Streaker

The rise and fall -- and rise and fall -- of Phoenix Coyotes record-breaking goalie

Even the son of Gretzky wanted to meet Brian Boucher.

So, on Valentine's Day, after the Phoenix Coyotes had beaten the Dallas Stars, Wayne, part-owner of the Coyotes and the best hockey player ever, brought his three-year-old, Tristan, with him to the locker room of the brand-new arena. But Boucher (pronounced "BOO-shay") wasn't around.

"Is Boucher okay?" Wayne asked of the 27-year old goalie.

Brian Boucher on the night the shutout streak began, December 31, 2003.
Photo Curtesy of the Phoenix Coyotes
Brian Boucher on the night the shutout streak began, December 31, 2003.
Boucher makes one of his 21 saves against the Montreal 
Canadiens March 5.  The Coyotes would lose, however, 
4-3.
Emily Piraino
Boucher makes one of his 21 saves against the Montreal Canadiens March 5. The Coyotes would lose, however, 4-3.

Gretzky was told Boucher was fine -- simply washing up.

Tristan didn't like that.

So word was sent out that Tristan Gretzky wanted to meet Brian Boucher. Within moments, Boucher reappeared, still needing a shower, still in the blue sweat pants and long-sleeve tee shirt he wore beneath his pads.

"All right," Wayne said, looking at Tristan, "What do you say to Boosh? Say good game."

But Tristan said nothing. He just stared. Wayne grew frustrated and told Boucher that Tristan wanted to see him in his mask.

Boucher put the mask on. And then it happened, something as improbable as a shutout streak from a Coyote goalie. You could see it in Tristan's eyes: He, the son of Wayne Gretzky, was in complete awe of Brian Boucher.

It was the fearsome mask, painted like a brick wall, for the three-year-old. Or maybe, as for Tristan's dad -- the Great One -- it was the streak.

Just a month earlier, Boucher had gone five games without allowing a goal, making him -- at least for the moment -- the Tiger Woods of hockey. Boucher's record could last as long as Joe DiMaggio's 1941 56-game hitting streak. After all, the record stood for 55 years before Boucher broke it in mid-January.

After the streak, people wanted to know the man behind the mask. What was Boucher like, this sudden superstar? What was he thinking?

Well, to know Boucher is to know this: He doesn't enjoy telling people what he's like. He doesn't want the attention. He'll tell you that up front, the first time you meet him. And he'll also say, in the days following the streak, that he's relieved the pressure is over, that people are finally talking about something else.

Boucher is a private person. He denied New Times' repeated requests to interview his wife, his father, to see his house, to meet his son. Over the course of a month, after every home game and practice, Boucher capped his interviews at 20 minutes. After that, he'd seek treatment for his joints, or head out for lunch, or head home to his family -- alone.

"It's tough for anyone to get inside Brian's head," says Bryan Berard, Boucher's best friend, who's now a defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks.

This is not to say that Boucher's rude. He's courteous and thoughtful and funny -- he can be very funny -- and not at all like so many athletes today. Which is to say he's humble.

This season's humbled him for sure.

It couldn't have started off worse. The Coyotes put him up for grabs at the start of the year; all another team had to do was match his $2 million salary. (That's not the highest in the National Hockey League, but it's not bad, either.) When no other team wanted him, Phoenix kept Boucher, but demoted him to the bottom of the heap, as third-string goalie. He went weeks without practicing with the team. Then back-up goalie Zac Bierk pulled his groin. With time, Boucher saw more minutes, made more starts.

And then he broke NHL Hall of Famer Bill Durnan's 55-year-old record.

And then he went 13 games without a win, as of presstime.

As quickly as he rose to prominence, Boucher has fallen. With the season one game from complete at press time, it's easy to judge Boucher's streak as a fluke.

But that's not right. Brian Boucher is a good goalie, at times the best goalie in the NHL. He's a first-round draft pick who, in 2000, became the first rookie in 50 years to allow fewer than two goals a game. In fact his 1.91 GAA -- or goals-against average, which means how many goals a contest Boucher allowed -- was the best in the league that rookie year. Boucher led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 while John Vanbiesbrouck, a former Goalie of the Year winner, sat on the bench.

That Flyers team in 2000 had talent. This Coyotes team in 2004 does not. And that's one reason Boucher has struggled since the streak: Hockey is, after all, a team sport.

But it's not the only reason.

Throughout his career on the ice, even as a teenager, Brian Boucher has had lapses in confidence.

"His biggest battle is with himself," says Coyotes head coach Rick Bowness, who took over the team on February 24 after Bobby Francis was fired during the midst of the Coyotes' -- and Boucher's -- woes.

One day in early March, Boucher stops to talk after practice. His team has gone seven games without a win. "I'd like to think [my confidence] is still there," he says. "But it's a battle. You start questioning yourself after goals. Could you have done something differently? You're thinking rather than just reacting and playing."

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