It can be tough, and he knows it. Knows it's a struggle. Knows his aspirations are lofty. Knows nosey columnists have their doubts. In fact, his may be the most difficult job in sports, or at the very least the most frustrating.
Then again, in his mind it's neither. He's one of those glass-half-full guys, quick with a smile or a joke. That's what you notice most about Marty Turco. That's why you think he'll make it, why, ultimately, you have as much confidence in his future as he does. He doesn't deal in hypotheticals or negatives. Prefers to live here, now, in a pleasant reality. Likes what he does these days. He's figured it out, how simple this can all be if you revel in the moment. He's comfortable, learning from the best, playing contented understudy to Eddie Belfour's luminous lead role. For now, the 25-year-old backup Dallas goaltender doesn't mind the shadow of anonymity. Doesn't mind sitting for days, or weeks, at a time in between starts.
This is not a problem; it's an opportunity. And, damn, can't anyone else see that?
"First and foremost, I want to play in the NHL," he says after a taxing practice, an off-white towel draped around his sweaty neck, a cup of blue-green PowerAde in his left hand. He speaks openly, casually, like a longtime neighbor or an old pal you see at a bar. "But to play here...the company, the guys--this is a great place to be. I get to learn from one of the best goalies in the league. He's been great. He's welcomed me. When you get to know him, on road trips or whatever, and talk with him, he's one of the most sincere guys on the team.
"I mean, I don't even think of myself as a backup. I think of myself more as a protégé, like an assistant CEO who's in training to take over a company. Ideally, I want to be here for a long time."
Right. Makes sense. But there were those who came before him, previous trainees, and therein lies the complication. There were chaps who uttered similar sentiments--name players like St. Louis' Roman Turek and Minnesota's Emmanuel Fernandez--guys who had every intention of forever toeing the company line. Until the line snapped and they were forced to make a go of it elsewhere.
You mention this to Turco, and he shrugs it off with a pleasant grin. So he isn't the first to be groomed by Belfour; so what? If he's not the first, he'd like to be the last. Don't get him wrong, he says--he merely enjoys his current situation. He's not planning a coup, not trying to unseat the incumbent. But he does want to be around when the pads are passed down. That, however, could take some time.
At 35, Belfour still has plenty of good games left in his waffle board. In fact, he's performed exceptionally since making the move to Dallas in '97 (1.99 goals-against average as a Star entering the season, compared to a 2.47 mark over his career), developing into (arguably) hockey's premier net minder. Through Tuesday, the Eagle had a 1.89 goals-against average, winning 14 starts and compiling a .918 save percentage. He leads the league with seven shutouts. Those are MVP numbers, valuable numbers, numbers no one will be in a hurry to hustle off the ice.
Turco waits, then, for who knows how long--which can be difficult, particularly since he's used to starting, starring. Particularly since he's done both since picking up his first pair of Bauer skates ages ago and determining to step in front of screaming pucks. Not playing changes the way he must prepare for games. The mindset has to stay the same--he has to be ready for action and all that jazz--but the body, how do you keep the body ready for a tussle when you only get to throw down every St. Swithen's Day?
"It certainly is different," he says. "You've got to be a professional. You've got to be prepared, whether it's a few days or a few weeks in between starts. It's my job to come in here and back up Eddie and learn. This has been great. This has been exactly what I want it to be."
Well, not exactly. Not even for Sam Sunshine. In his last start, on December 7 in Los Angeles, the rookie (3-2-0 this year) allowed five goals on 25 shots. He owns a less-than-stellar .857 save percentage. Now the coach will say the team didn't play well that night, and the Stars were winding down a long road swing, and he's a first-year player feeling his way, and the fifth moon of Zandor was out of alignment. Regardless, it wasn't a good performance for Turco.
"Like a lot of young guys, he's on the learning curve," says head coach Ken Hitchcock, the familiar gray mustache perched on his upper lip dancing with every word. "Like a lot of young guys, sometimes he's on top of that curve and sometimes not. Right now, it's hard to take [Belfour] out because he's playing well and we need the points, which makes it difficult to evaluate Marty. But we also need to play better in front of Marty when he's in there. I wish we had played better in front of him [against the Kings]."
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Still, unlike Belfour, Turco has, and will have, plenty of opportunity to think about what went wrong. Doesn't get to redeem himself the next night. Doesn't get to show that it was a fluke, that he has skills, that he can play at this level. Instead he must trot out an already tired refrain: "sit and watch and learn." That's the other hump he must leap over if he's serious about this every-day goalie thing. Because while others before him have successfully made the jump and excelled, there have been just as many who end up going splat, who can't deal with the down time when the down time is rough.
Again, Turco doesn't see it that way.
"It is harder to prepare when you're not getting in every day, but that's not my role," he says again, without contempt, just so you understand. "Do I want to play? Who doesn't want to play? But look at my situation. The organization has been great. Eddie's been great. The city has been good to me and my wife. I have the best job in the world."
Maybe he's right. Maybe he's figured it all out. Maybe this is the perfect post. Because, sometimes, isn't the key to moving forward to stand in the right spot?