18 December 2007

(Book excerpt) Can a morbidly obese goalie shut out an NHL team?

From Andy Roddick Beat me With a Frying Pan (Buy Now!)
By Todd Gallagher

Could a morbidly obese goalie shut out an NHL team?

It's not hard to imagine an owner looking for an unfair advantage to "break" the rules of a sport. Baseball owner Bill Veeck famously batted 3'7? Eddie Gaedel at leadoff in a baseball game despite, or more accurately, because of, his diminutive strike zone. Charlie Finley employed Olympic sprinter Herb Washington as a pinch runner for his Oakland A's. Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause once shaved a gorilla and put it in a Bill Wennington uniform in order to get more power in the post. For hockey, the question is simple and has been asked thousands of times by hardcore sports fans and casual observers, from sportswriters like ESPN's Bill Simmons (in an article entitled "33 Ways to Make Sports Better") to Rob Lowe's and Bradley Whitford's characters on The West Wing: Why not go out and find the fattest goalie you can to block the net?

As strange as it may sound to anyone with a sense of decency, there is actually sound reasoning behind it. Because of the geometry of the game, the potential for one mammoth individual to change hockey is staggering. Simply put, there is a goal that's 6 feet wide and 4 feet high, and a hockey puck that needs to go into it in order to score. Fill that net completely, and no goals can possibly be scored against your team. So why hasn't it happened yet?

One answer is that professionalism and fair play prevent many sports teams from doing whatever it takes to win. This is also known as "having no imagination." Additionally, in hockey the worry of on-ice reprisal from bloodthirsty goons would weigh heavily on the mind of any player whose very existence violated the game's "unwritten rules." In other words, had Eddie Gaedel worn a St. Louis Blues uniform rather than one of the St. Louis Browns, his heartwarming story may have instead been a cautionary tale.

Also, advertising money is a strong motivation for professional sports leagues to keep a sense of legitimacy to their made-up games. But considering that no one wants to advertise with the NHL to begin with, I started thinking there must be a simpler explanation. Maybe it was just against the real rules.

Looking for answers, I followed a path blazed by draft dodgers and drug-addicted football players and headed north to Canada. Actually, since it was the dead of winter, I just bought a five-dollar international phone card and called the NHL offices in Toronto to speak with Johanna Kytola. Johanna, not surprisingly, was appalled by the idea. However, after some prodding she was forced to concede that the NHL rulebook doesn't put any physical constraints on the size of players . . . which I suppose could have been surmised just by looking at Zdeno Chara.I had checked Johanna into the boards, but then she dropped her gloves. There are, she said, nonnegotiable restrictions on the size of goalie pads, and no regulation goalie pads would even come close to covering the body of a man who makes John Goodman look svelte. In practical terms this means a mammoth net-minder would have to absorb quite a bit of punishment on his exposed body from hard rubber pucks hurtling toward him at upward of 100 miles per hour. To pull this off, a team would not only have to find a uniquely fat guy, they'd have to find a total masochist.

Then Johanna threw a Tie Domi haymaker: "A man of that size would have a very hard time passing a physical. If he did and it became a problem for the league, the issue would then go through the commissioner and governor's office until a solution was reached."

What do you mean by "solution?" Are you going to have Scotty Bowman put together a death squad or something?

"No comment."

From Johanna's veiled threats it was clear that this idea had merit, so I decided to continue researching how to ruin pro hockey forever. And no, that doesn't mean seeing if I could get their Versus deal extended.

It made sense that a guy who can't get out of bed might have trouble passing a physical or possibly even making it to the physical, but would a failed physical be enough to bar him from being forklifted into action? To find a legal loophole big enough for our fat goalie to be greased up and shoved through wouldn't be easy, since the NHL has more lawyers than fans. I didn't have a team of lawyers on retainer to go head to head with the NHL's, but David needed only one attorney to win the right to fight Goliath. The stone in my sling was Gilbert Geilim, a lawyer in Los Angeles who thought we sort of had a case against the philistines in the league office: "The NHL would eventually figure out a way to keep a man who is a health risk off the ice, but if they looked like they were making the criteria for a physical to exclude a certain segment of society, even the morbidly obese, you might luck out and get a judge to issue a temporary injunction."

No matter the odds, one thing was clear: That we could even potentially win a legal battle made it my duty to press on.

For ostensible humanitarian reasons, I needed to determine whether an obese goalie could handle the physical demands of playing professional hockey. Jacob DiCesare, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told me, "When people get into the weight range you're referring to—one thousand pounds and above—it is rarely because of body fat. People in that class of weight are nearly always retaining fluid somewhere in their body, often in the abdomen, although there have been cases where a majority of weight . . ." and that's when I tuned out.

Finally, he switched from medical mumbo jumbo and addressed the far more interesting aspect of fat men getting hit in the gut with a puck. "Well, it would really hurt, especially because the padding wouldn't cover a lot of the body. At best you're looking at some severe bruising. Not to mention the incredible risk the morbidly obese would have just getting out on the ice. But theoretically if they had no cardiopulmonary issues or other health issues, once they were sat down in front of the net, and if they could deal with the pain, then sure, they'd do fine."

With that ringing endorsement, it was time to see whether obese people might agree to be pelted with hockey pucks and circus peanuts. I spoke with a friend of mine who had packed on the pounds since high school—we'll just call him Mr. XL—and asked whether he'd be willing to gain enough weight to fill a net if an NHL contract were on the line. Since Tony . . . oops, Mr. XL . . . wasn't even aware that the NHL still existed, he was skeptical. I insisted that with some real commitment he could be bathing in gravy in no time.

Now he was intrigued: "So how much weight exactly would I have to gain?"

Roughly 800 pounds.

"Um . . ."

That was as close to a yes as I needed.

At all times there is a wealth of morbidly obese men in the world, all of whom are financially limited by their condition and have few ways of acquiring the Ho Hos and powdered doughnuts required for their survival. Undoubtedly at least one of them would be willing to take the physical abuse and mental anguish for the right kind of money. Millions of dollars can help a bruised ego and a broken sternum; that's what therapists and painkillers are for.

We were getting close. Now that the futzing around with feelings and rules was out of the way, the true test was almost at hand: actually putting a big fella in the net. My insurance doesn't cover obese-goalie-related death, so horror-movie director George Romero's special-effects school constructed a heavy foam fat suit to replicate the exact measurements of our mountain of a man. To test the limits of fat-goalie domination, they used the dimensions of the pear-shaped Robert Earl Hughes, one of the heaviest men in history at 1,069 pounds, who reportedly had a waistline of 122 inches, and then, to account for the carbo-loading regimen an NHL team would put this kind of goalie through, beefed him up a little more. (Romero's people declined my request to exhume and totally zombify Hughes, however.) This translated to an overall width of about 3-1/2 feet. Sitting him in front of a 6-foot goal would reduce the area available to score to 2-1/2 feet, or about 15 inches on either side of our goalie. Add in our man's arms, legs, pads, blocking glove, and catching glove, and the goal would be reasonably full.

The only way to fully test this theory was to get an NHL team to shoot against the faux fatso. My esteemed editor, Jed Donahue, got in touch with a fellow Georgetown graduate who was doing nearly as well as he is: Ted Leonsis, billionaire owner of the Washington Capitals, whom the Sporting News once called one of the twenty most powerful people in sports. Leonsis, who made his fortune in the world of telecommunications and technology, is a bit of a visionary. And while his vision may not have originally included allowing the professional hockey team he owns to take slapshots at a guy in a fat suit, he saw the potential and gave the stunt the green light.

With a team of highly skilled shooters in place, we needed someone to get in the suit. I certainly wasn't going to do it (insert fake injury/ailment/note from my mom here), so I enlisted George Mason University goalie Trevor Butler. Once everything was set, I threw the suit in a rented white molester van and headed for D.C., the whole time glancing nervously in my rearview mirror, imagining how I'd explain what I was doing to an officer who thought he was pulling over the Beltway Sniper.

After the monumental chore of getting Trevor in the suit and pads, we hit the ice—literally. To get him some level of comfort in the fat suit, I took him onto an unused rink adjacent to the one the Caps were playing on, and within seconds he fell flat on his fake fat stomach. Panic set in as we tried to pull him up, but finally a team of five men was able to drag him off the ice and get him on his feet again. Had this been an actual 1,000-pound man instead of an athletic goalie in a fat suit, the game would have been called on account of fatness.

While Trevor prepared for his grand entrance, I checked in with the Caps. Their reactions were even less encouraging than Johanna's icy responses were. Most players wanted nothing to do with an elephantine goalie. Defenseman Ben Clymer was so ashamed of being associated with the tub that he tried to identify himself with a fake name (he used center Kris Beech's). Winger Dainius Zubrus put it bluntly: "It would be embarrassing if there was a goalie that big." Defenseman Steve Eminger confirmed my worst fears about how our big man would be received when he said opposing teams would simply try to run him over in the net. The Real Kris Beech had an even more depressing comment for our new star: "You might spear him and see if chocolate came out."

But if a half-ton wonder could bring the Stanley Cup to Washington, then it sounded like everyone would be as sweet as can be. Well, barely tolerant is probably a more accurate description, but it's a start. As Zubrus put it, "If he was dominant it'd be fine. That's the goal, to win, right?" Beech agreed, but with a reservation: "That'd be good as long as I didn't have to go to dinner with him."

As I saw it, this was as close as we were going to get to support, so it was time to unveil the heavy artillery. Trevor took to the ice on the Capitals' official practice rink with as much grace as he could possibly muster. A full crowd was in attendance to watch their sporting heroes that day, and as Trevor waddled to the net, children laughed and pointed, adults covered their heads in shame, and the Capitals stared, jaws agape.

We got Trevor situated in front of the net, though it took a good five minutes of work, including tying his torso to the crossbar . . . probably a disturbing sight, given that very few people were clued into the fact that this was not an actual 1,000-pound man. Trevor's goalie crouch was itself unnerving: butt on the ice and legs splayed out in front of him—really the only way someone that large could be situated. There were certainly places to score around his head and shoulders, but he filled most of the net and made it difficult to see the goal line.

I watched in horror as the Caps began to shoot, but Trevor blocked every single one of their first eleven shots, including a glove save he may not have even been aware of that drew cheers from the crowd. After one particularly brutal slapshot that ripped off the fat suit's overalls, I checked on Trevor to see how he was doing. "My knee hurts and I can't breathe." Great, Trevor! Keep up the good work!

As our session progressed, the Caps went through a number of drills and shot from various angles. They began methodically testing the fattie's limited ability to move, trying breakaways, two on ones, and one-timers. Caps winger Matt Bradley seemed bothered as a particularly good wrister was easily stopped, while Trevor kept complaining about his inability to lift his arms or breathe. This led me to believe that real science was occurring, because it didn't seem like anyone was having fun.

From our practice session some easy conclusions could be drawn. Breakaways, in particular, were death for Trevor. An NHL player will score every time from close in on a goalie who can't move unless the goalie is large enough to literally cover the entire net. Angles and wraparounds were also extremely problematic since Trevor could not move to close the open gaps. But when the shots were coming from straight on in five-on-five game situations, Trevor pretty much shut them down.

So what does that equal?

Well, not much, in Trevor's opinion. He said that in a real game a portly net-minder wouldn't stand a chance. "You're kind of a sitting duck in net like that. And if that was my skin instead of padding I would be in the emergency room or dead right now." Pussy.

Unfortunately, I couldn't so easily dismiss the Capitals' harsh assessments just by pretending to be tough. Their scouting report on my new superstar showed there were indeed some on-ice problems. Ben Clymer's review was less than glowing: "The hardest part [to score on] was through his body, 'cause he's pretty fat. The easiest parts were pretty much anywhere where he wasn't, because he wasn't moving a bit."

So you're saying there's a chance!

"I hope we play a few games against him this year."

According to Kris Beech, the limited success the behemoth had in our practice session may not even translate to a real NHL game once teams knew what they were up against: "Knowing we were going to play against him, we would take some extra practice and make sure we could hit those holes."

Do you guys have any idea how long it took me to set this up?

In the end, this is a complicated issue but one with a clear answer. There is no chance the NHL would allow a contract to be signed with such an obvious health risk, and though the court case might provide an opening, it wouldn't be a big one given these health concerns. It is also highly unlikely that any team would allow such an embarrassment to the game to take the ice for them.

In addition, not just any fat man would do the trick, as Matt Bradley explained. "If you add maybe three hundred more pounds to that guy, he might be okay. If someone's willing to gain fifteen hundred pounds to go in net, there might be a job for him somewhere." While there have been 1,500-pound men, none have been proportionally built in a way that would fill a hockey goal. In fact, there probably isn't a man in the history of the entire world fat enough to be effective in an NHL game.

That being said, if there was a team that was more concerned with winning than with their reputation, and if they could find a genetic marvel, a man pushing 2,000 pounds who's fatter than anyone the world has ever seen, who could survive making it onto the ice and withstand the pain of frozen hockey pucks being fired off his exposed body, and if that team could then win a legal battle against the NHL, and if the players didn't go on strike over the matter or beat the rotund goalie to death on the ice, that historically obese man could be a cost-efficient and effective goaltender. But what are the chances of that wondrous hog existing, and events unfolding in such a way? Pretty slim.

Reposted without permission, but seriously, go buy the book! It's hilarious!

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