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The Leaf: Blueprint Episode 3, a tale of goaltenders

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The Leafs say this episode is about opportunity; I say it's about loneliness.

"Confidence is fleeting. As a coach you try to put them into the right situation so that they feel good about who they are." Mike Babcock's words open this episode of The Leaf: Blueprint, and you know right away that the episode is about a difficult situation. This story arc is the tale of goaltenders. Just as Babcock foreshadows, it covers Jonathan Bernier's breakdown in confidence, James Reimer's regained confidence (and injury), and Garret Sparks' new-found confidence that drives his first NHL start.

Because goaltenders are so central to the life of a team (emphasized by Babcock's words after Bernier's loss to the Washington Capitals, "You can't give up 4 in the NHL and win, it's just impossible. If the puck's going in your net, you probably should sink."), the arc goes back farther than it does for the two other episodes. It begins with Reimer's story of the draft, when he was drafted 99th overall to the Maple Leafs in 2006, and ends with "the passing of the baton."

I can't help staring at this message with squinty eyes, trying to decode what's said -- and in the case of this episode, what's not said. In the same 2006 draft, Bernier goes to the LA Kings. The story that's told is not Bernier's, however. His is not a complicated tale of redemption -- yet -- because this time, it's Reimer's, and then it's Sparks'.

Why is this not Bernier's story? Perhaps it's because his heroic tale is still in the dark middle, and has not yet trended upward enough to give the viewers that necessary glimmer of hope that Leafs fans long for. Bernier is given exactly one line, and it's his words after he loses a tough game to the Caps: "I know a lot of guys who have been through it, you've got to find a way on your own to get out of it." His words speak of the loneliness of the position, just as Reimer's words speak of their fierce competition for the starter role -- which is a game within a game, and one in which your own team competes against you.

In contrast, Sparks' words are all about connection and community, and the feeling of support that gives him strength as he enters the NHL crease for the first time. After Sparks hears he'll get the first start, he says he returned to his apartment, and "All my buddies from the Marlies were there playing video games. It was just a normal day....It was cool to know that my first start was such an inspiration to so many people....Everybody was hoping it went well for me. I didn't really worry about it from there."

There are no firm conclusions to this three-part goaltender dance, but you get the feeling that this is the central drama of the hockey team. If hockey is about putting pucks into nets, the goaltender is the alpha and the omega. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that the "money quote" for the whole series is given to a goaltender:

"Before there was always a blueprint," says Reimer, "and they were always making tweaks, you know, tweaks to the blueprint. This time I think we really want to create a different culture. Your teammate is going to pull his weight, and you're going to pull yours, and when you do that, win or lose, you have a good feeling, because you're working with integrity."

I left this episode feeling melancholy, like Bernier's unspoken, lonely, isolated angst. Who loves the goaltender in disgrace? We still do, Bernier! Speak up -- in the words of Garret Sparks, what gives a goaltender confidence is the feeling of connection and belief from your community of friends.

(Find my previous two musings on The Leaf: Blueprint here and here.)