I can’t get the sound out of my head.
It startles the senses and sears the eardrums; the percussive sting of a lightning-fast hockey puck slamming against the barrier separating NHL fans from NHL chaos.
Like a Colt .45, fired at close range.
Sitting in a seat behind goal during a recent spate of Kings’ games, I’d clearly see a forward’s windup. There’d be time to ready myself in case he missed his target, in case that puck sped past the goalie and headed straight at me. Other times, all I saw was churning legs, swirling motion, and, out of nowhere: CRAAACKK!
Each time the puck hit the clear barrier, a divot formed. Each time, the crowd tensed and a woman screamed.
It’s jolting enough in the stands, so what’s it like for the goalie?
You ply your craft on ice, in skates, in front of a cage.
Large, often toothless men wielding sticks routinely blaze toward you, hoping to jam a fast, hard hockey puck an inch from your groin and into the net.
Sometimes, they come alone, with speed-of-sound slap shots that bend and blur. Sometimes, they come in packs. It’s your job to stop them.
You contort your body: pretzel-like, crab-like, spider-like. You push, pull, fight, claw, slash, and take beatings. All game long, you stop shot after shot. Then a puck caroms off an opponent’s helmet. Goal. Grim.
“It’s all very black and white. . . . Maybe that’s what draws people to it,” observed Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who is 23 and a bright spot in a season that has offered a nice surprise: Though fading fast, the Kings mathematically remain in the playoff hunt.
Quick was supposed to be in the minors. Instead, he became a midseason call-up who thrived. He’s the first to admit that he’s no Martin Brodeur, who recently notched his record 552nd win. But Quick is sharp, humble and -- here’s a critical part -- reflective.
“Make the big save that wins the game, you might not be the hero,” he said. “Don’t make the save. Lose the game, and if you’re feeling like it’s all your fault, yeah, it’s like you’re on an island.”
Broad-shouldered, 6 feet 1, hair in a buzz cut, Quick spoke as we sat in a conference room at the Kings’ El Segundo headquarters. He’d agreed to take me through the furious final period of a recent game against the Minnesota Wild that I’d watched from a seat behind goal.
When he hit the play button, the Kings were up, 4-2, which made the playoff-contending Wild an angry and desperate team.
“They want this game bad,” Quick said, “and I know it. Right now, them down like this, all I’m thinking is, ‘It takes one shot.’ Let one shot slip by, then it is a one-goal game, they get momentum, they get excited. So I know right now, they are going to be all over me.”
Grimacing, he watched a puck slide behind his net.
“This part, I’m sort of dying inside,” he said. “All of the action is behind me. My main focus is on everything happening behind me, but the whole time, see that?” He points at the TV, at his head, which every few seconds turreted quickly to track the action in front of him.
“The whole time I’m having to see who is laying out there, waiting for a shot. When the puck is behind you, as soon as they pass it out, if you don’t know what is in front of you, well, there is always that split second where you don’t know where it is. That is a terrible feeling.”
As I watched, I noticed this: All game, even when his team is down at the rink’s other end, Quick keeps moving -- bending, twisting, crouching, standing on his toes, sometimes pulling his jersey nervously.
“People can’t hear it or see my mouth moving under the mask, but I’m having a conversation there a lot of the times,” he said. “I’m yelling at my guys, ‘Shoot it, shoot it, shoot!’ And sometimes I’m yelling things that, uh, well, things you wouldn’t want your mom hearing.”
His face grew dark. On the TV screen, one of the Wild had taken a long slap shot that rebounded off Quick’s glove and into a scrum.
“Right here, there’s that split second where everyone is trying to find the puck and I have to find the puck and that’s all that matters in the world to me, finding that puck,” he said.
“Then you get all of their forwards trying to go straight to the net and they are right in front of me, hacking and whacking at me, the ice, the puck, everything, I’m taking hits, they’re trying to get the puck into the net.”
Minnesota’s Eric Belanger set up 30 feet out and fired. “I see he’s about to shoot, I have to stay patient,” Quick said. “If you move one way too early, these guys change their shots and you are done. So as much as you want to flinch, I’m telling myself, ‘wait, wait, wait . . .’ ”
The shot nailed Quick, who estimated pucks like this often travel at 90-100 mph. That’s got to hurt. And it does.
“You get it in the collarbone, the neck, oh man, it’s awful,” he said. “It hits you in the neck or in the chest and for a minute you can’t breathe and you have to keep from sort of panicking.”
Minnesota continued its onslaught. A Wild player sneaked behind Quick, controlling the puck. Soon, there was a fast pass, a shot. Quick, watching the TV, rubbed his forehead as he saw the puck glance off his skate and into the net.
“Owen Nolan,” he smirked, speaking of the wily veteran who made the key pass. “Yeah, he’s pretty good. Right here, I’m thinking that. But it’s also like, ‘Forget it, forget it, don’t worry, keep going, the team needs you. Forget.’ ”
He knew if the Wild were to score, it would come to life. Not good. “I’m still trying to learn who does what and it’s not very comfortable sometimes,” he said. “They’re sending guys down in front of me hacking away and there’s guys chirping at me, trying to get into my head. . . . Stay calm here. Don’t get emotional.”
Four minutes remained, then three. And then, finally, came the last push from Minnesota, which pulled its goalie, meaning an extra man to strike.
“This,” he said, “is when you are just holding on.”
A shot came. Quick fended it off. Another: blocked. Another: gloved it. Then another, a laser from long range. Quick reminded me how, in an earlier game, he gave up a cheap goal from about the same spot. Rookie mistake.
“That can’t happen here. This shouldn’t be a threatening shot. He’s trying to get rebound and see what happens. The crowd is going nuts, but I don’t even hear it now. The puck goes over there in the corner and I’m begging: ‘Just keep it there, just keep it away!’ ”
Time runs out. Kings win, 4-3. Reliving that last period, Quick looked exhausted.
“What are you feeling,” I asked, “after a game like that?”
“A big, big feeling of relief,” he said. “Survival.”