Success “between the pipes” in pro hockey has a lot to do with what’s going on “between the ears.” Jean-Sebastien Giguere is living proof of this. Unloved and unwanted after flopping as a first-round draft choice, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks goalie got a boost of confidence from a childhood coach and turned his career—and an entire franchise—around. This is his story…
Jean-Sebastien Giguere was born on May 16, 1977, in Montreal. His father, Claude, was a prison guard. His mother, Gisele, drove a school bus. Jean-Sebastien was the youngest of five hockey-crazed siblings—three boys and two girls.
The Gigueres lived in a working-class Montreal neighborhood, where money for equipment was tight. The kids all had newspaper routes and the parents kicked in the rest. Jean-Sebastien, who set his sights on being a netminder around the age of five, had to work extra hard, because goalie pads—even used ones—cost a small fortune. When all five kids were playing, Claude actually took out a second mortgage on their home to make sure his kids had the best gear.
The star of the family was Stephane, Jean-Sebastien’s oldest brother. It was a great day at maison Giguere when his name was announced by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1986 draft. Isabelle was no slouch either. She starred in a women’s league and later officiated in the Olympics. Alain and Caroline played at a high level into their teens, then passed the torch to their little brother.
In neighborhood games, the youngest kids often gets thrown in goal, so Jean-Sebastien felt right at home. By the age of seven he was already starting to develop a sixth sense for positioning, and was able to turn the shots of older boys away with ease.
One of the big thrills of Jean-Sebastien’s young life was a chance meeting with Mario Lemieux, a local legend who was just beginning his NHL career. The two had their picture taken together (a photo that still ranks as one of his cherished possessions). When Jean-Sebastien turned nine, young Patrick Roy was in the midst of leading the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup. The youngster became an instant fan. Predictably, a lot of kids suddenly wanted to play goalie, but Jean-Sebastien already had the gear...and the game.
Between the ages of 12 and 14, Jean-Sebastien attended a summer goalie school in Montreal run by Francois Allaire. He hung on Allaire’s every word, partly because the coach had tutored Roy early in his career. Allaire admits he barely noticed the unflappable boy with the competitive animal lurking inside, but in time he came to see a lot of himself in Jean-Sebastien. He explained to his prize pupil that being a great goaltender is all in the details. The difference between a superstar and a guy who gets cut is a goal a game. Keep that one tally out of the net, and you’re on your way.
Jean-Sebastien began playing junior hockey with the nearby Laval Regents in 1992. There his education continued. The teen’s goalie coach was Benoit Allaire, brother of Francois. Allaire schooled him in the nuances of goaltending: take away the bottom of the net, play the angles, make the shooter hit you. Jean-Sebastien graduated to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at age 16, and a year later was considered a world-class junior goalie. He succeeded because he kept things simple and stayed calm when he should have been ducking for cover.
After a third season in the juniors (during which he sparkled in the QMJHL playoffs) and fine showings in several international tournaments, Jean-Sebastien was selected with the 13th pick in the first round of the 1995 NHL by the Hartford Whalers. He returned for a second year with Halifax and won 26 games, then had an excellent third season with the club in 1996-97, notching 28 victories in 50 starts.
Jean-Sebastien was rewarded with a call-up to the Whalers, who were playing their final season in Hartford before moving to Raleigh, North Carolina. Jean-Sebastien went 1-4 in limited action—picking up his lone win against the Philadelphia Flyers on December 12—but showed enough for the Calgary Flames to trade Trevor Kidd and Gary Roberts to acquire him, along with Andrew Cassels.
Jean-Sebastien was expected to progress quickly and challenge for the Calgary starting job before too long. But his play in training camp during the fall of 1997 was inconsistent. He developed some bad habits, and the Flames had no one on the staff who could turn him around. Banished to the minors, Jean-Sebastien spent the entire season with the St. John Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League. Although he and Tyler Moss combined for the league’s lowest goals-against average, the 20-year-old took significant steps backwards in terms of technique and confidence.
The Flames grew increasingly frustrated with Jean-Sebastien’s failure to grow, and were forced to play a pair of inferior goalies—Rick Tabaracci and Dwayne Roloson—for most of the 1998-99 season, while Jean-Sebastien went back and forth from the Calgary to the minors. He performed fairly well when given the chance, but no one in the Calgary organization believed he was ready to become the team’s #1 guy. In fact, after the season ended, the Flames traded for veteran Ken Wregget.
Jean-Sebastien’s third year as a member of the Flames organization found him yo-yoing once again between the minors and the big club. The team did not have a goaltending coach, and asked Wregget to tutor Jean-Sebastien so he could take his place. This plan had an obvious flaw: Wregget relished his role as a starter and was not all that keen on giving it up. He ended up splitting the job with journeyman Fred Brathwaite, while Jean-Sebastien grew increasingly frustrated. He was not learning anything, or getting any closer to a starting berth in the NHL. He played in only seven games with the Flames during the 1999-2000 season, winning just once.
Jean-Sebastien’s confidence was shot. He wasn’t seeing plays developing in front of him, was far too eager to drop to the ice and turned every save into an adventure. As the year wound down, he began to get that horrible, sinking feeling that he wasn’t going to make it in the NHL.
ON THE RISE
The 2000 expansion draft changed Jean-Sebastien’s fortunes. The Flames, convinced he would be picked by the Minnesota Wild or Columbus Blue Jackets, decided to trade their young goalie before all of the prospect sheen wore off. Pierre Gauthier, GM of the Mighty Ducks, believed Jean-Sebastien was a diamond in the rough, and dealt a second-round pick to Calgary for him. Jean-Sebastien could not have been happier. Although he was leaving Canada for southern California, he was reuniting with Francois Allaire, now Anaheim’s goaltending coach.
Allaire called Jean-Sebastien right after the trade and asked him to be an instructor at his summer school. As the 23-year-old taught pie-eyed youngsters the tricks of the trade, Allaire fixed the flaws in his game. By the time training camp began, Jean-Sebastien had regained his swagger.
Allaire spent the rest of the season polishing off the rough edges and refining Jean-Sebastien’s technique. He concentrated on positioning, and understanding where opposing shooters aimed in different situations. For his part, Jean-Sebastien worked tirelessly to earn an opportunity to start. He wanted the team to win, but as the losses piled up and the team’s playoff hopes faded, he also knew he might get a chance at the #1 job. By the end of the year, he had bumped veteran starter Guy Hebert.
Jean-Sebastien came into camp in the fall of 2001 as the team’s top goalie. Steve Shields, acquired the previous spring in a deadline deal for Teemu Selanne, was also on the roster. But the veteran had been injured almost immediately upon his arrival, so the Ducks weren’t sure what they had in him. When Jean-Sebastien performed well in the preseason, he won the #1 job—even though leg injuries caused him to miss the campaign’s first five games.
Settling into his role as starter, Jean-Sebastien rewarded new coach Bryan Murray with a December to remember. He did not play a bad game all month, leading the NHL with 1.43 GAA and 94.6 save percentage. Because of Anaheim’s anemic offense, however, the team managed a record of just 4-5-2.
Murray might have been the only person in the league who wasn’t shocked by Jean-Sebastien’s impeccable goaltending. When he was with the Florida Panthers, he called the Flames regularly to inquire about Jean-Sebastien, but was rebuked every time.
Despite mounting losses, Anaheim stayed in almost every game it played, thanks largely to its new goalie. Still, by March, the Ducks were out of playoff contention for the third season in a row. Despite the team’s poor record, Gauthier decided not to hold a fire sale. His plan was to bring this group into the 2002-03 season, add some spare parts, and hope Jean-Sebastien’s breakthrough year was a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Th GM, however, was fired in April and never got to implement his long-term plan.
Jean-Sebastien finished the year with 29 wins and a club-record 2.13 GAA. His 92.0 save percentage was good for a fifth-place tie among NHL netminders. Although other young goalies like Jose Theodore and Roberto Luongo received a lot of attention, insiders knew Jean-Sebastien might be the best of the lot. What he lacked in dramatic flair he made up for with almost flawless fundamentals. Some even compared him to a young Roy, although personality-wise they could not have been more different. While still a kid, Jean-Sebastien was handling himself like a veteran. Normally cool as a cucumber both on and off the ice, he displayed his nasty competitive streak only when he wanted to shock his fellow Ducks into playing harder.
Though Jean-Sebastien began the 2002-03 campaign with some sloppy performances, he soon showed the kind of poise and skill than lifted the play of those around him. Most notably, he was much quicker from side to side, and surer of himself when he had the puck on his stick. During December, Jean-Sebastien put together a scoreless streak of 237 minutes—the NHL’s longest in more than a half-century. In the game that snapped the streak—a 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues—he stopped a career-best 44 shots.
MAKING HIS MARK
By Christmas Jean-Sebastien had established himself as his team’s top player. The Ducks, in turn, found themselves right in the thick of things in the West. Paul Kariya and Steve Rucchin—both of whom had been with the team seemingly forever—were still considered club leaders, but players now they looked to Jean-Sebastien, too. That said a lot, because Anaheim had a good collection of talent for the first time in a long time, including several grizzled veterans.
Sniper Petr Sykora, acquired from the New Jersey Devils, was starting to heat up and work well with fellow veteran Adam Oates. Oft-injured backliner Niclas Havelid was also having a nice year, and by season’s end was paired with rock-solid Keith Carney to form the team’s top tandem in front of Jean-Sebastien.
Youth was served in Anaheim as well. Rookie defenseman Kurt Sauer came out of nowhere to log crucial penalty-killing minutes, and Russian teenager Stanislav Chistov, who scored four points in his first NHL game, was becoming a valuable contributor, too.
After picking up Rob Niedermayer, Sandis Ozolinsh and Steve Thomas at the trade deadline, the Ducks finished strong, going 40-27-9-6 to snag the seventh seed in the playoffs. Their victory total was the highest in franchise history; the 26-point improvement from the previous year was tops in the NHL.
The team’s strong showing had much to do with its tight defense, ushered in by Mike Babcock. Bryan Murray, booted upstairs to the GM job after Gauthier was canned, hired the cocksure Babcock and gave a thumbs-up to the rookie coach’s new defensive system. The results spoke for themselves, as the Ducks logged the sixth-best goals-against average in the NHL.
Jean-Sebastien, who seemed to get steadier as the playoffs approached, finished with 34 victories and eight shutouts. Babcock actually knew he had a gem in Jean-Sebastien long before anyone else. He had coached him in the AHL for the first half of the 2000-01 season, and also had him a few years earlier at the Junior World Championships.
Though the fans at The Pond in Anaheim were excited, the Ducks’ post-season figured to be a short one, as they faced the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. A team chock full of Hall of Famers, the Wings were eyeing a second straight Stanley Cup, and treated their meeting with Anaheim as more of a nuisance than anything else.
Curt Fraser, coach of the Atlanta Thrashers, was the only pundit who predicted Anaheim might make some noise in the playoffs. But even he admitted that the odds were remote that the inexperienced Ducks could get through a field that included the Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars.
Jean-Sebastien proved just how annoying he and the Ducks could be in Game 1 in Detroit, when he turned back 63 shots in a 2-1 triple-overtime victory. Luc Robitaille hit the crossbar in the first extra period and the red goal light went on. Jean-Sebastien skated out of his net and gave the raucous enemy crowd the “safe” sign while officials reviewed the tape. The goalie was correct, and the teams played on. The game ended on a Kariya goal.
After trailing 2-1 in the third period of Game 2, the Ducks won 3-2 on a late goal by Thomas, and the series went back to Anaheim. History was still on Detroit’s side. The Red WIngs had been in an 0-2 hole against the Vancouver a year earlier, only to sweep the final four games against netminder Dan Cloutier and the Canucks. But this was a different team with a different goalie.
Detroit fans, used to the acrobatics of the retired Dominik Hasek, watched as the comparatively unspectacular Jean-Sebastien methodically shut down their team’s vaunted scoring attack for the third time in a row, 2-1. The play of the game was the clutch, point-blank save he made on Henrik Zetterberg with less than three minutes to go.
In Game 4, Jean-Sebastien matched Curtis Joseph save-for-save once again, but superstar Detroit Sergei Fedorov snuck one past him to send the game into overtime tied at 2-2. Six minutes and 53 seconds later Rucchin scored the game-winner, making the Red WIngs the first Cup defender in 51 years to be swept in the first round. The Anaheim defense did its part to halt the Detroit offense, but in the end Jean-Sebastien was the difference, stopping 165 of 171 shots in the series.
Jean-Sebastien’s teammates heaped praise upon him, and were almost embarrassed to claim credit for the sweep. But they had earned it, too. For the first time against a top team, the Anaheim offense looked smooth and balanced. When Detroit shut down Sykora, the Ducks got goals from several unlikely players, including the rookie Chistov, bench-warmer Jason Krog and defensive specialist Samuel Pahlsson.
Next up was Dallas, the top seed in the Western Conference. Jean-Sebastien said before the series that he didn’t expect to sweep Mike Modano & Co., and he was right. The Ducks slowly choked the Stars to death, beating them in six games. Every win for Anaheim came by a one-goal margin, creating excruciating pressure on the young goalie. Yet each time Jean-Sebastien responded with a sparkling performance. His only bad performance was a 4-1 loss that allowed the Stars to narrow the series to three games to two.
His best moment was a dramatic slide across the crease in Game 3 to make an impossible skate save on Modano, who had an easy one-timer for the game-tying goal. The play preserved a 1-0 victory that gave Anaheim a 2-1 series lead. The Ducks won two of the next three—including a heart-stopping finale—to advance to the conference finals.
There they would meet Minnesota, an even more improbable participant than the Mighty Ducks in many ways. On paper, this was a team Anaheim could afford to take lightly. But they had learned from their vanquished foes in Detroit and Dallas that a club with nothing to lose is often the most dangerous of all. The Wild upended the Avalanche in the opening round and had just defeated the Canucks in seven games. Both series wins came after the team fell into 1-3 holes, so no one knew how much gas was left in their tank.
As it turned out, the Wild had just enough to go to OT in Game 1. Minnesota would have won were it not for Jean-Sebastien’s diving stick save on sharpshooter Marian Gaborik’s attempt in the second period. The Ducks eventually rallied to take the opener 1-0 on a goal by Sykora, then shutout Minnesota again in Game 2.
Frustrated enforcer Matt Johnson mixed it up with Jean-Sebastien in Game 3, but this accomplished little, other than getting the irascible Babcock worked up. As for his players, they maintained an even keel and won 4-0. Oates scored twice in Game 4 to complete the sweep. Jean-Sebastien, playing on his birthday, could have set the record for history’s longest post-season scoreless streak, but gave up a first-period goal to Andrew Brunette. In all, he handled all but one of the 123 shots thrown at him in the Minnesota series, recording three shutouts.
The New Jersey Devils were now all that stood between the Mighty Ducks and history’s most unlikely Stanley Cup.
The Devils—a mirror-image of the Ducks—presented Anaheim with its biggest challenge of the post-season. They skated fast, played sticky defense, waited for mistakes and relied on stellar goaltending. Martin Brodeur was every bit as good as Jean-Sebastien, and proved it by blanking Anaheim in the first two games of the series. The 11-day layoff after the Minnesota sweep may have taken the edge off the Ducks, but it was no excuse for getting shut down in consecutive contests.
The Devils had gone to school on Anaheim’s only bad game of the playoffs, the 4-1 loss to Dallas, and were executing the way the Stars did: skating hard, forechecking aggressively, intimidating after the whistle and harassing the goal.
Prior to Game 3, the normally quiet Jean-Sebastien decided to stir things up. He told reporters that it was time for the team to show some emotion, and gave the Devils something to tack on their bulletin board when he claimed the Ducks were the superior club. Jean-Sebastien singled himself out for criticism, too. He had not played badly—stopping 49 of 54 shots—but he had let in a couple of soft goals. Brodeur had been flawless, he admitted, so he had to reach that level, too.
As promised, when the series moved back to The Pond for Games 3 and 4, Jean-Sebastien outdueled Brodeur, 3-2 and 1-0 to make the Stanley Cup finals a best-of-three affair.
Game 5 broke the pattern of tight-checking games and turned into a goal-scoring free-for-all. The Devils were everywhere, moving Jean-Sebastien all around his crease. The result was a six-goal outburst by New Jersey and an easy win. Game 6 featured a molar-loosening check by Kevin Stevens on Kariya, which only served to wake up Anaheim’s star. After regaining consciousness, he made a dramatic return to the ice, and moments later fired a lovely shot past Brodeur to key a 5-2 victory for the Ducks.
It would all come down to Game 7 in New Jersey.
Anyone who follows hockey knew the script for the decider was written long before the referee dropped the puck. Each coach implored his team to net the opening goal, then think defense the rest of the way.
After a scoreless first period, Scott Niedermayer blasted a shot from the point, and Michael Rupp, a burly face-off specialist, deflected it just enough to trickle between Jean-Sebastien’s pads. The Ducks tried everything but could not respond. Jeff Friesen, who began his career with Anaheim, got a pair of insurance goals and Brodeur registered his record seventh shutout of the playoffs, 3-0.
The loss was crushing to Jean-Sebastien. When he pulled off his mask after the final siren, tears were streaming down his cheeks. He really wanted to win it for his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Not even being named MVP of the playoffs helped the hurt.
A summer away from the game took some of the sting out of the Game 7 defeat for Jean-Sebastien. He got married, worked out enough to stay in shape and enjoyed a few months out of the spotlight.
In the meantime, big changes were going on in Anaheim. Kariya, the team’s signature player, left via free agency to join the Avalanche. The Ducks replaced him by signing Fedorov, one of the sport’s premier two-way players. Oates left, too, but Anaheim acquired Vaclav Prospal, a smart-passing forward primed for a breakout season. They also wrapped up Jean-Sebastien with a four-year deal worth almost $20 million.
With Sykora back in the fold, and a spectacular post-season run under their belts, the Mighty Ducks hoped to avoid the crash and burn experienced by the Carolina Hurricanes after they reached the finals a few years back. The Anaheim defensive corps was probably the team’s weakest link, but Murray figured that Jean-Sebastien could buy him time to swing a deal if one was needed.
Unfortunately for the Ducks. the curse of the Hurricanes hit Anaheim in the 2003-04 season. The team was better on paper, particularly with the additions of Fedorov and Prospal, but the team struggled. Jean-Sebastien also went through a difficult season.
The Ducks lost their first five games and were not able to bounce back after that. Struggling to match its '03 magic, the team finished dismally at 29-35-10 with 76 points, ahead of only three teams in the Western Conference.
Jean-Sebastien's campaign mirrored his team's. In the first half, he put up terrible numbers, going 7-21-4 before the All-Star Game. After the break, he improved slightly with 10 victories. In all he appeared in 55 games, 10 less than last year, and posted only three shutouts.
Jean-Sebastien hopes management will give this team another shot. The talent is there, though Ananheim could use stronger play along the blue line.
Ultimately, of course, as Jean-Sebastien goes, so go the Ducks. Opinion is split as to whether he will bounce back. His supporters recall the 2003 playoffs, when he did everything a netminder could do except etch his John Hancock into the Stanley Cup. And they believe that day may not be too far away.
JEAN-SEBASTIEN THE PLAYER
If Jean-Sebastien is playing well, he never has to make a spectacular save. The two great ones he made in the 2003 playoffs were a result of being out of position. And positioning is the name of his game.
His secret? Footwork. He moves his feet in relation to the location of the puck—not to a fake, not to an anticipated pass, not to a player’s reputation. The idea is that whatever happens, he will be square to the puck and in a good position to stop it.
Jean-Sebastien’s philosophy is that you can’t score a goal through his stomach, so he tries to stop every shot with that part of his body. He gives up a lot of rebounds, many directly in front of him. To critics who insist he should guide pucks off toward the corners, Jean-Sebastien says he would rather leave the rebound where his teammates are most likely to be.
When Jean-Sebastien drops down into his butterfly position, he makes sure his pads stretch from post to post. There are rules limiting the width of goalie pads in the NHL, but not length. His pads are as long as they can get without impeding his ability to skate. He also wears thick upper-body padding, which eliminates much of the remaining space. Shooters hoping to roof the puck find that Jean-Sebastien keeps his shoulders high even after he hits the ice, making rising shots very difficult. Interestingly, his one weakness is his glove hand; he does not always catch the puck cleanly.
Unlike most NHL goalies, Jean-Sebastien does not become dark or moody on game days. He’s as talkative as ever, and doesn’t mind making appearances or signing autographs for fans. The fact he plays so hard and his teammates like him so much makes them go the extra mile for him.