NHL 99: Carey Price seeks to redefine what it means to win, on and off the ice

Welcome to NHL99The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.

What could wind up being one of the last saves of Carey Price’s career was notable because it was so spectacular, and therefore unusual.

In the third period of the Montreal Canadiens’ final game of the 2021-22 season, with his team up 8-1 on the Florida Panthers, Price’s former teammate Ben Chiarot let go of a shot from the slot labeled for the far corner. Price flung his trapper out and caught the puck before proceeding to do a big windmill with it, applying not only mustard, but also ketchup and relish on what was already a good save in a meaningless game.

Price looked at Chiarot and flashed him a smile. He was having fun with it.

But saves like these are not what made Price one of the best goaltenders of his generation. It was the lack of saves like these that did that; his ability to make difficult saves look easy, his silky smooth mobility within his crease that made it so he was often in position before the puck even arrived, allowing it to hit him and land harmlessly in front of him where he could immediately cover it up.

His rebound control was pinpoint accurate, rarely resulting in a second chance opportunity for his opponent. Once at practice for Team Canada during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, assistant coach Bill Peters was concerned that he didn’t have enough pucks for the next drill while standing in the corner next to Price’s net. When Price learned of Peters’ predicament while doing the current drill in progress, he steered the next seven or eight shots he faced directly into Peters’ corner of the ice.

“Do you have enough now?” Price asked Peters.

What defined Price, what made him unique, was his ability to make the difficult look simple, the impossible look mundane. It is why every teammate he’s ever had has always marveled at his calm demeanor in net, and why every opponent he’s ever faced seemed intimidated by that same demeanor.

Whereas Dominik Hasek used his athleticism to flop all over his crease and perform miracles, Price used his to make it seem like he wasn’t even trying.

“That is a byproduct of, ever since I was a kid, my dad always preached that you’re trying to eliminate unnecessary movements out there, to be as efficient as possible,” Price said. “So ever since I was a kid, that’s kind of been my mindset. Yeah, you’re going to put a little bit of salt and pepper on one on Saturday night, probably. But for the most part, I’ve always just tried to be as efficient as possible.”

Salt and pepper, see, was not the norm. Except when certain occasions called for it. Like that save on Chiarot in Price’s last game, perhaps, of his career.

“Oh yeah, that was jerk chicken, that one,” Price said with a laugh. “We had a good laugh about that after.”

There have been many great goaltenders since Price entered the NHL in 2007, but perhaps none played the most chaotic position in the game with as much calm and as little panic as Carey Price, which is why he comes in at No. 88 on our list of the best players in the modern era of the NHL. It is what set him apart, what made him unique, and what made teammates everywhere feel an unusual sense of confidence in their team’s ability to win that night.

And this was never more evident than during the 2014-15 season, when Price put together one of the greatest goaltending performances in NHL history. He played 66 games that season and allowed more than two goals just 20 times, winning the Hart and Vezina trophies and the Ted Lindsay Award.

“It was a strange confidence,” Canadiens teammate Brendan Gallagher said of playing in front of Price that year. “If you were able to score three goals in a night, you would win. If your power play could score a goal, if you could win special teams, if you could chip in and find a way to score, we were going to win that game.”

But it wasn’t just his Canadiens teammates who felt that. It was also Price’s teammates on one of the most dominant international teams ever put together, the 2014 Canadian team at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Price had a .972 save percentage and 0.59 goals against average in five games.

“That is why he was so good, because he’s so calm and under control in the net,” said Los Angeles Kings defenseman and Sochi teammate Drew Doughty. “You literally never think anything is going to get by him. He’s probably the calmest goalie I played in front of.”

And the impact that calm could have on opponents was intimidating.

Rick Nash, another of Price’s teammates in Sochi, recalled discussing how to beat Price with a teammate on the bench. Based on Nash’s experience of having seemingly perfect shots, shots that felt unstoppable when they left his stick, die somewhere on Price’s chest pad, he suggested that the most efficient way to beat Price was to fan on your shot.

“Carey almost knew where you were going to shoot it,” Nash said. “So how’s he supposed to know where you’re shooting if even you don’t know where you’re shooting? Sometimes if you don’t know where you’re going, that’s the best way to beat him.”

It could get in your head, the effortlessness of it all.

“He just did everything as close to perfect as perfect can get,” said Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn, another teammate in Sochi. “So technically sound, he’s a great athlete. He didn’t really have too many weaknesses, if any.”

For Price, that effortlessness was a mirage. There was effort behind everything he did, it just wasn’t the kind of effort you could see, because it was happening behind the scenes.

It was happening in his mind.

“I know over the course of my career, like, every player gets nervous. If you don’t, you’re dead,” Price said. “So I don’t know, I think some of it was a conscious decision (to look calm), but it’s also when I’m doing something, I get extremely focused on what I’m doing. … I just am really good at zoning in on a goal and going all in on it.”

Price was never quite as zoned in as he was from 2013-14 to 2016-17, a four-season span where an argument could be made he was the best hockey player in the world.

Over that span, Price’s save percentage was .928, by far the best among goalies who played at least 150 games. The next best save percentage was the .922 put up by Cam Talbot and Sergei Bobrovsky. That is a six-point gap between the best goalie and the next-best goalie. If you work backwards from Talbot and Bobrovsky, there were 19 goalies who fell within the same gap that separated Price and the second-best goalie over that span.

As a point of comparison, Sidney Crosby was the most offensively productive player in the NHL over those four seasons with 362 points, 34 points clear of Patrick Kane in second place. If you work back from Kane, you would have only six players fall within that same 34-point gap.

In terms of separating himself from the pack, what Price did over those years was unmatched.

“He’s had an amazing career,” Crosby said. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being the goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and he handled it well and delivered on all the expectations that were on him.”

The past tense Crosby used there is what Price is trying to cope with.

A debilitating knee injury risks prematurely ending Price’s career. He’s not quite there yet, but Price knows he will need a miracle to avoid this outcome. His career resume is glittered in international gold — World Junior Championship, Olympics, World Cup — but there is a definite lack of silverware. The Stanley Cup is something Price has always wanted, and it doesn’t look like something he will get, at least not as a player.

He came close in 2021 when he led the Canadiens on an improbable run to the final, but in chasing that elusive Cup, Price knowingly put the rest of his career in jeopardy because he had never been so close to his dream. Both he and Shea Weber played through injuries they knew they might never come back from.

“I knew,” Gallagher said. “To what extent, maybe not. But I knew. I don’t know if everyone knew. There are certain times throughout the playoffs where things would slow down, and you’d be alone and they kind of open up and talk to you a little bit. You don’t ask too many questions, but I knew where Pricey was at, and I knew Webby, what he had gone through and that he was at the end as well. I knew it was bad. Pricey, I just knew.”

Price, however, seems to be at peace.

“Well, yeah, it’s something that I wanted to do but I’m also, I think I’m more looking at it from a perspective of I’m very thankful for the career that I had,” Price said. “I had a long career of success. As an athlete, you’re always driven, goal orientated. It’s something that you’ve wanted to achieve your whole life. And it’s like, well, no, it didn’t happen, but on the other side of the coin, a goal of a hockey player is also to play in the NHL. And that’s something that I was really blessed to be able to do for, really, an extraordinary length of time.”

Even though Price might not realize it, he did win.

Except that victory came off the ice.

(Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Price was asked if he remembered the moment from 2021, the one when he realized he needed help.

The answer came immediately.

“Yeah I do,” he responded. “It would have been October 3, and waking up, I was in a pretty bad place. And I was just like, you know what? This isn’t working for me; it’s not working for my family.”

That morning, Price recalled, was the sixth or seventh in a row where he woke up still feeling the effects of what he drank the night before.

It was a Sunday, Price remembers, and by the following Thursday, Oct. 7, he voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program and admitted himself into a residential rehabilitation facility.

Price was given the opportunity during our conversation to avoid this topic, to keep the details of his battle with alcohol private. But he wanted to talk about it because he knows how much good came from him simply announcing he was seeking help.

So, yes, he was willing to talk about it, wanted to even.

“I think most of it, I see it in sports and high stress positions, there’s a lot of pressure on athletes these days, I think even more so with social media, media attention, you’re always under the microscope,” Price began. “And I think no matter how good you are at dealing with it, it’s still a weight on your mind, the pressure to perform. It’s not easy to do that day in, day out. Yeah, it’s a fun job, but you’re still doing a job and having to perform at a peak level every day. It’s something that you strive to do as an athlete, you enjoy doing it, but it’s not particularly easy to do, especially when things aren’t going well. And I feel like a way to escape that for a lot of athletes is having fun, having a good time. It’s very prominent in sports. And if you can really manage that, I think it’s really good to go out and have a good time with your teammates. I think it’s great team bonding to be able to get together, have a party, but you get to a point where you’re not having fun anymore.

“I think after we lost in the (2021) Finals and coming so close to a goal and having a surgery, and knowing that I’m right on the 18th hole (of my career) here, I was not a happy person, I wasn’t being a good father. I was drinking a lot. I just got to a point where I was like, I’m not even having fun doing this. Like, what am I doing? I felt like I was getting to a point in my life where I had to make a decision. And substance abuse has been a very big issue in First Nations communities. I’ve had friends and family that have passed away from it. So, I could have done this privately. Nobody ever would have known about it. But at the end of the day, I was like, if I’m dealing with it, if I can lead by example and show that it’s OK to reach out for help. … Maybe I could have gone out and stopped on my own. Yeah, maybe. But at the end of the day, I wanted to be able to show it’s OK to ask for help.”

There’s a lot to unpack there. But we should begin with him mentioning how alcohol has ravaged First Nations communities in this country, how it has touched people he loves, because instilling a sense of pride in Canada’s Indigenous people is important to Price. Always has been.

He is well aware how much he means not only to the Ulkatcho First Nation, the people his mother Lynda has led as chief, the people he grew up with, but to all Indigenous people across Canada.

When Price was given the biggest platform of his career at the 2015 NHL Awards, when he accepted the one award he was basically guaranteed to win that year, the Vezina Trophy, he sent that message loud and clear.

“I would like to take a moment to encourage First Nations youth,” Price said on stage in Las Vegas that night. “A lot of people would say that it is very improbable that I would make it to this point in my life. I’ve made it here because I wasn’t discouraged. I’ve worked hard to get here, took advantage of every opportunity that I had, and I’d really like to encourage First Nations youth to be leaders in their communities, be proud of your heritage and don’t be discouraged from the improbable.”

That sentiment has not changed for Price, especially in light of how Canada is coming to grips with its past horrors and how they impacted First Nations peoples.

“Well, I’ll just come out and say, starting with the residential schools, I grew up knowing about it, obviously my grandmother went to one, but I don’t think I really comprehended how unknown it was,” Price said. “When I started playing with Canadian hockey players, especially over the last few years where it’s really come to the surface, young Canadians not even knowing what a residential school was. It was like, ‘Oh, you didn’t know that?’ And then I go back and think, going through social studies classes and stuff like that, it was just never brought up.

“Being a role model for young Natives was always something that I had in mind because I was always constantly reminded of that. I’ve received so much support from First Nations communities across Canada. I receive letters in the mail, young fans, and even older fans, they go out of their way to come to Montreal to come watch us even just practice. I’ve always known that and kept that in mind.”

So that is one part of why Price felt the need to be so public with his own struggles. But his desire to help does not end there.

A few years ago, the Canadiens were in Dallas to face the Stars and were out at a bar when Price had a conversation that stuck with him. He spoke to his then-teammate Nate Thompson, who has also battled drugs and alcohol, and asked questions about how he was able to be in a bar without drinking, how he managed his sobriety, lots of things.

“I think he was kind of feeling it out with me and asking how it was,” Thompson said. “He was saying maybe it might be a possibility of him doing something like that, and he was just asking me questions and was very curious.”

Thompson, who celebrated six years of sobriety on Oct. 10, has been open about his journey in the hopes it helps other people. But that took some time, and seeing Price reach the same point makes him proud.

“I needed to get a year of sobriety before I could feel comfortable being open about it, and everyone’s different,” Thompson said. “Some guys want to keep it private, and some guys want to be open about it. I think for me, the biggest thing that helped me be open about it was to realize that with our platform, with my platform, with Carey’s platform, this thing’s bigger than us. It’s not just a problem that’s happening with athletes, this is a problem that’s happening all over the world that people are dealing with day in and day out.

“I think being able to carry a message that is so strong and so powerful, for people to see that, and especially coming from a guy like him, from Carey Price, that’s going to help a ton of people.”

Price entered the residential rehabilitation facility on Oct. 7, and there have been challenges since.

“Once I left the facility, like that first three months, it’s something new, you’re excited about it. But that next six months, I felt like it was on my mind a lot, I was thinking about it a lot,” Price said. “Not to say that I was ready to jump off the wagon, but I can see why the success rate, it’s not that great. Going through that, I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I can see why.’ But I also have my kids at home every day. And I’m like, well, if not for them, then … first and foremost, you do it for yourself. But I look at my kids every day and to be able to not be wasting mornings of my life anymore and be able to wake up on Sunday morning and cook my kids pancakes is something very fulfilling to me.

“And since then, I would say over the last few months, the last couple of months especially, I’ve gone to weddings, I’ve gone to team parties and stuff like that. I think once you kind of get over your own social anxiety, that’s when you start feeling comfortable with just being yourself. I feel socially awkward sometimes and I feel like I just used (alcohol) as a bit of a crutch. Lately, I feel like I’m just totally fine with just being myself, not drinking, just being comfortable, just being present.”

This is where the help Price chose to seek comes in because he learned how to cope with and alter the lifestyle he had created for himself. As he said, perhaps he could have done that on his own, but getting help made that process much easier.

“It’s all about forming new habits and a new thought process,” Price said. “Like, every time we would have a social event, for me it was like, ‘You’re drinking, you’re having a beer, it’s just a social thing, it’s what you do.’ You’re creating a pattern, and it takes a long time to break a pattern.

“I learned that while I was at that facility; you create a path and once you stray from that path, you might be bushwhacking for a little while, but eventually you create a new path.”

This is the big win for Price, not only being able to face this affliction but being able to share it publicly. But he wants it to be known that he had to get help before he could help others.

“It was a great thing, it’s awesome, but that’s not to glorify what I was doing before,” Price said. “You have to be doing some bad stuff, not living life well, to be able to turn that around.

“I think that’s the biggest message, you have the rest of your life to live. Live it well.”

Price has had a tremendous career. He will likely wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He holds just about every major goaltending record in Canadiens franchise history. But more important than any of that has been Price’s willingness to help others through his own experience, something he has done throughout his career with First Nations peoples and is now doing for people who struggle with substance use.

No, Carey Price never won a Stanley Cup. But no one could ever say he is not a winner.

(Top photo: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

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