Goalies Marc Lamothe and Joey MacDonald have become each other's biggest boosters in the battle for playing time.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Goalies, by virtue of their position, always have to be on their toes. They learn to expect the unexpected, to not wilt under pressure, to stay level-headed when everything around them is collapsing.
But there's no way the netminders in Detroit -- and by extension, the goalies in Grand Rapids -- could have been prepared for the family drama that has consumed the 2003-04 season.
Think the HBO series The Sopranos is unpredictable? Compared to the hockey soap opera in Michigan -- fuhgeddaboutit.
The surprising saga involving Dominic Hasek and Curtis Joseph in Detroit has been well-documented.
The Dominator returns. The Wings peddle Cujo, but no takers are found. Cujo is sent to Grand Rapids . Dom goes out with a bad groin. Cujo returns to Hockeytown. Dom rehabs. Weeks go by. Tensions rise. Backup Manny Legace acts as a buffer. Dom surprises everyone by announcing he's through. Cujo becomes top dog, then twists ankle. Manny takes over.
Amazingly, no one gets whacked. Meanwhile, the guys in Grand Rapids are writing their own little subplot.
Entering the season, the Griffins expected to lean heavily on goalies Marc Lamothe and Joey MacDonald.
Lamothe, a 10-year pro, was voted the AHL's outstanding goalie last season when he led the Griffins to the best record in the Western Conference and within one goal of the Calder Cup finals. MacDonald, meanwhile, set a franchise record with nine straight road wins as Lamothe's backup.
Both Lamothe and MacDonald are good guys -- not Goodfellas -- so even though they're competing for playing time, they're not about to be undone by their ambitions. No trading skates for cement shoes here.
We're almost like brothers, MacDonald insists. We're really close. Guys say when two goalies are battling to play, they start fighting, but it's not that way between me and Moth.
They became roommates in training camp at Traverse City before their first season in Grand Rapids . They played golf together, went to team functions together, roomed together on the road. Their relationship became like a sibling rivalry -- and no punches were thrown.
We're good friends, Lamothe agrees. We spend a lot of time together. We go out to dinner, we have a good rapport. Joey's such a down-to-earth guy, and he works hard. I'm extremely happy for his success.
The uncertainty in Hockeytown obviously has played havoc with their careers this season -- ultimately for their good. When Cujo came to Grand Rapids , Lamothe was forced to step aside while MacDonald got ready to pack his bags for Toledo to get some playing time.
Cujo was going to play two out of three, so they knew I wasn't going to see any action, MacDonald recalls. I didn't want to go for any long period of time, but I was willing to go down and play and work my way back up.
MacDonald was almost on his way to the ECHL, where he had played two years ago, when he got a telephone call from Jim Nill, the Red Wings' assistant general manager.
He said, Don't worry about Toledo . You're coming to Detroit .' Both Dom and Manny were hurt, so I was going to be the backup in Buffalo the next night for Cujo (who was also recalled), MacDonald says.
I went from one extreme to the other in a matter of hours.
MacDonald, in fact, had just gotten off the phone with his parents in Nova Scotia . They said, Keep your head up and don't worry.' I guess things worked out in the end. I called them back and told them I was going to the NHL.
Backing up Cujo was a big moment for MacDonald, who wears No. 31 out of respect for his idol. I grew up watching him on Hockey Night in Canada ,'" MacDonald says. He was the favorite goalie of my whole family.
Not surprisingly, MacDonald found the experience overwhelming. Riding the pine in the NHL is a whole lot more glamorous than playing for Toledo in the ECHL.
It was unbelievable, just being around the Wings, he says. I flew in that morning and all the guys welcomed me. I caught the morning skate, then sat on the bench for my first game in Buffalo . It was so exciting.
It was while he was sitting on the bench that MacDonald was struck by what a big deal it was to be playing for the Red Wings. I couldn't believe the amount of Detroit fans in Buffalo . You look in the stands and you see all this red and white. You'd think it was a home game. It was pretty cool.
MacDonald backed up Cujo again a night later in Chicago , where the Blackhawks struck for a couple of quick goals. I looked over at the coaches and you could see they were shaking their heads. They weren't too happy. I'm thinking, one more and I might get the nod.
Instead Detroit battled back before finally losing the game in overtime. MacDonald traveled with the team two days later to Washington, but Legace returned to the lineup and MacDonald was sent back to Grand Rapids .
Cujo, Manny and I went to breakfast every morning, MacDonald says. Cujo's a great guy. He talked about his horse ranch and his father being from New Brunswick . It was fun.
Lamothe, meanwhile, was waiting for his opportunity. It came on Feb. 12 when he was recalled to Detroit after Cujo sustained a sprained ankle that would sideline the veteran netminder for a month.
He backed up Legace for a couple of weeks before finally getting his first NHL start in over four years. He had appeared in two other NHL games for Chicago during the 1999-2000 season.
His start came in Edmonton , where his mother, sister and brother watched him make 29 saves -- including a couple of big stops in overtime -- to battle the Oilers to a 1-1 tie.
I was really excited when I got the nod, Lamothe recalls. I didn't want to look at it as my shot. You don't want your emotions to overcome your abilities. I just approached it the same way I do any game -- be focused and have some fun.
Lamothe shook off any opening jitters and rust -- he hadn't played in more than two weeks -- to turn in a solid performance. I definitely got stronger as the game went on, he says. It was real special to have my family there in person.
The National Post ( Canada 's version of USA Today) recognized the uniqueness of Lamothe's second NHL start in half a decade by putting him on the front page of the next day's edition.
I woke up that morning in the hotel and they deliver the newspaper to your door, so when I went to breakfast, I looked down and there I was, Lamothe says. It was pretty amazing.
Amazing was how Lamothe would describe his nearly month-long stay in Detroit . It was nice to be able to watch a couple of games at home first, to see how the guys play, he says.
(Getting a chance to start) was definitely a good step. Coupled with the way I've played in Grand Rapids the last couple of years, hopefully the right people notice. I still feel like there's a lot more I'd like to accomplish.
I really enjoyed my time in Detroit . I really enjoy the challenge of playing at the NHL level. I definitely could get used to it.
Meanwhile, back in Grand Rapids , MacDonald was doing everything in his power to prove that not only was he worthy of being a No. 1 goaltender himself, but that he was also among the best netminders in the AHL.
While Lamothe was in Detroit , MacDonald posted an 8-3-0-0 record with three shutouts, a 1.54 goals against average and a .948 save percentage. His 19-5-3 record overall represented the highest winning percentage (.759) of any AHL goalie.
So far, so good, MacDonald says. It's a lot easier when you get to play so many games in a row.
He was stellar in back-to-back games against Hamilton and Milwaukee during the weekend of Feb. 20-21 when he helmed consecutive 2-1 victories, including a comeback overtime win against Hamilton .
This is only my second year in the AHL, MacDonald says. I want to keep working my way up to being a No. 1 in the AHL and then eventually take the step up to the NHL.
Stepping into the top spot was a huge confidence builder, both for MacDonald and the Griffins. At least now the coaching staff has the confidence in me, he says. If anything happens, there's no hitting the panic button.
Neither Lamothe nor MacDonald foresee any goalie controversy in the near future.
Joey's been playing excellent -- I couldn't be happier for him, Lamothe says. The way things have gone, he hasn't really had the chance to play that many games in a row until now. This is great for him and for the team, too.
It's a good relationship between the two of us, MacDonald says. I think this is going to help both of us in the long run. I push him and he pushes me. Hopefully we can keep it going.