Puck You

...And your cynicism toward the Stars' gutsy goalie

So, you wanna piece of Marty Turco? Have a seat.

Down the hall, hang a left into the Dallas Stars players' lounge. Back there, past the P.F. Chang's spread and the Super Chexx bubble hockey game. Go ahead, plop down in one of those plush black leather chairs. Kick back and relax, watch some SpongeBob SquarePantson the high-def.

The coolest, hottest athlete in town will be with you in a...

"Hey, whaddyaknow?" says Turco.

Well, here's what we thinkwe know.

We think you're a choker, a goalie who stands on his head against Atlanta in November but falls on his face against Colorado come May. We think you probably handle your failures selfishly and internally, one of those "island" goalies who rarely fraternizes with teammates. We think in the aftermath of another collapse to the Avalanche last spring you spent the summer wallowing in self-pity, gaining weight and losing confidence. We think you shaved your head because you somehow reason that looking different will make you play different. And we think you won't answer half our questions, because you'd rather face point-blank frozen rubber than the past.

Eh?

"It hurts, but nothing good could come out of pretending it didn't happen," Turco says, digging into his psyche and his China bistro lunch. "I can't run and hide. Life goes on. The playoffs were a complete disappointment. I didn't dwell on it, but I didn't ignore it either. First was acceptance, then the process of determining what I could learn from it. I didn't just hope I'd play better this year; I tried to make myself a better player.

"And really, I've just always wanted short hair. Low maintenance, ya know? You should grab some chow. Delicious."

Just like that, Turco crosses his legs, opens his soul and so skate-saves our preconceived notions that I feel like I'm writing for the Dallas Oblivious. Handling his chopsticks as deftly as he handles a goalie stick, he spends an illuminating hour in Frisco picking apart chicken, beef, noodles and every last scrap of pessimism.

Says Turco: "I've got a renewed belief in myself."

But after last April's kick to the crotch, trusting Turco and his Stars is like buying stock in the li'l boys who cried wolf. The Stars were Dallas' best team the last decade and the city's last organization to lift a championship trophy ('99). Last season they won a franchise-record 53 games and the Western Conference's No. 2 seed. Finally recovering from a season lost to lockout, the team's loyal-but-limited fan base was edgy to test-drive a sport trying to restore its small-town, big-time feel.

Then, like Halloweensequels, the Stars' playoff death grew more violent, less watchable.

For the second consecutive post-season, Dallas melted in the first round to a lower-seeded Colorado team wholly uncompetitive in the following series. While the Mavericks hypnotized Dallas deep into June, the Stars suffered a premature evacuation, ripping those Mike Modano mega-posters off American Airlines Center before the Elmer's had dried.

With its credibility on thin ice and its cynical audience more consumed by Dancing With the Starsthan skating with the Stars, Dallas adjusted via telling tweaks in the off-season, most notably demoting Modano from captain for Brenden Morrow.

The team's season and the fans' skepticism, however, remain in Turco's talented, tumultuous hands.

"There's big pressure on him," says Stars coach Dave Tippett. "He's a heartbeat of this team. But the experiences he's gone through are going to help him handle it better next time. I fully believe that."

One of the best regular-season goalies in the history of frozen water, Turco must suddenly save his reputation.

In a sport that crowns its champ in 100-degree heat, Turco is Mr. October. In the midst of making more saves than Jesus, he signed a four-year contract last season that made him the Stars' highest-paid player at $6 million per year. But, as in '03 and '04, in the playoffs he surrendered almost five goals per game against Colorado. Despite a regular-season win percentage of almost .700, Turco is a confounding 8-14 in the playoffs.

Another stage-fright splat this season, and the c-word whispers will become deafening.

"Choke is too strong," says longtime Stars broadcaster Ralph Strangis. "Since '89 the average age of the Stanley Cup-winning goalie is 30. Marty's 31, so it's his time. All he's been through is part of the process. It's not unusual."

Says Morrow: "It was a team failure. We never questioned Marty. Not for one second."

Despite some deep, dark May daze, Turco quashed his self-sniping.

"It was disbelief, not a lot of fun," says Turco, slowly slurping a noodle. "But I didn't mope, and I never really worried I'd lost it. I knew I could still play the game. I spent a lot of time by myself thinking about how I could play it better."

The answer: Smarty Turco.

He first visited his fitness guru in Vancouver, who designed a regimen aimed at strengthening Turco's core while loosening his muscles. He arrived for training camp a month early, impressing coaches and teammates who say, if anything, the fun-loving Turco is a tad more serious and a smidge more conservative in his league-best puck-handling.

"I decided to take physical limitations out of the equation," Turco says.

The results are predictably tantalizing. Turco helped the Stars to an 8-1 start, best in team history, and through the first month is playing like an NHL MVP. Stop me if you've heard this one before: The more Turco succeeds in the present, the more his critics will construe past results as a precursor to future failures.

Has Turco finally figured out how to be Ed Belfour (without the surly isolationism and Mansion rants)? Or will he again deteriorate into Marty Jerko (Dallas' biggest tease this side of The Men's Club)?

"Nothing I can say matters," Turco says, finishing off the last chunk of sweet-and-sour chicken. "It's only what I can do on the ice. My team believes in me, and I believe in myself. I want to give these guys and our fans a championship. It's what drives me. After what we've all been through, I think we'll be able to appreciate it even more."

Saving his best for last, Turco wipes his hands and suddenly morphs into David Blaine. His lunch devoured and our doubts diluted, he casually unwraps and snaps open his fortune cookie.

Deadpans Turco as he hands over the slip of paper, "See for yourself."

Any doubts you have about yourself will disappear early this month.

So, you still wanna piece of Marty Turco?

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