Maurice Richard felt it. Jean Beliveau felt it. Guy Lafleur felt it. Patrick Roy felt it. And, no joke, Jose Theodore felt it walking the streets of Montreal. In the early 2000s, he was the city’s new prince, a Francophone superstar playing for the bleu, blanc et rouge. He was the greatest player on Earth, the third goalie to win the Vezina Trophy as the best at his position and the Hart Trophy as league MVP in the same year. So why didn’t it last? Why didn’t he go on to a Hall of Fame career? It’s complicated.
First things first: nothing about Theodore’s ascension was fluky. He was a hyped prospect, a second-round pick who backstopped Canada to world junior gold in 1996. Born in Laval, Que., and a Habs season ticket holder, he had intimate knowledge of the media pressure associated with being a Montreal Canadien. None of it fazed him. He had never known anything else. “It’s part of your lifestyle,” he said. “You know that if you go out, you’ll get asked to take pictures and sign autographs, but for me it was a big plus. Back then, you didn’t have social media, so when I went out in public, it was the time I could give back to the community and fans. I enjoyed it. I never walked away.”
Theodore’s bust-out moment was a 56-save, triple-overtime victory in relief of Jocelyn Thibault in the 1997 playoffs opposite Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. Theodore was just 20. He had some of the best backup goalie stats in the league by the time he was 23, he became a workhorse starter by 24 and his epic MVP season came at 25.
As Theodore explains, it was a logical progression. He was in tremendous shape, and his confidence level was “at the max.” Revisionist history may talk of “that one crazy Jose Theodore season,” but it wasn’t an out-of-nowhere success story at the time. Well, not until you consider Theodore singlehandedly lifted a largely mediocre Canadiens team into the 2002 playoffs.
The Habs squeaked in with a measly 87 points and had the league’s 19th-ranked offense, with no 30-goal scorer. “There were so many nights that you could see all the highlights of goaltenders making great saves, but it just seemed like he was doing that on a consistent basis, whereas some goaltenders did it once a year,” said Craig Rivet, a minute-munching defenseman on the 2001-02 Canadiens. “You can’t imagine some of the saves he made. It was just unbelievable.”
Theodore’s .931 save percentage led the NHL. According to hockey-reference.com’s “point share” stat, which factors in how many points a player’s performance earned relative to his teammates, Theodore’s number, 17.40, gave him the seventh-most influential season ever by a goaltender.
Technically, Theodore’s career went downhill after that. He never won a major award again and never amassed a Hall of Fame resume. What changed for Theodore? Was it the playboy lifestyle? There was the infamous photo of him partying with the Hells Angels, but that probably wouldn’t explain a decline in play, as Theodore was known for being a hard worker and meticulous trainer.
A more logical explanation was he spent too many of his prime years on subpar teams. “I’m not sure if the Canadiens organization and management put the product on the ice to help Jose be successful,” Rivet said. “He had an unbelievable season for one year where he did things that were mind-boggling. But that organization had a very tough time attracting other top-end players around the league. And believe me, it was not from lack of trying. There was just a lot of people who chose not to come to Montreal because of the pressure. And the way he played in that 2001 season, I don’t care who you are, there’s no goalie that would be able to do that year in and year out.”
Did Theodore crack from trying to live up to an all-time great season? He does admit he yearned to duplicate his 2001-02, but he’s also quick to defend the rest of his career. He points out he played in his second All-Star Game two years later. How many people remember Theodore logged 67 games with a 2.27 GAA, .919 SP and six shutouts in 2003-04? That’s a star-caliber performance. He got some MVP votes that year. He also found gainful employment in Colorado, Washington, Minnesota and Florida.
In a sense, Theodore’s 2009-10 season with Washington matched his 2001-02 campaign. Theodore went 30-7-7 that season. He won the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication, not simply because he had such a resurgent season at 33, but also because he played with the heaviest of hearts. His son Chace, born prematurely, passed away before the season.
Theodore would never be the same, but he found the courage to carry on and be an impact player. He always prided himself on his resiliency and still does today when he looks back on a career full of sky-high peaks and dark valleys. “It’s almost as rewarding when you bounce back from a bad situation and you show your mental strength,” he said. “That was a big part of my career, playing 16 years. I wasn’t the biggest guy, but I would always try to work as hard as anybody, and in my mind I believed I was the best, so mental strength played a big part for me.”
That fortitude has translated to Theodore’s post-playing life. His strong personality launched a broadcasting career, and he halted it this past summer on his own terms over a contract dispute. He compared the negotiations to what he experienced as a player, and he calls his breakup with TVA Sports “a matter of principle.” He’s not done speaking his mind on his favorite subject, however, now writing weekly for Le Journal De Montreal.
When Theodore, now 42, speaks, a genuine confidence shines through. He reflects on his accomplishments joyfully. He doesn’t view himself as a shooting star that fizzled. He couldn’t be prouder of what he did on the ice.
Born: Sept. 13, 1976, Laval, Que.
NHL Career: 1996-2013
Teams: Mtl, Col, Wsh, Min, Fla
Stats: 286-254-69, 2.68 GAA, .909 SP, 33 SO
All-Star: 1 (First-1)
Trophies: 2 (Hart-1, Vezina-1)
DID YOU KNOW?
Theodore tested positive for a banned substance in a 2006 pre-Olympic drug test: the hair restoration drug Propecia, which doubles as a masking agent for the steroid nandrolone, which builds muscle bulk. It was an innocent mistake, as Theodore had used the product for years with permission from the Habs’ team doctor. Two years later, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed hair-loss medications from its banned list.