Before anybody starts feeling sorry for Manny Legace – the veteran goalie who was snubbed supremely by the St. Louis Blues and now, from the buses of the American League, watches his former team charge toward the playoffs – they should understand something.
The guy never has had the red carpet of life rolled out for him. For virtually his entire hockey career, he’s been dissed, dismissed, doubted and degraded. Even the person who engraved his name on the Stanley Cup engraved his surname as ‘Lagace’.
But like the famous movie producer Robert Evans, the kid has found a way to stay in the picture.
“You get used to it,” Legace told THN.com. “It’s been that way my whole life. ‘He’s too fat, he’s too small, he’s too this or that.’ So you get used to having to prove yourself every day. And that’s fine with me; that’s made me a better person and a better goalie.”
After proving himself over six years with the Detroit Red Wings, Legace thought he had found a home when he signed a three-year contract with St. Louis in 2006. For the first two years, it seemed like he had; although the Blues were rebuilding almost from scratch, Legace amassed a 50-40-13 record, .909 save percentage, 2.48 goals-against average and 10 shutouts.
And this year, when nobody thought St. Louis had a chance – especially after cornerstone defenseman Erik Johnson was lost for the season thanks to a freak off-ice injury during training camp – Legace still had a 13-9-2 mark out of the gate.
But following a sub-par game against his former Red Wings team in February, Legace was blindsided when the Blues waived him and assigned him to the franchise’s AHL affiliate in Peoria a few days after his 36th birthday.
“I was just shocked,” Legace said. “I had two solid years on bad hockey clubs and then they get rid of me. I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way this is happening right now.’
“I wasn’t playing my best, but it wasn’t like I was awful every single night. The coaching staff wanted to make a change and that’s the way it went. It wasn’t my decision, but I don’t know how you go from playing every game to playing in the minors.”
The sting of not being wanted wasn’t entirely new to the Toronto native. But he struggled with being scapegoated by a team that suffered a slew of injuries to key players.
“First we lost Erik Johnson, then we lost Paul Kariya, then we lose Andy Mac(Donald) for three months, then we lost (Eric) Brewer, then we lost (Patrik) Berglund, then we lost (T.J.) Oshie,” Legace said. “We had something like 10 guys hurt in three months.
“It wasn’t like I was a bad guy in the (dressing) room. It was a lot of things rolled up into one and both sides handled it very bad. And then the coaching staff just didn’t want me around. But I was the guy who held all the team parties and planned the trips. I loved being around the guys.”
The demotion was at first difficult for Legace to handle. But his wife, Gi, set him straight.
“When they sent me down, I was just livid,” Legace admitted. “But my wife put me in the right mindset. She told me, ‘You’re going to a team that has nothing to do with your situation right now; you have to go down there and play for them and not be bitter and not sulk.’
“And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Why should this team have to pay for what I’m going through? I’m going to go down there and have fun.’ ”
To his credit, that’s exactly what Legace has done since joining Peoria; he has posted a 13-7-1 mark, 2.00 GAA and .934 save percentage with the Rivermen and led the team from the fringes of the playoff race to second place in the AHL’s West Division.
“It’s been a blast the last month-and-a-half,” said Legace, who mentored Blues goalie prospect Ben Bishop in Peoria for a few weeks before the NHL team recalled the rookie in March. “I really enjoyed working with Bishop and the guys have been fantastic in front of me. Hopefully we have a long playoff run ahead of us.”
More impressive than any stats Legace has put up with Peoria is the fact he was able to put them up while (a) St. Louis management refused to put him on recallable waivers and open up an opportunity for him with another NHL team; and (b) the Blues went on an amazing run that has made them a good bet to make the playoffs.
Lesser men might have been distracted by either unfortunate situation. But bogging himself down with “what-ifs” and “poor me” talk never has been Legace’s thing.
In fact, he’s happy to see the success of Chris Mason – “He’s a great guy,” Legace said of the goalie who replaced him as St. Louis’ starter – as well as the Blues’ unexpected surge in the standings.
“Maybe I put the fear of God into (the Blues players),” Legace said. “You know, ‘anybody could be sent down’ – because they’ve been playing phenomenal ever since. I’ve watched their games and thought, ‘Why didn’t they play like that when I was there?’
“I figured I could’ve been helping some team that was headed to the playoffs, even as a backup. But the Blues just chose not to put me back on waivers; they had the right not to do that and I can’t control that. All I can do is play my best and be as good for my organization as possible.”
No matter where he plays, Legace will bring the same lighthearted nature that’s endeared him to so many over the years.
“It’s still so much fun to come to the rink,” said Legace, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. “I can’t complain about having this job for a living, especially the way the economy is going.
“Next year I’ll be with a different organization and I’ll get to do the same thing. The thought is to get a one-year deal – and I hope some team will allow me to fight for a starting job.”
That’s Manny Legace for you. Dude’s a natural-born fighter disguised as a goalie.
“Getting the chance to compete on the ice and battle is all I’ve ever wanted,” he said. “I’m not at the start of my career anymore, but I know I’m still up for it.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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