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Top 100 Goalies: No. 92 — Ilya Bryzgalov

‘Bryz’ remains the quirkiest of the goalie fraternity, but as a Coyote he was no joke.

It’s time to play the Ilya Bryzgalov Word Association Game. Quick, select the phrase that matches him best:

“Stanley Cup winner.”

“Vezina Trophy runner-up.”

“Humungous big.”

We all know the answer is “Humungous big.” Bryzgalov holds the Arizona Coyotes’ single-season wins record at 42. He’s third among all Russian goaltenders in NHL career games, wins and shutouts. He finished top-10 in the league in save percentage three times. Yet his off-ice exploits dwarf anything he accomplished wearing a mask and pads.

Bryzgalov was already a top-shelf goalie by the time HBO camera crews arrived in the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room to film the hit 24/7 series during 2011-12, but it wasn’t until then he became a real fan favorite. He ranted on the “humungous big” solar system, described his pet husky as a “hot girl” and mused on philosophy. He was the show’s runaway star. The world finally got to know the real Ilya Bryzgalov, one of the funniest, oddest people to play pro hockey.

So many goalies are known for their intensity, and while Bryzgalov focused as hard as anyone once the puck dropped, he never fit the typical mold of aloof, perma-focused netminder. He was always easygoing about playing hockey dating back to his childhood in Russia. His family’s TV only had two channels, so he couldn’t watch many Soviet League games. His best way to enjoy the sport was to play it, and since he was the youngest, the other neighborhood kids stuck him in net during street games.

He got his first taste of the game when he witnessed an older team practising in an arena and asked the coach if he could play. The coach invited him to take the ice the next day. Bryzgalov scrambled home and grabbed the only gear he could find in his house: a pair of speed skates. He could barely stand when he arrived to practice the next day, but he impressed the coach with his natural puck-stopping ability and earned an invite to join the team.

“For the first couple weeks, I didn’t have a glove, so I used just a mitten to catch the puck, but it was exciting,” Bryzgalov said. “It wasn’t scary. We were eight years old, you know? We had no composite sticks around that time. Just wooden sticks. There were no curves. Basically, the majority of the shots were on the ice. But that’s how I became a goalie.”

The Anaheim Ducks drafted Bryzgalov 44th overall in 2000. Once he arrived with the team after a few years of AHL seasoning, he blew away his teammates with his raw, seemingly effortless skill. “If you picture a goalie, this is what you’re looking for,” said Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whom Bryzgalov backed up on the Cup-winning 2007 Ducks team. “He was 6-foot-3, made saves under pressure, had the full package. He was just a natural. It’s something I had to work really hard at being, the goalie I became, and it was very taxing every day, whereas ‘Bryz’ could show up and just play and be himself, and it was easy for him. I’m sure it wasn’t, but it looked easy for him.”

The Anaheim version of Bryzgalov, still in his early 20s, didn’t speak much English, so while his teammates could tell he was a funny guy, they didn’t get to know him well. He showed flashes of immense talent, particularly filling in for Giguere when a family emergency pulled him away for multiple games early in the 2007 playoffs, but Bryzgalov didn’t truly blossom until the Coyotes claimed him on waivers the ensuing fall. Working with goalie coach Sean Burke, Bryzgalov enjoyed the best seasons of his career, with a .917 save percentage and two top-10 finishes in Vezina Trophy voting over a four-year span.

By the time Day 1 of 24/7’s filming schedule arrived in fall 2011, Bryzgalov, traded to the Flyers, had learned English well enough to unlock his personality. He spawned YouTube clips and memes galore with his thoughts on the universe. And he caused a ripple in the Flyers dressing room. “Life changed, and not in a good a way, inside the team,” he said. “Outside in the public, people loved it, because they saw the players in a different way, not like regularly. After the game, interviews, it’s all how bad or how good we are, how could we be better. Every day it’s a routine. Everyone is tired. In 24/7 they see the players from a different side. ‘Oh, they are interested in something different.’ For example, I am interested in the cosmos, how it was created, how space works.

“When the show came up, (coach) Peter Laviolette comes to me and says, ‘You steal the show.’ And probably he was a little bit upset. I don’t know, man. I have a different view on many things than different people have, and that sometimes plays a big role against me.”

As Bryzgalov became increasingly famous, some accused him of being a distraction. When he learned he was benched for the 2012 Winter Classic, he told reporters, “The great news is I’m not playing, and the better news is we have a chance to win the game.” He tweeted a picture of the thermos he planned to drink from on the bench. His play declined the next season, and he was done as an NHL starter by the end of 2012-13.

While fans love Bryzgalov’s personality, did his jester antics destroy people’s appreciation for how he played? “There are probably people that think that, but people that knew him, that played with him in his prime, could tell you how good he was,” Giguere said. “When you have a goalie that talented, you’re willing to deal with quirkiness, because the quirkiness was only that. It wasn’t something that was a detriment or bad for team spirit.”

Bryzgalov doesn’t take any offense to the idea he’ll be remembered more for his personality than his puck-stopping. He welcomes it. He knows in his heart how hard he worked, even if it didn’t come across that way, and he takes joy in interacting with fans who embrace him for showcasing his personality and interests.

Bryzgalov, 38, sees entertainment as part of the responsibility of being a professional athlete. That’s why he’s a massive fan of P.K. Subban.“We’re in a business,” Bryzgalov said. “We’re in a show. A show, it’s supposed to entertain the people. When you come to a concert to see the artist perform, you don’t want to see him emotionless and just play the songs, right? You want to see his passion, his emotions. He gets involved with the crowd. It’s how you see them and he sees you. Just let the players be themselves.”

That’s what Bryzgalov gets to do today. When he’s not at home in Russia taking his kids to school and teaching his son how to tend goal, he’s travelling with The Players’ Tribune, doing interviews at NHL events, ribbing athletes and generally being his goofball self on camera. He connects with players in a way journalists can’t and, in doing so, can push his agenda of wanting NHLers to open up and grow their popularity. Perhaps even become “humungous big.” 

Born: June 22, 1980, Togliatti, USSR
NHL Career: 2001-15
Teams: Ana, Phx, Phi, Edm, Min
Stats: 221-162-54, 2.58 GAA, .912 SP, 34 SO
All-Star: 1 (Second-1)
Stanley Cups: 1

DID YOU KNOW?

Bryzgalov’s famous husky, Mila, no longer lives with him. His mother-in-law lives alone in Russia and wanted some company, so he sent Mila to live with her a few years ago, which had the added bonus of giving Mila more space to frolic in the snow. Bryzgalov has a new personal pet: a cat named Vasiya. “He’s very famous and popular on Instagram,” Bryzgalov said. “We post some pictures. He’s got more followers than I do. I’m sometimes even jealous. I say, ‘Hey Vasiya, how come?’ He’s sleeping right now. He’s a very nice cat, too. He likes chicken.”

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