, pointing to Monahan. "He'd ask me, 'Are you doing this? Are you doing these different things?' I wanted to get down. He kept me up. He's the one who told me to go to Hershey. I thought I could get out of it, but I had to go."
And Hershey? "It changed my attitude toward the game. You can't expect to be good every night."
He learned: The game itself may be what he calls a "roller coaster ride," but in the mind game of the goalie, it can't be. That game has to be as even and cool as the ice itself.
In his first 17 games after returning to Washington, the Capitals won or tied 13. He finished the season with a 2.66 goals-against average, best in the NHL.
"It's a very, very easy game," Monahan says. "It's an easy game to play."
"Especially from where you're sitting," Riggin says.
Riggin and Darren Veitch are trying to pick a winner.
"This Warm Breeze has been in the money . . . "
Both Riggin and Veitch have 2-year-old daughters. Veitch's wife recently gave birth to a boy; the Riggins are expecting a second child. "Having a boy, he's put the pressure on," says Riggin.
Riggin and Veitch have a goalie-defenseman's bond. One can make the other look good or bad. That's the thing about being a goalie: "When the team's going good, you look good," Riggin says. "When the team's going bad, you look terrible."
As Warren Strelow, the Capitals' goaltenders coach, puts it, "The average fan sees the puck go in the net and always wants to put the blame on the goaltender, and doesn't realize it might not be his fault. That's why it takes an emotionally stable person, to be able to take the bad with the good."
A goalie can't just wait and hope.
Says Riggin, "When I get on that plane in the morning (10 a.m. to Chicago), I'll be thinking hockey. (Denis) Savard. Strictly business. It keeps building, building, building. You can set your clock by me, by us. The plane. Bus ride to the hotel. Team meal. Sleep."
The pregame sleep. Riggin almost always sleeps. Every time, two hours. "Nice big meal. I sleep good." He tries to keep everything the same. "I wash up, brush my teeth, put on deodorant. I don't know why I put on deodorant -- it's not going to last long."
To the bus. Riggin always sits two seats from the rear, on the right. Being a veteran, he gets a whole seat.
In the dressing room, 45 minutes before game time, the music goes off.
Riggin looks up to a TV monitor. The horses are racing down the backstretch. A horse enters the picture.
"Is that us, Veitchie?"
"Yep, that's us. It's going to be a good exacta, Riggo."
Taking the ice, Riggin usually thinks he knows what's coming. It's a feeling that goes with maturity, he says.
"Last week I felt I had an average week of practice and played average in the games. This week I feel I was above average in practice; I hope to play above average in the games. I've got to, because of who we got coming. You like to think you have a little bit of an idea what's going to happen. You can't play with the switch going on and off. You don't like screwing with that switch."
Armed with huge pads, big stick, blocker and catching glove, like a man leaving Safeway with his hands full, he need be only alert: A goalie knows not the instant.
"I'm standing up more now, which helps (cover the net), but that's experience, too," Riggin says. He knows when to come out, to cut down the shooter's angle. That's a big part of playing the position.
"My eyes never leave the puck. I try not to." But sometimes a goalie is screened, especially on long shots. "From the point, quite a few hit you. You can't see. The percentages say they're going to come low. They keep 'em low so they can tip 'em. Screening and tipping. All teams have a big shooter from the point and a big guy standing right in front, 220 pounds leaning on me. I'm 175. Who's going to win that one?"
"Let 'em stay there," says Joe Monahan. "Peek around."
"You get a look, you can see it coming," Riggin says, "you can guess where's it's going to end up. You'll make your motion. Then it hits you or it doesn't."
Pain is pleasure.
Even practice can hurt.
The other day, five Capitals stood abreast at the blueline and took turns firing at Riggin. More torture: Three players formed a triangle just a couple of feet in front of the net and slapped the puck among themselves until one, without warning, would shoot with all his might. This little drill, at minimum, loosens a goalie's eyeballs.
In that practice, Bobby Carpenter rushed down the ice and put one past Riggin into the net.
"You should be happy he's on your team," says Monahan.
Veitch is heading for a cashier's window.
"When I was young, I wanted to play 'em all," Riggin says. "But you can't play them all. You've got to have the other guy."
The Capitals have the "other guy" and more, a rare abundance of goalies. Riggin's backup is Bob Mason, tall at 6-1, fresh from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Then there's Al Jensen, who shared last season's Jennings Trophy with Riggin for allowing the fewest goals in the league. Jensen is currently inactive with an injured left knee.
Between games, neither is as ebullient as Riggin. Mason, quietly phenomenal with an eight-game winning streak, is just getting acquainted; Jensen, amiable despite bad luck, is naturally disappointed at missing the Capitals' good times.
They're alike, serious, both admirers of Bernie Parent.
Growing up in International Falls, Minn., Mason became a goalie almost before he knew it. It was his inquiring mind. He wondered about the old-fashioned, full-face masks that were used first when goalies covered up. "I was curious," he says. About what they felt like, what you could see from the inside. The eeriness of the masked man attracted him. "By fourth grade, I was a goaltender."
And now: "I'm a standup goalie, like the Drydens, Bernie Parent when he was in his prime. You try to stay on your feet as much as you can, cut down the angle. I try to use my size."
He played two years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. His twin brother, Bill, was a teammate. Then came the Olympics, but there was no miracle on ice in Sarajevo to match Lake Placid in 1980, just "kind of a letdown." The team peaked before the Games.
Nothing since has been a letdown, except being farmed briefly by the Capitals to Binghamton Jan. 3 when Jensen recovered from an earlier injury. Even that experience was good for a laugh -- the next day Mason, pink-cheeked, only 23, was named cowinner of the NHL's rookie-of-the-month award for December.
"I didn't find out about it until I got to Binghamton. I turned on the TV, the sports was on, and the announcer said, 'We just got the cowinner of the rookie-of-the-month.' 'Holy Cow,' I said."
And if that was hard to believe, just eight days later Mason got a call from the Capitals. Jensen, who got to play only one game, a brilliant 5-2 victory over St. Louis in which he made 25 saves, had hurt himself again, this time a knee. Mason drove most of the night from Binghamton to New Jersey to rejoin the Capitals in time for an afternoon game. "I couldn't believe it," he says.
Neither could Jensen. Fate has always been a factor with him. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, he moved to a new neighborhood and, as the new kid on the block, was given no choice but to play goalie. "They threw me in the net," he says.
But fates can be cruel, he found. Just when things seem right . . . In three seasons in the minors, he played on championship teams, but Detroit gave him only one start -- "I have no idea why" -- before trading him to Washington.
He flourished. Then, named a starting goaltender in last season's NHL All-Star game, he had to bow out with a pulled muscle in his lower back. Now, injured again, he waits, with the team but not a part of it.
It's Riggin's moment, no question. Back from Chicago, he is still smiling. The Capitals won, 3-2.
"I told you it would be close," he says, sweat dripping off him after practice.
He's "released" again, between games. Two with the Islanders were coming up, but he knew he had his "edge," the rest of the Capitals.
"This team comes to play every game," he says.