The Right Kind of Crazy
Pittsburgh-born goalie John Gibson’s journey from the driveway to hockey’s world stage.
Photo by Dan Hamilton
To get into the mindset of John Gibson, think back to 1999. You’re a 6-year-old first-grader at St. Gabriel’s of the Sorrowful Virgin. You’re also an aspiring NHL goaltender. Sure, at the moment, what with you weighing 50 pounds soaking wet, your main challenge at hockey practice is not tipping over from the weight of your enormous pads. In fact, at this point, you’re all pads. You resemble a tipped-over sofa with a helmet sticking out.
More bad news: You don’t live in Canada. Those lucky Canadians are chauffeured to the pond daily, and they skate until their faces are as purple as the twilight, or so you've been told. You’re not so lucky. After school, you tear off your clip-on tie, strap on a pair of plastic street-hockey pads and hit the driveway with a few pals — or, if they flake on you for a Playstation and Capri Sun bender, you recruit grandpa (his slapshot is imbued with Old Man Strength). For hours, you throw your body in front of that bright orange ball, sliding all over the cracked pavement. Whenever your buds score, you start the game over. You want shutouts.
Your friends at school roll their eyes when you tell them that one day, you’re going to play in the NHL and have a goalie mask as cool as Eddie Belfour’s. Because no one ever really makes it to the NHL from Pittsburgh, let alone the sleepy neighborhood of Whitehall.
Fortunately, you’re a little bit crazy. Crazy in the practical sense, like your idol “Crazy Eddie” Belfour. Crazy enough to enjoy the sound of a 4:30 a.m. alarm in the dead of February. Crazy enough to drive with your father in total darkness to your hockey practice, praying for the heater to finally kick on, and knowing that when it finally does, you'll already be at the rink. Ready to dive in front of vulcanized rubber in the blistering cold.
Are you ready? Are you the right kind of crazy?
Now imagine that you’re 19-year-old John Gibson, goalie for Team USA at the prestigious 2013 World Junior Championships. Less than five years ago, you were cut from your high-school team. Now you’re in Ufa, Russia — 4,000 miles from Whitehall — playing against untouchable Russians and Canadians. You walk around the city in a Pirates cap.
“When I was a kid, the Canadians were so intimidating,” Gibson says. “But my teams from Pittsburgh went up there for tournaments. Half the time we were just excited to go play in the hotel pool. We lost some and we won some.”
In Ufa, you’re just winning. You beat the Canadians 5-1 (frozen ponds be damned) en route to the gold medal game against the Swedes. In your head, you’re still just back in the driveway, getting your body in front of the orange ball any way you can. Only now the ball is a heavy puck — and it’s coming at you as a 90-mph vapor trail. But you’re calm. You’re crazy like that.
Back home, your parents dress in their USA jerseys the night before every game. It’s a superstition. They’re crazy like that. At St. Gabriel’s of the Sorrowful Virgin, the nuns make a special exception in your honor: no ties. Just red, white and blue.
“When we went up 3-1 in the gold medal game, it started to hit me,” Gibson says. “I’m staring up at the clock, and the final minute was probably the longest of my life.”
In the delirious celebratory pig-pile, there's three other Pittsburgh-born players with you, and when you all sing along with the "Star Spangled Banner" at the medal ceremony, it means a little more to you, because you remember the pitiful driveway games, the rolling eyes and the sound a 4:30 alarm makes.
Two days after flying back from Russia, you’ll be on your way to your first NHL training camp with the Anaheim Ducks. You’re already thinking about how you’ll paint your mask.
And where’s your gold medal? Maybe in a trophy case — a big, gleaming, middle finger to all those who said it couldn’t be done?
“It’s sitting, like, on my desk or something,” Gibson says with a laugh.
You’re still Pittsburgh, kid.