In the world we live in today, there’s no business like private business.
It’s in newspapers and magazines, on televisions and websites. Scuttlebutt is king, scooped up in large portions, the juicier the better.
That world caught up with Jaroslav Halak and Ken Hitchcock last May when they conducted a heated discussion outside a team meeting in Los Angeles.
Keep in mind, loud arguments are nothing new to sports, certainly nothing new to Hitchcock. He coached Brett Hull for crying out loud.
But when the Halak-Hitchcock incident went public, the world we live in skipped a beat.
For a Blues community almost as frustrated by the circumstances as the principals, it was clear who wore the black hat — Halak. In the weeks since, handwriting had been all over the NHL walls.
With the emergence of Jake Allen, on the heels of another Brian Elliott renaissance, the message has been clear: Halak’s remaining time in St. Louis is borrowed. The rumor mills have Halak heading to Philadelphia, to Buffalo, to parts still unknown.
Reality has Halak out at St. Louis Mills, the Blues’ training facility in Hazelwood. He has been there all summer, running on treadmills, lifting and stretching, looking forward to a new season — with the St. Louis Blues. And nowhere on his person are hard feelings.
“I’m happy to be here,” Halak said. “I signed to play here for four years and I wanted to accomplish some goals when I came, and I haven’t done that. I still want to accomplish those goals.”
A native of the enchanting city of Bratislava, Slovakia, Halak’s reserved demeanor obscures his competitive intensity. His goals are based on winning, as are Hitchcock’s. Those ingredients can lead to impassioned speech and demonstrative debate.
‘I wasn’t upset’
Halak said the argument with his coach was history before it even became news.
“I wasn’t upset or anything,” he said. “A coach and a player have those discussions all the time. If someone hears it, obviously, they can make a big story out of it. But I don’t think it was anything bad. I was frustrated, I wasn’t playing. But I was injured and ... the whole season, the way it turned out, was just difficult.”
Sometimes, a simmering pot boils over.
“You know, when it’s enough, it’s enough,” Halak acknowledged. “Sometimes you keep it inside of you for a long time and then it gets out. Like I said, I wasn’t happy. I care about winning and about playing. I want the best for our team and at the same time, I want to play and help the team.”
That hasn’t changed. Those are things Halak still wants, things he wants here, playing for the Blues and for Hitchcock. He insists their relationship is unstained.
“It’s fine, Halak said. “Even after we talked, it was fine. It was nothing to make a big deal out of. It’s not like we don’t talk anymore; it’s not the case at all.
“He gets passionate about the game and he doesn’t want to lose. And when he gets frustrated with a guy, he lets him know. And the other way around, if a player is unhappy or wants to speak up, he can speak up. That’s the policy, and that’s all it was.”
Angst has been Halak’s frequent and uninvited partner in St. Louis. Over the past 18 months, he has been like a caged animal, a competitor who has been unable to compete.
First came a devastating ankle injury in a first-round playoff game against San Jose, a collision with Barret Jackman that knocked Halak from the remainder of the postseason. Then came a four-month lockout, followed by a sudden 48-game season.
Then came injuries and re-injuries, starts and stops, a scenario that limited Halak to 16 games.
For the most part, when he’s been healthy, Halak has been a terrific goaltender for the Blues. He won 26 games in 2011-12, pitched six shutouts, carried a 1.97 goals-against average. He combined with Elliott to capture the Jennings Trophy as the Blues allowed the fewest goals in the league.
He was numero uno in the Blues’ net until the collision with Jackman, until the interruptions.
Last season, Halak registered three shutouts and 2.14 GAA. But there was the groin injury and recurrences. With Halak hurt and Elliott struggling, Jake Allen got a chance and played well.
A Crowded goalcrease
“Three’s Company” in a successful television sitcom, but three’s a crowd where NHL goalies are concerned. There’s not enough practice time to accommodate three, not enough games, not enough roster.
The timing of it all did not favor Halak. Although he was cleared to play in the final week of the regular season, the Blues still were battling for playoff position. Hitchcock stayed with Elliott. For the second year in succession, Halak closed the season in a sitting position.
In the end, the 16 games he played contrasted with 38 games he watched.
“It was frustrating,” Halak said. “I got unlucky in the (2012) playoffs when I got injured. Then last season, it was unfortunate again for me, I just couldn’t recover from an injury. It was a weird season for a lot of guys. And it was really frustrating. I came back and I played a few games, but then we had the situation with three goalies, and that didn’t help, too.
“Then I got injured again … But that was all last season. So, I’m not worried about that anymore, I just want to train hard and get ready, and we’ll see what happens.”
The world we live in notwithstanding, it appears most likely Halak will be back with the Blues when training camp opens in mid-September. He will be back and the No. 1 label will still be his to lose.
Halak is 28 years old, in his athletic prime. He still has the reputation of being a difference-maker in goal, a reputation built on playoff performances in Montreal. For all of his outstanding regular-season work, Elliott has not established that same postseason property. Allen’s body of work is just 13 NHL starts long.
Allen, who turns 23 in August, has yet to sign a new contract. But Blues general manager Doug Armstrong insists there is no mandate to move any of his goaltenders.
“I think Jake came up and played very well for us last year,” Armstrong said. “But he still has some growth he can do, and I don’t think playing in the American Hockey League would stunt his development.
“Jaro and Brian Elliott won the Jennings Trophy just two short years ago. Last year was an interesting season in a sense of how quickly we started up, and neither guy had played. So if we go into this season with these three goalies, that’s excellent depth.”
Halak is entering the final year of his contract in St. Louis. He has every reason to put his best pads forward, to amplify his market value. The Blues have every reason to want the same, to perhaps re-up with a known commodity.
Meanwhile, Halak keeps on working at the Blues’ facility. He hears the gossip, knows the score. But he distances himself from that world to focus on his bottom line. He wants to play for the Blues. Most importantly, he wants to play.
“I can’t control if I get traded or not, or anything like that,” Halak said. “I just want to train hard and get ready and the rest is up to the management. Whether they keep me, or ‘Els’ or Jake, or whoever … I just want to play hockey and I want to enjoy it.”
That could be a win-win, for Halak and the Blues.