Ice-hockey goalies play the most demanding position in sports. Using every part of your body to stop a 100 mph puck, even when you can’t see it – hearing “sieve” from opposing fans when you don’t. And that’s the easy part.
That’s him, the goalie. The tall, handsome man with the black goatee, jet black hair, and dark Greek features, jogging slowly around Dayton Arena, long before the game, wearing a shirt and tie as if he’s going out to dinner. (“Coach says you look good, you feel good; you feel good, you play good,” he says.) His name is George Papachristopoulos. At 6'4", 225 pounds, he is easily the biggest man to ever play goaltender for Bowdoin; and already there is talk that before he is through, the junior from Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, Quebec, may rewrite Bowdoin’s men’s hockey history books. He knows what is at stake this season. He passed up a trip to see family in Greece to stay home and work two hours a day in August with a goalie coach who peppered him with endless pucks and endless mental toughening exercises. He expects to be the best goalie in the powerful NESCAC conference, the nation’s most competitive Division III.
He’s been jogging around rinks before games since he was 14. When you are a goaltender and something works once, you stick with it. For two nights before a game George makes sure he sleeps at least 10 hours. A pre-med student, he says, “I try and get all my school work done before a game." He sharpens his skates exactly two practices before a game. “If my skates are sharp, I move quicker.” The night before a game he watches a movie. “Since high school, it’s Rocky,” he says. “Sometimes Remember the Titans. Occasionally he snaps on a hockey video. “But I only watch the saves. Never the goals. Watching goals brings bad luck.”
He showers before he slips on the dress shirt and tie. If it’s a home game, he walks to Dayton Arena, Bowdoin’s venerable hockey home, where championship banners drape the walls and fairly shout that on this ice plays one of the country’s premier men’s ice hockey programs. Year after year, decade after decade, first Sid Watson, now Terry Meagher coached behind the bench and watched Bowdoin win, closing in on 700 wins between them. Success is expected inside this arena. Men’s ice hockey, more than any other sport, bonds town and gown in Brunswick. And nobody feels the burden of those expectations more than the goalie. And Bowdoin goalies have had their share of tough games. Bowdoin once allowed eight goals in a single period to Holy Cross; fifteen in a game to Middlebury. In 1979 Merrimack scored two goals in eight seconds. Once, St. Anselm scored three times in forty-seven seconds.
So a goalie does what he must to get ready.
Headphones hold the music close to his ears as he walks. He calls it his “game day mix” —AC/DC, techno, a speech by Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday where Pacino extols his players that they must play as a team. In the locker room stir, George dresses in blue long johns, then finds a quiet spot in the deserted rink and stretches, alone. Then he returns, puts on more layers and heads back out to the ice. “I just think,” he says. “I clear my mind of everything but what saves I’m going to make. How it’s going to feel to win.”
Ten minutes before warm-ups he finishes dressing. Kneepads, shoulder pads, chest protector, neck guard. Protection from the violent blows and skirmishes that mark his sport. But they cannot protect from the other blows, the internal ones — the ones that caused Glenn Hall, one of the National Hockey League’s all-time great goalies to keep a bucket under his bench for when his stomach flip-flopped from nerves. “Sixty minutes of hell,” is how he described his job in the nets. “It can tear you apart.” Ken Dryden, another NHL Hall-of-Famer, described the pressure he faced every game simply as “grim.” George Papachristopoulos may stop 700 or more shots this season, but if he lets in one goal, at the wrong time, that is the one people will remember the longest.
Tell this to Robert Fritz ’59, Bob White ’77, Rob Menzies ’79, Bill Provencher ’81, Colin Robinson ’01 — or any of the goalies who protected the Bowdoin net before George — and they will understand. Maybe the only ones on earth who really understand what a hockey goalie faces are other goalies. That is why they would not be surprised that before George tugs on his black and white number 31 jersey, his blocking glove and catching glove, before he straps on his helmet, he slips outside for just a moment and whispers a two word prayer — “Help me.” Only then will he grab his stick and head onto the ice.
It is a Saturday afternoon, November 20, at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. The second game in a season that stretches ahead, at least until late February, hopefully, even March and the NCAA tourney if Bowdoin fulfills the hopes of its coach and fans. The night before, while the St. Anselm Hawks were spanking Colby 6-3, Bowdoin had done its own spanking, defeating New England College 6-1. George had stopped 25 shots. For so early in the season, today’s game carries heft, and a way to measure just how good these teams might be. The early games are when a team establishes its personality, its confidence, its swagger. In Terry Meagher’s 22nd season, Bowdoin returns all of its top scorers, its starting goaltender and a new crop of skaters. Fans watching them debut the night before called them the fastest and best they could remember in recent years. But for all the promise of the weeks ahead, at season’s end success or failure may well rest on how well George handles the pressure in goal.
“I love the pressure,” George says. "Love having people depend on me.”
“If we told George he was playing the Montreal Canadiens today,” says Terry Meagher, “he’d say ‘great,’ and he’d be ready to go. The good ones, the bigger the game, the better they play.”
After the national anthem, George skates slowly to the net. The net is four feet high, six wide, and when George spreads out, his arms and legs swollen with pads, he fills a lot of space. Outlined in red, extending a few feet out from the posts and a few feet in front is the goalie crease, George’s safety zone, where he cannot be touched, out of bounds for any attacking player without the puck. George’s world for the next sixty minutes.
But no matter how fast his hands, they rarely can move quicker than a 100 mph puck if shot close range. Often in the melee in front of the goal, there are so many feet and sticks flailing about that the puck will vanish for a moment and George must move by instinct, sensing where the puck will go. He wants to stop it at any cost—he’ll trade a bruised foot for a save; he’ll stop it with a stick, glove, shoulder, mask, if needed. But the best shooters have been perfecting their shots on frozen rivers and lakes and in rinks since they were six or seven. The best shooters always find a space. That is at the heart of the game’s tension, minute after minute, always the chance for the duel.
Colin Robinson, Bowdoin’s career leader in wins and shutouts says that duel is the fascination and the peril of being a goalie. He prepared for the duel by “going into almost a trance. I could just go to sleep right before a game, that’s how relaxed I made myself.
“It’s all about being the hero,” he says. “You’re either a bum or a hero, that’s how I looked at it. At the end of the game I either gave my team a chance to win, or I didn’t. You’re in control. But you always know, if you play badly, it’s over.”
Bill Provencher knows this is true. He comes with pedigree, Bowdoin’s only goaltender to be a finalist for the Hobie Baker Award, college hockey’s highest honor. He lives outside of Kansas City, Kansas, working as a claims manager for Farmer’s Insurance Group. “Probably 40% of a team’s success is on the one player in goal,” he says. “Most people can’t understand the pressure. A goalie can win or lose the game. That’s why the best goaltenders have to be so confident, even cocky. They can’t have fear.” For all of Provencher’s prowess—he played in the highest minors for the Philadelphia Flyers—he never was in the net for a college championship. “The best playoff goalie I ever saw,” he says, “was Rob Menzies. He won two championships. You want someone who performs under pressure talk to Menz.”
It’s been twenty-five years since Rob Menzies helped Bowdoin win back-to-back ECAC titles. He lives today in Petrolia, Ontario where he made a name for himself as an elite hockey coach, from youth to adult leagues.
“I don’t know why some players are able to stand up to pressure,” he says. It’s a God-given ability. I could be quite average in regular season games. But in the biggest games, I got excited. Outwardly I probably seemed calm, but inside I was boiling, almost in a football crazed state of mind. Being goalie is playing a game within a game,” he says. “You’re part of a team, but you’re also on your own. The highs are higher when you win, but when you lose the lows are lower. If you lose and if you give up the winning goal, let me tell you, it’s the loneliest feeling in the world.”
Robert Fritz was the last Bowdoin goalie to go into the net without a mask. He remembers his freshman year seeing Bowdoin’s backup varsity goalie catch a puck in the face, the blood spurting, the teeth spilling to the ice like marbles. He played in the first game played at Dayton Arena and he knows all about the loneliness of the embattled goalie. He is in Bowdoin’s record books for once making 57 saves against Middlebury. But his teams were always weak, winning only a handful of games, and the red light behind him seemed to never extinguish.
“Sure, I was called ‘sieve,’ all the time,” he says. “But I had to learn to block it out. I kept telling myself, next time, I’ll stop them next time.” He is a professor of immunology in Wisconsin and, far removed from playing, has found his silver lining from the pounding he once took. “In academia,” he says, “you’re always getting turned down for grants, or having to endure stinging peer reviews. Long ago, I learned how to take it and move on.”
In the first two minutes St. Anselm presses the action and George makes three saves. “When they are coming towards me,” George says, I think, ‘give me your best shot.’ I am confident I can stop what they throw at me. I am confident my team will be there. And if it’s a tough shot, I’m not afraid.”
Eight minutes into the game, Bowdoin’s junior forward, Adam Dann, finds the net. “It’s so important to score first,” says a balding man sitting nervously at the top tier of seats. This is Jim Papachristopoulos, 5'8" tops, father of the big man in the net. He drives 500 miles round trip to every Bowdoin game. “I’ve seen George play at least 500 games,” he says. “From the time he was a little boy, I go to all the games.”
Jim grew up in a town of 25,000 south of Athens. He came to Montreal at age 16, finished high school, attended college, got married, fathered his two sons. He can barely skate but fell in love with hockey. George was six or seven when he watched the great Montreal Canadien goalie, Patrick Roy, and was smitten with the drama in the net. “After that,” says Jim, “that’s all he wanted.”
Like so many young boys, “I couldn’t control my emotions,” George says. “My parents taught me to forget the bad goals. That if I got frustrated they’d just score again.
I remember a game, it was the third period, tied 1-1, and they scored. I saw my dad in the stands and he was going ‘just relax, just relax,’ with his hands, assuring me everything was okay. One of my Pee Wee coaches told me if I wanted to go to the next level, I’d have to forget about giving up a goal. Now I always say to myself, ‘stop the next one. Forget about the last one.’ ”
It was George’s resiliency that caught the eye of Jamie Dumont, Terry Meagher’s assistant coach. “He was at Brewster Academy” remembers Jamie, “and they were playing the Boston Junior Bulldogs. His team got beat 4-0. There were like 60 shots against him. The puck just stayed in one end—but he just kept making saves. I thought if he could get the coaching he could be something special.”
Halfway through the first period a Bowdoin player heads to the penalty box for two minutes. Soon after a second penalty sends another Polar Bear off the ice. When the opponent has extra skaters the goalie will nearly always come under siege. The St. Anselm forwards rush the net, five skaters versus three, the puck passing back and forth; George shifts, left, right, trying to stay calm amidst a storm, but a quick shot finds its space. The red light flashes, sirens blare, the partisan crowd cheers. “Power play for your Hawks,” shouts the announcer.
Jacque Plante, the great Montreal Canadien goaltender once described what it was like to hear the commotion after a goal. “Imagine yourself sitting in an office, and you make an error and all of a sudden behind you, a bright red light goes on, and 18,000 fans jeer...”
George shaves the ice in the crease with his skates. He skates out of the crease for a moment, turns back to the net, faces front and touches the left post with his stick, then the right. “The skate and finding the posts help me get into my comfort zone,” he says, “where I believe I can stop anything.” It is George’s gift that the more intense the action, the more he can relax, the sharper his focus. The lesson all goalies, at least the ones who succeed, take with them is if you stay positive you move forward. If you dwell on the negative, you move backward.
Soon St. Anselm once again storms the net on a power play. This time George catches the puck on his stick, the puck flips up and he snares it, as casually as if it were a tiny bird. With twenty-five seconds left he makes a glove save on a shot headed to his neck. The horn signals the period’s end. There had been twelve shots on Bowdoin’s goal. George had stopped eleven.
Senior Dave Sandals ’05 watches the action with a mix of admiration for George’s play and desire to be in the net himself. At this time last season Dave was starting goalie, having earned playing time over long-time starting goalie Mike Healey. He recorded four wins, including Colby, and then gave up five goals to Curry during the Christmas tourney. “Coach told me I had to get my save percentage to .900,” Dave says. “At the time it was .888. He told me to keep working. Then George got his chance.”
Dave is the backup. His role is to push George every drill, every scrimmage at practice. To not let George relax his grip on the starter’s position for a single day.
“I know the role of the backup goalie is to make the starter better,” Dave says. “To push him so that he stays on top of his game. Coach Meagher says I can only control my actions, so I’ll go and play my best. If a switch does happen, coach can put me in and know I can do the job. I’m in my senior year. I want the team to win a national championship. This is the best team I’ve ever been on. So I’m not going to complain about playing time. I want to have an impact on how George plays. I know how important it is. I’m not going to tell George to his face, but by how I play and practice, I’m telling him he has to be at his best. He sees the coach congratulate me after a practice, he knows he has to be sharp.
“I imagine every game that I’m starting. I think about making saves. I’m always looking for ways I can improve. Yeah, I get beaten up in practice, go as hard as I can every day but the end result isn’t there. But I’m going to work and if George has a bad game I’m going to prove to the coach I can be a starter.”
“If a goalie is better than me he deserves it,” George says. “We will have a better chance of winning.”
Bob White can tell Dave Sandals a few things about playing backup and life. Today he is one of the most influential men in Massachusetts, managing director at Bain Capital, and chief of staff for Governor Mitt Romney. He headed Romney’s transition team, and was said to be in line to be appointed to John Kerry’s senate seat if Kerry had scored more goals in the national election. But twenty-five years ago he lost the number one spot to Rob Menzies. “I was blessed,” White says, “We had a great team my entire career. When I played freshman had their own team, and we had a very strong team. So strong that the puck always seemed to be at the other end. During White’s senior year Coach Sid Watson recognized Menzies’ special talents. So did Bob White.
“Sid never told us who would play,” says White, “So we both had to stay focused and sharp right up to game time. But Rob was better than me. I knew that. He could stop pucks better, his positioning was better, he played angles better, and his technique was better. But we were about team. A goalie can’t win without a team. When Mitt asked me to head his transition team, I knew we had to get people who could work together. I wanted the right group of people where the sum of their parts was greater than what they brought as individuals.”
The second period is fast and furious. Bowdoin takes a 2-1 lead on a power play goal by Andy Nelson, George’s roommate. With eight minutes to play, George stops a St. Anselm power play shot, then falls on the rebound. A minute later he sprawls across the cage, and sends it skidding along the ice-but he saved a goal. Soon another penalty forces Bowdoin to play a man short. George is under the gun, but the period ends with St. Anselm having failed to score. Each of George’s teammates skates over and touches his gloves, thanking him for holding the lead. He has now stopped twenty shots.
The St. Anselm goalie, Jim Merola, is matching George save for save. One will lose. For the 621 fans watching it is a thrilling and tense match up. The pressure builds in the third period. George stops a low shot, seemingly the most difficult for a tall goalie. Now another he clutches to his chest. At 4:37 George deflects a shot, and the rebound finds a crack, sliding into the right corner of the net. The red light flares, the siren blares. George finds his spot, touches the posts, ready for more.
“The puck, it's bouncing for them tonight, not for us,” moans Jim Papachristopolous. “But George likes the action. He likes it when he gets a lot of shots.”
Bill Provencher remembers the feeling of knowing he would stop everything. “Against Merrimack,” he says, “there was a flurry around my net. Boom, boom, boom, point-blank shots, and as I moved side to side my skates stopped every shot. When it’s like that, everything seems like it’s in slow motion.”
With seconds to go, St. Anselm mounts a furious rush to Bowdoin’s goal. “Oh no,” shouts Jim, but George smothers the puck as the horn sounds. Overtime. When heroes emerge. George has made 30 saves. He has been a difference maker.
“I keep my head clear,” George says about overtime pressure. “I think to myself that if they come down on me, I will stop them, but that’s it. Just get in front of the puck.”
Bowdoin dominates overtime, firing nine shots on goal. Merola stops them all. George stops all three fired at him. A few days later George is named NESAC player of the week for his 58 saves in two games, a .951 save percentage. Before the season started, Terry Meagher said “This is a huge year for George. I have the bar set very high.”
The season stretched ahead, but maybe, just maybe, Bowdoin had a goal tender for the ages.
Joe Bertagna, Hockey East commissioner and one of the foremost goalie coaches in the country, told us that “even coaches tend to think goalies are a foreign language,” so we asked the rest of the Bowdoin goalies a few questions to try to unravel the mystery.
What are your rituals or superstitions?
Michael Peraza: I walk around the net once clock-wise before the opening face-off.
Corey Bergen: I’m really quiet pre-game. I just think a lot and try to mentally prepare myself.
Catherine MacEachern: I always have to tap the right post, then the cross bar, then the left post before every face off.
David Sandals: I put my equipment on the same way every time, everything on the left first.
Anna Shapell: I must put everything right on before the left. Then, before the ref blows his whistle I have to stand at the top of the 18 yard box and do 2 tuck jumps.
Katherine Leonard: I touch the goal line whenever I run to the net.
Charles Legg: I’m all business.
Katherine Popoff: I always say “hi” to my right goalpost before the start of each half, and sometimes I blow it a kiss. Whenever the goalposts or crossbar make a save, I wait until all the other players are out of hearing distance, then I say “thank you.”
Do you listen to any special pre-game music?
Katherine Popoff: My most recent song was “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by Chantal Kreviazuk
Corey Bergen: “Murder on the Dance Floor” by Sophie Ellis Bextor – my teammates like to make fun of me for it but it’s a really upbeat and loud song that helps to get me going.
Catherine MacEachern: Eminem’s “When the Music Stops,” AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock,” and the theme song from the movie, Boondock Saints.
David Sandals: something like Dave Matthews or O.A.R.
Paul DeCoster: AC/DC “Thunderstruck” and Cypress Hill “Rock Superstar”
Adam Skuse: I like quiet, but I never get it.
What about food?
Catherine MacEachern: I always finish every pre-game team meal with a coffee.
Katherine Popoff: Game day breakfast is always the same, a plain bagel, canned fruit of some kind and a diet coke
Corey Bergen: I always eat Special K for my pre-game meal and drink water.
Did anyone ever try to tell you not to be a goalie?
Catherine MacEachern: My mom finds being the mother of a goaltender to be a very nerve-racking experience. It doesn’t help her that my sister is a soccer goaltender too.
Katherine Popoff: my Dad
Anna Shapell: My mom, because she worries I’ll get stepped on or kicked in the head or trampled. I tell her not to worry, the only person who is going to get trampled is anyone who runs into me.
David Sandals: The only way I could play with my brother and his friends was if I played goal.
Paul DeCoster: My mom still to this day tells me I am crazy.
How does it feel to be scored upon?
Nathan Lovitz: It’s like someone has taken my pride and stomped on it. I get this empty feeling in my stomach like I might get sick.
Corey Bergen: Getting scored on is the WORST. Especially in a sport like field hockey where it takes so much to get the ball up the field, so there isn’t much chance for redemption.
Katherine Leonard: Even in practice I don’t like it when there are balls in the cage.
Adam Skuse: I would rather be punched in the face.
How does it feel to make a save?
Carey Bare: To make a great save at a clutch time is the most exhilarating moment I’ve experienced in any sport.
Katherine Popoff: If it’s a really good save, then it just feels so awesome to deny the other team... there’s an intense feeling of personal accomplishment and athleticism.
Anna Shapell: That moment gets frozen in time, you feel that all eyes are on you, and basically that you’ve saved the day. I can’t think of a better sensation than coming up really big.
Adam Skuse: Like I did my job. It’s nothing special. Unless of course it’s a huge save in a big game. Then it’s kinda fun.
What was your worst goalie moment?
Michael Peraza: In one game I was out of the net, and an opposing defenseman threw the ball over my head into the net from the other end of the field. I just remember watching the ball sail over my head and feeling utterly helpless.
Katherine Popoff: The first time I got game time in a NESCAC game, in my first play of the game, I got a pass back from one of my defenders, tried to redirect it to the side, and ending up stepping on top of it, tripping and falling hard in the mud. I managed to salvage the situation and got a decent pass off to a teammate, but it was still a memorably dark moment.
Anna Shapell: A goalie’s worst nightmare is having a ball go through your legs, and it happened to me. It just squirted through, and I would have given anything to rewind time.
What was your best goalie moment?
Gregory Levin: playing over a half a game with a broken jaw in my final high school game
Catherine MacEachern: When I was 12 years old I went to a hockey camp where Al McInnis was a guest star. He came out on the ice with us and I was put in the net. He took one of his famous slap shots at me, and the puck somehow ended up in my glove.
David Sandals: Winning the World Championships in Quebec City as a 13-year old.
Nathan Lovitz: saving the 7th penalty in the English National PASE Cup Semi-final. We were playing in front of pro scouts from all over the country, and making that save put us into the final of the cup.
Carey Bare: Making a diving save in the final seconds of an overtime championship game with my club team and being carried off the field.
Anna Shapell: I’ve had some saves where it’s felt like I’m flying. I get higher than I think is possible, tipping the ball over the bar, everyone cheers, and you’re on the ground thinking, “How did I do that?”
What is your favorite off-ice/field activity?
Gregory Levin: basketball
Catherine MacEachern: I love to play sports, especially soccer and tennis, and I love to read. I also consider myself a professional hanger-outer.
David Sandals: playing cards
Nathan Lovitz: Whitewater kayaking, I have been working on the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers for 3 summers as a guide and video boater, and it is one of the most fun things I have ever done.
Carey Bare: Mountaineering/backpacking
Katherine Popoff and Katherine Leonard: ice hockey
Corey Bergen: Dodgeball
What about the taunting? What’s the most memorable thing you’ve heard someone say?
Michael Peraza: when opposing fans started making fun of my baby blue socks
Catherine MacEachern: I spent many years playing on teams where I was the only girl. I was constantly taunted by members of other teams and their fans. Sometimes I would come off the ice after a game close to tears.
David Sandals: I love the crowd...keeps me goin’... the best thing was when Colby fans were holding signs saying “It’s too cold for Sandals.”
Corey Bergen: Sometimes really obnoxious parents or fans will stand right behind the net as their team shoots on you to try to get in your face and fluster you. There’s nothing like making a save to shut them up. I always like to sort of “glance” in their direction right after that.
Katherine Popoff: I’m able to laugh off taunting because I think I make fun of myself more than anyone else. I have this running monologue in my head that’s entirely self-deprecating.
Anna Shapell: Don’t tell my coach, but sometimes I talk back. I’ll mutter things at them, retort to their dumb comments, or whatever. Then, when my coach asks if I was talking to the fans, I deny it.
What’s your favorite sports movie?
Charles Legg: Miracle, because they focus on the goalie
Gregory Levin: Field of Dreams
Michael Peraza: Hoosiers and Miracle
Adam Skuse: Slap Shot
Catherine MacEachern: Miracle sends chills down my spine every time. Don Cherry’s Rock ‘em Sock ‘em movies are also really good.
Nathan Lovitz: Rudy
Carey Bare: Major League
Katherine Popoff: The Cutting Edge, about an Olympic hockey player turned figure skater. It’s underappreciated in the hockey world.
Anna Shapell: Chariots of Fire
Corey Bergen: The new Red Sox 2004 DVD was unreal
Katherine Leonard: Remember the Titans
Paul DeCoster: Slapshot
David Sandals: Miracle
If I weren’t a goalie, I’d be...
Gregory Levin: a striker
Michael Peraza: an attack man
Charles Legg: I can’t see myself anywhere else
Adam Skuse: a huge nerd
Nathan Lovitz: a central defender
Carey Bare: a catcher
Katherine Popoff: a defender – it's an amazing feeling to be able to foil someone’s chance at glory.
Anna Shapell: dead
Corey Bergen: a field player
Katherine Leonard: a forward, I love to score goals too.
Paul DeCoster: a bodybuilder
What’s the most important quality for a goalie?
Gregory Levin: the willingness to sacrifice one’s body for the good of the team.
Charles Legg: Keeping an even keel. I’m always trying to focus my mind on the next shot, not any previous ones.
Anna Shapell: I’ve always been told that I’m a little bit different than my teammates, either crazy or “off.” We goalies definitely thrive on that. Mainly I think people think goalies are nuts because we’re willing to do anything. Basically, we jump in the air and land on the ground. No sane person would do that.