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Even Keel

03/13/2002 1:46 PM - Avid angler Wade Flaherty is unflappable in the net for the Utah Grizzlies.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

Goaltender Wade Flaherty has been fishing long enough to know that you don’t rock the boat if you don’t want to make waves.

He has navigated between being a workhorse and a backup throughout a 13-year professional career that has seen him drop anchor in NHL stops such as San Jose, New York, Tampa Bay and Florida.

Flaherty played consecutive 60-plus game seasons in the IHL with the Kansas City Blades before being teamed with such notable NHL netminders as Tommy Salo, Felix Potvin and Arturs Irbe. There have been times when he sat the bench long enough to feel like paint.

“It’s just the way it goes,” he says. “I’m not going to bang my head against the wall and yell and scream about it. I’m not one to knock on the door and ask the coach why I’m not playing.”

Talk to Flaherty for a few minutes and you will be convinced that there isn’t a more good-natured goaltender out there. Of course, he’s doesn’t buy the idea that goalies don’t have both oars in the water. “Goaltenders are the normal ones,” he says, smiling. “Everyone else are the weirdos.”

His easy-going personality might be traced to having grown up in northern British Columbia, an area where ice hockey and king salmon ruled, a peaceful place where tranquil ponds offered a respite from the day’s troubles.

“You’d come home from school and put on the skates and mom would have to drag you into the house for dinner,” Flaherty says. “You never took your skates off because you ate dinner really quick and you’d be right back out the door until it was dark.

“My dad always built a little rink out in the backyard for us and we had the floodlights going until it was bedtime. Sometimes we’d even try to get out and skate in the morning before school.”

Flaherty had two older brothers, Mark and Brent, who were more than happy to make him target practice. “When I was younger, I couldn’t skate very well, so I’d stand in goal with the pads and they’d shoot soft pucks at me.”

The pucks got harder over the years, but Flaherty got better at stopping them. He was good enough to get drafted in the ninth round of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, but had to spend three years in the IHL proving himself.

He was the No. 1 guy in Kansas City, but much of his time in the NHL has been as a backup. “I think I can handle both situations well,” he says. “Obviously you want to play every game, but the coach makes the decisions and you live with them.”

Even so, there’s no hesitation about Flaherty’s preference.

“Being the workhorse is easier,” he says. “When you’re playing every night, you get into a rhythm and everything comes naturally. You know you have the confidence of the coaches. If you let in a bad one, you know they’re not going to second guess you.”

As a backup, it’s a different story. “If you’re only playing once out of every three or four games and all of a sudden you let in a soft one, you’re thinking ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ It’s harder in practice too. You have to really concentrate. You try to turn everything into a game situation.”

Rocker Tom Petty isn’t a goaltender, but he knew something when he sang “the waiting is the hardest part.” There are few worse things for a netminder than feeling rusty.

“As a backup, you never know when you’re going to play,” Flaherty says. “I’ve been there, so I feel for guys in that position. Not only do you have to keep yourself mentally prepared, but you’ve got to do extra work to keep yourself in game shape. So you do the workouts, you ride the bike.”

During games on the bench, Flaherty keeps his mind sharp by studying shooters.

“I watch the power play where a lot of things just develop. You see a guy’s natural instincts. You make mental notes. You study the stats. A guy with a lot of assists is probably going to pass more than shoot.” His research has helped hone his goaltending style. You might say Flaherty is an “angler.”

“I try to work on my angles and take away as much of the net as I can,” he says. “I try to put myself in a position to make every save. I try to stay back. I try not to overchallenge. If they’re going to score, they have to come to you eventually.”

In other words, it’s all about patience. Flaherty contends one of the NHL’s best in that department is Phoenix goatender Sean Burke. “He used to be more aggressive, but now he stays right in his crease. He’s there for everything.”

Fishing has taught Flaherty more than a little about patience. Every summer he spends some time fishing back home, heading out into the Pacific Ocean inside the Queen Charlotte Islands near Prince Rupert.

“I take the time to go fishing a week here, a week there, but other than that, I’m in the gym -- especially at my age,” says Flaherty, 34. “The game has changed to the point where it’s a 12-month job.”

Speaking of jobs, Flaherty is still uncertain about his plans after his playing days are over. He still has another year on his contract with the Florida Panthers and he would like to continue playing as long as he can.

One thing’s for certain, he has no plans on becoming a fishing guide.

“When I was younger, I thought it would be fun to be a guide,” Flaherty says. “But I enjoy fishing too much now. I have enough pressure playing hockey. I don’t want to have to take out paying customers and think I have to catch them fish.

” Fishing is even more special to Flaherty now that he and his wife Carmie have a family. He jokes that his kids -- daughter Jordyn, 4, and 18-month-old son, Gavin -- have cut into his fishing time, but he can’t hide his true feelings.

“I think it’s the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “I think being a father is fantastic.”

He’s already taken his daughter fishing -- “She even caught her first fish: a little trout,” he says -- and it won’t be more than a couple of years before he’s lacing up skates for his son. And teaching him how to reel in the opposition and stop the shooter cold -- hook, line and sinker.

Sometimes Flaherty wonders whether he isn’t luckier at fishing than he is at hockey.

Flaherty, who has landed a 60-pound king salmon, has endured his share of injuries in recent years, the kind that have probably prevented him from becoming a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

He was battling Irbe for playing time in San Jose when he took a shot off his shoulder in practice and cracked his collarbone. He was poised for a pivotal year with the New York Islanders when he blew out his shoulder, again in practice.

“Injuries are part of the game, but it’s frustrating when they’re long term,” he says. “A little groin strain that keeps you out for a couple of days is no big deal, but it’s frustrating when it’s longer.”

Flaherty pulled a back muscle earlier this season, then missed 10 games with a groin injury. Even so, he has had a solid year with Utah, ranking among the AHL leaders in wins, goals against average and save percentage.

“For a goaltender to be successful, he has to have success out in front of him,” says Flaherty, who modestly points out that hockey is a team game. “There are nights when a goalie steals a game, but I don’t think a goalie can do that night after night.”

Flaherty proved his mettle in the first round of the 1995 Stanley Cup playoffs when he faced 60 shots in game seven, making 56 saves in a double-overtime win against Calgary. Of course, there have been other nights that he would rather forget.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re fighting the puck,” he says. “You don’t feel good, but you’ve got to fight that feeling. You’ve got to reverse those ideas in your brain.”

He remains hopeful that his strong play this season will earn him another nibble at the NHL. “Everyone wants to play in the National Hockey League and I’m no different,” he says. “You keep doing what you do and try to get yourself back there.”



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