Griffins goaltender Marc Lamothe is enjoying an all-star season, but he’s keeping cool about his accomplishments.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Marc Lamothe is about as normal as any goaltender you’ll ever meet.
Okay, so that doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, especially if you subscribe to the stereotype that questions the sanity of anyone who voluntarily submits to play the goalie position.
But when you’ve toiled in the minor leagues for nine seasons with barely a taste of the National Hockey League, you’ve obviously done something to keep your senses.
Either that, or you’ve lost all your marbles.
In Lamothe’s case, it hasn’t always been easy. He would be the first to admit that there have been times when staying focused has been difficult.
Like four years ago. Playing professional hockey was never harder.
Lamothe (it’s pronounced la-mott) was playing for Indianapolis in the International Hockey League during the 1998-99 season when his father was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
“It was really tough,” Lamothe said. “I’d come home every couple of weeks to spend three or four days with my dad and my family. I did the best that I could, but my focus was just not on hockey.” Needless to say, Lamothe’s play suffered. “I didn’t have a very good year,” says Lamothe, who watched helplessly as the end came fairly quickly.
His father passed away just over three months after being diagnosed.
For Lamothe, the loss of his father was devastating. His parents, Denis and Claudette, had always been supportive of his hockey dreams.
“My dad was a really big hockey fan,” Lamothe says. “He was great to call after a game. He was the kind of dad who would count all the shots in the game and even if I let in five, he’d say that I didn’t have a chance on those goals.” Lamothe says his father was always supportive, never critical. “His constant reminders were to 'focus, stay positive and have fun,'” Lamothe recalls. “It was always those three things. I can still hear him saying it.” If nothing else, his dad’s death helped him see things more clearly.
Nothing puts things into perspective better than the realization that there are worse things in life than allowing a bad goal.
“There are so many intangibles that are out of your control,” Lamothe says, speaking about hockey, although he could just as easily have been talking about life. “As a goaltender, you try not to get rattled.” And so Lamothe has learned to take the bad with the good. While he is pleased with the success that he has enjoyed thus far this season, he is resolute in making sure that he doesn’t get too excited.
“You try to never get too high or too low,” he says. “The fact is you’re never playing as bad as you think, and you’re never playing as good as you sometimes think you are.” Losing his father tore his heart out. In its place, he has tried to find peace.
“In my opinion, you have to have an inner calmness,” Lamothe says. “The mental aspect (of playing goalie) is huge. You have to stay calm enough to be able to clear your mind, trust your instincts and just play.” For Lamothe, learning to cope with the psychological aspects of the position has been a process, but a natural one nevertheless.
A native of New Liskeard in northern Ontario near the Quebec border, Lamothe grew up in a bilingual home with two older brothers, Daniel and Robert, and a younger sister, Chantal.
“We spoke English as a family, but I went to French school my whole life,” says Lamothe, who started playing hockey when he was five, about the time his family moved to Ottawa, where his father worked for Bell Canada.
Lamothe was eight years old before he strapped on the goaltending pads for the first time. “The coach asked for volunteers and I don’t really know if anyone wanted to do it, to tell you the truth. I was willing to give it a shot.” He must have made a favorable impression. “As I got older, I remember wanting to register as a forward or a defenseman, but the coaches always said I should stick with goaltending.” His numbers in junior hockey were not awe-inspiring, but his size and natural ability were impressive enough to enable him to be drafted by Montreal in the fourth round of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft.
“It was really something because my dad had always been a Montreal Canadiens fan and his dad was as well,” Lamothe recalls. “We grew up watching the Habs and the draft that year was in Montreal, so we were there as a family.” As big an impact as his father had been on his early development, Lamothe blossomed under the tutelage of two of hockey’s foremost experts on goaltending.
During his two years in the Canadiens organization, Lamothe worked with Francois Allaire, the famous proponent of the butterfly style whose list of students includes Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Lalime, Guy Hebert and Roberto Luongo, among many others.
“I was fortunate to work with him,” Lamothe says. “I am not a pure butterfly-style goalie, but I do use the butterfly, so he helped me out with that aspect of my game.” But Lamothe reserves his greatest admiration for Vladislav Tretiak, the Russian legend, who has been the goaltending coach with the Chicago Blackhawks for more than a decade.
Although he never played in the NHL, Tretiak is considered one of the best goalies in hockey history. He helped the Soviets win Olympic gold in 1972, 1976 and 1984, as well as a silver medal in 1980 when the USA team surprised the world. In 16 seasons, he led the Red Army team to 13 titles and helped the Soviet national team win an amazing 10 world championships.
“Not only is he a legend in the goaltending position, but he’s one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met,” Lamothe says. “Working with him was a great experience.” Lamothe, who spent four years in the Blackhawks organization, found his sessions with Tretiak were indispensable.
“He had a very hungry attitude when it came to stopping the puck. He wanted you to have the mindset that you almost dared the other team to beat you. He was so strong mentally.” Rather than preach a particular style, Tretiak taught the importance of diligence and drills.
“He would make you work. He wanted you to get up as soon as possible: you’re in position, you’re moving to take the shot. He was all about repetition. You would just work at it and work at it. He felt the more pucks you faced, the more pucks you would save.” It was while he was with Chicago that Lamothe saw his only action in the NHL.
Jocelyn Thibault was handed the No. 1 job at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season, but Lamothe was told that he would share the backup duties with Steve Passmore, who started the year in Chicago. “October came and went and true to their word, they called me up,” Lamothe says.
He rode the bench until the fickle finger of fate pointed in his direction during a game against the St. Louis Blues.
“Less than three minutes into the game, Al MacInnis let one of his rockets go and Jocelyn closed his hand a little too quick,” Lamothe says.
“The puck hit the back of his hand and broke a finger.” Pressed into action with the Blues now ahead 1-0, Lamothe allowed seven goals on 25 shots over the remaining 56 minutes and 11 seconds. If not for the significance of it being his first NHL game, it was a game he’d rather forget.
“It was a pretty rude beginning to my NHL career,” Lamothe says. “It was not quite the start I had dreamed of as a kid.” Lamothe redeemed himself a week later in the only start of his NHL career, beating the Boston Bruins 9-3 at the Fleet Center.
“It was the complete opposite from the game in St. Louis,” he says. “I remember Ray Bourque ruined my shutout bid. Of course it was only five minutes into the game. But hey, the way I look at it, I’m 1-0 as a starter in the NHL.” Unfortunately, the Blackhawks fired general manager Bob Murray, the champion behind the idea of alternating backups. When Thibault returned to the lineup, Lamothe was sent back to the minors.
He’s been trying to fight his way back ever since.
“I’ve spent the past four years trying to get to the position where I can get an opportunity to get a good look,” he says. “To a certain extent, I’d be disappointed if I look back someday and this is as far as I made it, because I never got that real opportunity. On the other hand, I feel very lucky to have played as many years as I have so far.” That’s Lamothe. Never too low, never too high.
He reminds himself of his father’s advice -- “Focus, stay positive and have fun” -- but mostly he just remembers his father. In fact, he is donating $1 for every save he makes this season to the American Cancer Society in his memory. (The Fox Motor Group is matching his donation.) “I try to stay positive and hope another opportunity comes around. I’m still living a dream in the sense that I always wanted to be able to play hockey professionally. I feel very fortunate -- but I still want to play at the next level.
“This is my time.” Lamothe signed with the Detroit organization after making a favorable impression with Hamilton during the Calder Cup playoffs last season. He took the Bulldogs within one game of the finals.
“I knew coming into training camp that I was competing for a job with the defending Stanley Cup champions,” he says. “I knew the situation, but I was very eager for the opportunity. My main objective was to make a favorable first impression and show the management that I could play.” He was recalled twice in early December to serve as a backup to Curtis Joseph while Manny Legace was sidelined with an injury. He didn’t see any game action, but he was dressed on the Detroit bench for a few games.
“It was still a great experience,” he says. “I’m hoping the second half will give me another chance to play. I’m only a heartbeat away, but on the other hand, something unfortunate will have to happen for me to get that opportunity.” He is more than happy to play for the Griffins. If he’s not playing for the Red Wings, he would like nothing better than to make it all the way to the finals this season and bring the Calder Cup trophy to West Michigan.
“We have a very strong team in Grand Rapids with a great coaching staff and a great bunch of guys,” he says. “So far things have played out very well. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”