BY KEVIN GLEW
Rick St. Croix is proof not even a saint could save those abysmal Maple Leaf teams of the early 1980s.
The goaltender nicknamed ‘The Saint’ gave the Leafs everything he had after he was acquired by the club in January, 1983. But for a netminder who had been successful at every level, it was difficult for St. Croix to deal with the regularity of the losses.
“There was a stretch there (with the Leafs) for about two months that I thought I was playing the best hockey of my career, but I was losing and I couldn’t understand that,” St. Croix recalled. “Part of me was saying, ‘Oh, that was an awesome game. But we lost 4-2.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to play harder. I’ve got to try harder. I’ve got to work harder.’ I was just burning myself out.”
Now 53 and a highly respected goalie coach, St. Croix realizes sometimes goaltenders can play well and their team still loses.
“Everything is about perspective,” said the Kenora, Ont., native. “I think the best goalies are the ones who keep things on an even keel and keep their performance in a range that’s pretty darn consistent.”
The Saint now imparts this type of wisdom to his students and in his role as goalie coach with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
His mentoring role is similar to the one his older brother, Vic, served for him when he was growing up. St. Croix first donned the pads when he was six years old and thanks largely to his elder sibling, he was playing in the Manitoba Junior League when he was 14.
“He (Vic) suggested things to me and I listened attentively and I guess he saw some potential,” St. Croix said. “When he gets into things, he’s very focused; that’s his nature,”
After three Junior-A seasons with his hometown Kenora Muskies, St. Croix toiled for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. It was in Oshawa he first contemplated an NHL career.
“I was really naïve,” he recalled. “It wasn’t probably until halfway through the first year in Oshawa when I watched Rick Middleton do some things on the ice and I remember saying to myself, ‘This must be where NHL players come from.’ ”
The Philadelphia Flyers selected St. Croix in the fourth round (72nd overall) of the 1975 NHL draft. The ambitious netminder was in his third season with the Flyers organization when he made his NHL debut Feb. 16, 1978 at The Spectrum against the Minnesota North Stars.
“They played the Rocky theme song,” he recalled of his debut. “I’ll never forget that. I’m going down the runway and they’re playing that song and I had tears in my eyes.”
St. Croix would play most of the next two campaigns with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in Maine, prior to cracking the Flyers roster for good in 1980-81. Sharing time with Pete Peeters, St. Croix appeared in 27 games and led the league in save percentage.
“We had a strong team and I think (coach) Pat Quinn kind of nurtured me along that season, because we had three goalies for awhile and then down to two,” he recalled. “For me, I was feeling good about my game, feeling good about myself. My confidence was high and that was a year I’ll never forget.”
He appeared in 29 games the following season with the Flyers, before being dealt to the Leafs in January 1983. He spent parts of three seasons with the bottom-feeding Buds.
After retiring following the 1985-86 campaign, St. Croix returned to Kenora and sold real estate for a year, before serving as the goalie coach with the Winnipeg Jets for two seasons.
He was later recruited to a similar post with the Dallas Stars and collected a 1999 Stanley Cup ring while working with Ed Belfour, Marty Turco, Manny Fernandez and Roman Turek.
“They (Dallas) had such an incredible stable of goalies,” St. Croix reflected. “I was just shaking my head saying, ‘The guys that are involved in picking their goalies have done an unbelievable job.’ ”
In addition to his coaching duties, he was also running goalie schools in Canada and the U.S. He still operates his school out of Winnipeg, but also performs sessions in Minnesota and Thunder Bay.
Despite St. Croix’s dedication to goaltending, none of his children have become netminders. Living in Winnipeg with his wife, Michelle, for close to 20 years now, the couple has four children. Their oldest son, Chris, is a defenseman who’s now playing pro hockey in Germany. Michael, their youngest son, is a highly touted forward who’s eligible for this year’s Western League draft.
Their youngest daughter, Richelle plays defense and just finished a four-year hockey scholarship at Minnesota State University and their eldest daughter, Courtney, is a physiotherapist who’s now completing her law degree at the University of Manitoba.
When he’s not at the rink or following the careers of his children, St. Croix also retails and wholesales Christmas trees.
“For me, sometimes hockey felt insecure,” he said of the necessity for his Christmas tree business. “It was always a backup for me.”
But hockey has been good to St. Croix and he has fond memories of his playing career.
“There were obviously some great moments and some tough times,” he said. “But life has its ups and downs and I’m very grateful for what they all brought.”
That’s just the kind of perspective you would expect from a saint.