When Mario Gosselin joined the Canadian Olympic team in September 1983, he was unable to speak a word of English. Now the man they call "the Canada Goose" can talk a good game as well as play it.
Gosselin's English has been as impeccable as his goaltending during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Except for one first-round loss to Buffalo, Gosselin has been in the nets for all of the Quebec Nordiques' postseason games and among his nine victories have been four overtime games.
Gosselin had to be at his very best Sunday night as the Nordiques, although outshot, 37-21, defeated Philadelphia, 5-3, and tied the best-of-seven Prince of Wales Conference championship at two games each. That returned home-ice advantage to Quebec, which will host Game 5 Tuesday.
After the Flyers' first Spectrum defeat in 99 days, Coach Mike Keenan said, "Their goaltender played exceptionally well and he was better than ours."
It was almost an echo of Montreal Coach Jacques Lemaire's words after Gosselin's great goaltending helped the Nordiques oust the Canadiens in overtime in Game 7. At 21, Gosselin is a rookie, but he has earned the confidence of his teammates and the respect of the opposition.
"Mario is just a great rookie; he handles pressure so well," teammate Brent Ashton said. "He was our star of the series against Montreal and he's kept right on going against Philly."
Although Gosselin had played only three National Hockey League games before this season began, he feels he had enough experience in pressure situations to handle it.
"I played against the Soviets and the Czechs; there was big pressure in Sarajevo," Gosselin said. "There is pressure in this series, but if you lose one game you can come back. There we knew we had to win every game." Canada didn't, but it was hardly Gosselin's fault. He played every game in the Olympics but, after having led Canada into the medal round, his teammates were shut out in all three games and failed to earn a medal.
Afterward, the 5-foot-8, 160-pound goaltender joined the Nordiques and shut out St. Louis in his NHL debut. He had a 1.21 goals-against average for three games before a knee injury ended his season. "I was with them in the playoffs and I found out what the pressure was like, especially when we played Montreal," Gosselin said. "Just being through it with them, even though I couldn't play, helped me this year.
"I know I'm still a rookie -- that's what the guys are always telling me, that they want to shave me -- but I've had a lot of experience for somebody my age. I've been lucky. I was the one who played the first game against the Sabres (in the playoffs' first round) and I'm still playing.
"I enjoy everything that's going on now. I've played hockey since I'm 5 years old and I'm playing in May for the first time. Now I want to go to June."
Although his career hardly has begun, a legend is beginning to build up around Gosselin. After Sunday's victory, for example, he greeted the media by singing a few bars of "God Bless America," which passes for the national anthem in Philadelphia these days.
It is Gosselin's fortune to stand a few feet from Renee Veneziale when she sings it. Asked what he was thinking during the pregame ceremonies, he replied, "She has a very good voice -- very nice. But I don't think about anything. They don't pay me to think when we're on the ice. They pay me to stop the puck."
As an Olympian, Gosselin roomed with goalie Darren Eliot, a Cornell graduate now with the Los Angeles Kings. Gosselin, from French-speaking Thetford-Mines, Quebec, credits Eliot with helping him to learn English.
Where so many athletes treat the press as an adversary, Gosselin seems to enjoy the repartee. Last week he was standing in Le Colisee wearing a T-shirt and jeans. A reporter, for Gosselin's benefit, loudly asked another, "Would you ever take him for a big-league goaltender?" Gosselin smiled and said, "Yes, sir. I've got a $12,000 contract to prove it. And next year I'm holding out for $15,000."
Another reporter wondered how Gosselin, with such a slight physique, could survive the grueling playoff pressure, with Flyers jamming the crease and shoving at him, night after night. He pretended to make a muscle with his arm and said, "I don't have much meat. I'm all bone. They can put their sticks in my back and in my neck, but I'll stop the puck anyway. I won't change my game for that."
In any language, he's all heart.