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Shtick save

A funny thing happened to the Moose this season... goalie Eddie Lack

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Not long ago, amiable Manitoba Moose head coach Claude Noel was in the middle of a media scrum, chatting away, when up walks his goaltender, Eddie Lack, who hands him a pink cap emblazoned with the letters, "LVP".

Noel looks at the hat, quizzically, and ventures: "Least Valuable Player?" "Yeah," Lack confirms, and scoots away back to the Moose den.

What was that all about?

"I don't know," Noel said, shrugging. "It's Eddie Lack."

Two things: First, what kind of rookie has the cojones to interrupt his coach's press conference to hand him a pink hat -- which the Moose regularly hand out as an ongoing gag of sorts -- to the most ineffective player at practice?

With some less tolerant coaches, that stunt would get you a ticket to the ECHL's Victoria Salmon Kings. By plane, if you're lucky. But not Lack, a 23-year-old Swede who has emerged this season out of nowhere -- or, more accurately, Norrtalje, a small coastal town near Stockholm -- to become Manitoba's odds-on MVP favourite and AHL Rookie of the Year candidate.

Remember, Lack wasn't drafted. He was a backup in the Swedish Elite League last season. To call him an unknown when he arrived at the Vancouver Canucks training camp last September would be a bit of an understatement.

Said Moose GM Craig Heisinger: "I'd never heard of him. The name Eddie Lack meant nothing to me."

It does now. Entering Friday night's game with the Texas Stars, Lack had a 24-18-3 record with a 2.13 GAA and a eye-opening .927 save percentage.

"I think he came on as a surprise," said Moose goaltending coach Rick St. Croix. "I don't think (the Canucks organization) recognized they had someone who was going to be as good as he has been. It didn't take them long to realize this guy's got something."

Now Lack's name is starting to get mentioned in Vancouver, where the Canucks already employ multi-million dollar starter Roberto Luongo and his understudy and former Moose MVP Cory Schneider. These are still early days, with hardened, cynical brass to impress, but if anything the rookie is just getting better.

Which brings us to that second thing: Even for a goaltender, Lack is one different dude.

He walks around Mooseville with a grin plastered on his cheery mug as wide as a split-save. He always looks like he's just been told a great joke or he's about to tell you one. He's forever playfully needling teammates and staff.

In short, Eddie Lack is Dennis the Menace with a mask.

How would Lack describe himself? "Happy and easygoing," he replied, "taking advantage of every day to the max."

How would teammates describe him? "A goof?" said forward Guillaume Desbiens. "Nah, he's a funny kid. He loves being around the guys. You look at him and just want to laugh."

And there's grizzled Moose veteran Garth Murray, who watched slightly bewildered as Lack sauntered out of the dressing room that day to present the LVP cap to his head coach.

"That was probably the head-shaking moment for me," Murray said. "I was, like, really? I was thinking about stopping him, but I thought, 'You know what, let him go and do what he's got to do.' Whatever keeps that dinosaur grin on his face."

Of course, behind the smile there's something more substantial. More mature. Very much determined.

"It's different strokes for different folks," St. Croix said. "(Lack) is unique. There aren't a lot of carefree goalies. But that doesn't mean he isn't into it and realizes the importance of the game and bearing down. He's pretty calm and the team can draw on that."

Added Noel: "I wouldn't say he's flaky. He's just a good-humoured guy who loves life and loves to play. He doesn't take everything too serious. He takes his hockey serious, let's not get that mixed up. He's a focused player."

After all, Lack isn't another cocky, pampered bonus baby. He's been on his own, more or less, since he was 18. He often does the cooking for roommate and rookie defenceman Yann Sauve. What's Lack's specialty?

"He likes sauces," said Sauve. "All Swedish people like sauces."

Lack's father, Jan, is a carpenter. His mother, Mia, owns three hotels in Stockholm. They divorced when he was younger, but he's been homesick for them both during his first year away from Sweden.

So during the Christmas break, Lack found a local tattoo parlour, where he had his mother's birth date (with the symbol of love) and father's birth date (with the symbol of strength) inked on the forearm of his glove hand. "I wanted to do something special," he said.

And maybe that ultimately might be the best description of Eddie Lack. Not goofy. Not happy. But special.

Only time will tell. But consider that Lack's fledgling professional career has mostly been in the role of the backup, rarely the bride. It was only at the urging of Swedish-based scout Lars Lindgren, a former Canuck, that Vancouver even signed the unknown netminder in the first place.

It was a hunch and a hope. The Canucks like their goalies big, and Lack has a 6-foot-4 frame that moves gracefully in the crease and with seemingly little effort. Maybe it's that same size that, ironically, hampered Lack's growth in net.

"I always dreamed about the NHL," he said, when asked about his unorthodox rise in the hockey world. "It's always been in the back of my mind. I knew if I just kept working hard I'd get a chance eventually."

But this fast? The smile fades slightly, and the maturity shows. "I'm 23," Lack said. "It's not been that fast. I've always considered myself a little bit of a late bloomer."

Questions remain: How will the rookie handle the Moose stretch drive, when the screws start to tighten? Does Lack have playoff mettle? Is he a happy-go-lucky fad or the real thing?

"You don't have a crystal ball," St. Croix said. "In the tests we've given him, he's done well. It's not just the goalie. Some of the results will depend on how well we play in front of him, and how much he can handle the pressure and make the timely saves when we need them.

"He's handled it with a lot of maturity and confidence. And competitiveness. Let's keep it going. Let it happen. Because if we're saying he's an NHL prospect he better have those qualities."

Hey, you want to know why Lack is always smiling? Because if you ask him what he would have done if not for hockey, he's at a loss for words: "I don't know," he said. "I've been thinking about hockey since I was six years old. It's a privilege to be here every day, practising and playing games in front of a big crowd."

But one tiny regret, perhaps. It's about that pink hat the rookie good-naturedly gave the coach.

"I mean, I guess I handed it first and thought after," Lack said, the grin somewhat sheepish now. "Maybe it wasn't the smartest move to do at the time..." Then Lack perked up.

"I'm a Swede," he concluded, "so maybe I'm a bit crazier than the Canadian guys here."

Yes, that's one saucy Swede. There's plenty of substance, too.

Just wondering. What's the colour of the Moose hat for the MVP?

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2011 C4

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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