Ignore man behind mask -- this is magic!

JOHN EISENBERG

February 20, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

MERIBEL, France -- He doesn't want to know anything. He doesn't want to hear anything. He is afraid.

"I'm not reading the papers," Ray LeBlanc said. "I'm not watching television. I called my parents back home. I told them not to tell me much."

He wants to float in his private Olympic bubble. Go straight from his room to the rink. Then straight back.

Head down. Eyes averted. The collar of his winter jacket up around his cheeks. A baseball cap down by his eyes. Lost in the crowds along the snowy sidewalks.

The nowhere man. The sudden and reluctant hero of the American hockey team. Roy Hobbs in a goalie's mask.

Thrilled and afraid. So thrilled. So very afraid.

Afraid it will all go away as suddenly as it appeared.

"Maybe I will think about it afterward," he said.

Not now. He doesn't want to think now. He doesn't want to think or be congratulated or even recognized.

He just wants to close his eyes and pretend it isn't happening. Pretend this is just another week with the Indianapolis Ice of the International Hockey League.

Maybe he can keep it going if that's what he tells himself. If he doesn't get excited and start thinking about the amazement of it all.

His wife and two children, here with him, are under unspoken orders not to mention it. So are his teammates.

"Some of the guys are kind of moving away from him," teammate Clark Donatelli said. "It's like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. Maybe you talk to him a little, but you kind of let him alone."

Something is up with Ray LeBlanc. Something magical. Everyone knows it. Something rare and fine has settled on the shoulders of a most unlikely young man.

A career minor-leaguer, long adrift in a life of dim rinks, rotten boards, low pay and small crowds, he suddenly is the hottest goalie in the world's biggest hockey tournament.

His teammates don't believe it. "We knew Ray was good," forward Marty McInnis said, "but this . . . ."

This -- this is something. Eight goals allowed in six games. And 199 saves! A surreal number. A surreal run. LeBlanc scrambling all over the crease, pucks hitting every inch of his pads. Hitting his stick, his mask.

"Ray LeBlanc is the difference between this team being in the consolation round and the semifinals," said Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 U.S. team, here as a CBS broadcaster.

But ask him about it and he shrugs. Just can't look at it that way. Just playing good, playing hard. Talking in this soft, high-pitched Don Corleone whisper. Almost apologizing. Average height, average build. As full of humility as a bloodied boxer.

Absolutely refusing to accept the enormity of it. The people at home, all wound up. The 50 million watching on television around the world. Absolutely refusing to consider it.

"I had a better run in junior hockey, you know, won 26 games in a row," he said.

So afraid.

"I do guess I'm seeing the puck better than usual," he said, "but I think it's because the rink is really bright here."

Is that beautiful? The man has spent his professional life in dungeons. Arenas in which you can develop photographs. You bet the lights are brighter here.

But it's not the lights. Of course not. It's this magic no one can explain. It's a .500 pitcher named Don Larsen throwing a perfect game. It's Franco Harris picking a ball out of the air. It's Wonderboy, Roy Hobbs' bat in "The Natural."

Ray LeBlanc doesn't want to admit it's happening to him. Maybe later, but not now. He is an average citizen who has been touched. He is comfortable with the average part. He works for Pepsi in the off-season -- filling commercial drums, not filming commercials. A factory worker.

Last fall he asked U.S. coach Dave Peterson for a couple of days off. To go home and paint his house.

"Why don't you get a painter?" Peterson asked.

"Fifteen-hundred bucks," LeBlanc said. "No way."

He went home. Painted the house. He can accept that life. He is comfortable with it. It is his. This -- this new life is better left ignored right now. Especially when it is coming at him like a car going 150 mph in his rear-view mirror.

And so it becomes his toughest save of all: denial.

"I just want to do my job," he said. "I'm not doing anything different than usual. It's just hockey."

Refusing to think. Because suddenly everything is working out. The Chicago Blackhawks say he'll play a game for them. He'll probably get taken in the NHL expansion draft. He'll get that shot he always wanted.

But minor-league lifers always react the same way to such sudden prosperity. They don't trust it. They can't stop worrying that it might be gone in the morning. Ray LeBlanc is no different. He is scared. And so up goes the collar of his jacket. Down goes his cap. The nowhere man. Anonymous. Uninformed. Inside his bubble. It's just easier that way.

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