Sunday, January 21, 2007

Why Jose Theodore had to get the hell out of Montreal

This story broke some new ground in the biggest hockey story in Canada back in the summer of 2003. Jose Theodore, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender and former NHL most valuable player, was on the front pages, first when his father and four brothers were charged with racketeering, and later when photos of Jose Theodore and friends in the Hells Angels were made public. The news in this story—not reported in either the Englsih or French press—was a convicted drug dealer for the Angels having a phone book with Jose Theodore’s phone number listed (and that Theodore’s phone number was in fact a “vanity number” for the biker organization).

From ESPN The Magazine

After a season—and summer—from hell—Jose Theodore seeks peace between the pipes.

By Gare Joyce

Jose Theodore was feeling sick and weak. He was in the Canadiens locker room, waiting for the introductions before Les Habs’ first preseason game this fall. He was hoping the Bell Centre fans would cheer him. He thought that they would, but he wasn’t sure.

By the time Theodore had finished his warm-up, he felt worn out and was soaked in a cold sweat. It might have been the flu he was battling. But it could also have been the tension of this first night in goal after a season he’d rather forget and a summer he never will.

What a difference a year makes. At the same time in 2002, Theodore owned more than the Hart and the Vezina trophies that were his reward for a season of artistry. He owned Montreal. He was la vedette—the player with star quality, embodiment of the rouge, bleu et blanc: Born and raised in Montreal, fluent in French and English, face fit for a boy band, his play in goal—equal parts butterfly and whirling dervish—reminiscent of the great Patrick Roy.

But that was before. Before a season in which Theodore slipped from first in save percentage to 15th, a season in which the Canadiens missed the playoffs after a miraculous run the previous year. Before last June, when police busted Theodore’s father, four half-brothers and an uncle for loan-sharking at a Montreal casino. Before the Montreal papers ran front-page photographs of Theodore, all smiles, posing with one of Canada’s most notorious gangs. Before Jose Theodore learned that he could not stop all the shots life fired at him.

Finally, the introductions: “Numero Soixante, Number Sixty, Jose Theodore.” Even before the PA announcer made it to the English, even before he said the name, the fans applauded, cheered, rose to their feet. Theodore sighed in relief. He had survived a difficult moment, the latest, if not the last.


When Theodore was a kid playing hockey for the 47 Richelieu team in Montreal, he worshiped Patrick Roy. So did a lot of other kids. But for Theodore, becoming an NHL goalie wasn’t a pipe dream. When Jose was 12, Russian hockey icon Viacheslav Tretiak predicted a bright NHL future for Theodore. Once the goalie for the Soviet Union’s 1970s hockey dynasty, Tretiak now ran a hockey school in Montreal, and in a television interview he predicted stardom for his young student. Theodore still has a tape of the broadcast, which made him a local celebrity. He can still recite it, word for word. “I’ve had a lot of goaltenders come to my school,” says Tretiak. “A lot went to the NHL. Jose was the best, better than Martin Brodeur.”

The Canadiens took Theodore with their second-round pick in the 1994 draft, even with Roy on their roster. The young man’s future could not have been brighter. His past—or at least his father’s past—was another story.

In those days, Habs scouts didn’t bother with player interviews and background checks, believing those procedures tipped off other teams. But rival scouts who ran those checks were scared by what they found. They learned that Jose’s father ran with the wrong crowd. That he had served 16 months in jail in the early 1980s for dealing hashish. “We knew about Ted Theodore,” says one junior coach who worked with Jose. “NHL scouts had to know, too.”

Their fears will be played out publicly in December, when Ted Theodore appears in a Montreal court on 59 criminal counts for offenses that include conspiracy to loan-sharking, racketeering, issuing death threats and weapons possession. Ted’s four oldest sons from his first marriage—Nicky, 45, Frank, 42, Theo Jr., 35, and Roch, 29—and his brother Boris are also charged.

In the past eight months, police have taken statements from more than 200 alleged victims of a loan-sharking ring that charged 200% to 600% interest on loans that reached well into five figures. And in May, police seized a bank account held jointly by Ted and Jose, with a balance of $85,000 (Canadian). Police say that the cash was not Jose’s, that Ted made the deposits assuming that large sums would not attract attention when one of the account-holders draws a seven-figure NHL salary. Police also say his son was never a suspect.

“Jose Theodore has not met with us, and we do not anticipate meeting with him,” says Jean-Guy Gagnon, deputy chief of criminal investigations with the Montreal police. Adds Guy Ouellette, a retired Quebec cop who’s been active in the case: “There would be no motive for a hockey star already making millions to risk everything.”

Still, the cops had to be thinking about Jose Theodore when they dubbed the case Operation Referee. Theodore won’t talk about the investigation. But he must have been dreading the results of Operation Referee throughout much of last season. And with that assumption comes another: Theodore’s worries may have had something to do with the netminder’s disappointing performance on the ice.

In hockey-obsessed Montreal, that slide would have been a focus of the media this offseason had it not been for the scandal. Now, instead of Jose’s play, the press is focused on a more lurid question, one that Montreal’s Le Journal blared in a recent headline: “What did he know?”

What did he know? Maybe Jose’s mother, Marie-France, told him stories when he asked where his father was for those 16 months, or what Ted did for a living. Because of Jose’s self-imposed gag order, we can’t know. But there’s a difference between being innocent and living blind.

“You have to believe Jose knew something,” Ouellette says. “But it’s not his duty to report his father. He had to think about the support his father gave him over the years.”

Jose Theodore wasn’t Montreal’s No. 1 goalie going into the 2001-02 season. Just a couple of years clear of the minors, he was slated to divide ice time with veteran Jeff Hackett. Montreal’s playoff hopes looked bleak, bleaker still after center and captain Saku Koivu was diagnosed with stomach cancer. When Hackett was sidelined in November with a hand injury, it looked like just another misfortune in a cursed season. But black cloud seemed to lift when Theodore took over. Although he saw 30 shots per game, more than any other NHL goalie, he led the league with a .931 save percentage. His goals-against average was a glimmering 2.11. And the numbers only started to tell the story of the team’s reliance on him.

“We asked him to be God,” says Montreal goalie coach Rollie Melanson. He was at least a god. Thanks to Theodore and the inspirational return of Koivu, the Habs made the playoffs, knocked off the favored Bruins in the first round, and took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Hurricanes to six games. Theodore’s prize? The Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, the Vezina as the league’s top goalie and, after a brief holdout, a three-year $18 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in Montreal’s history.

Then, just like that, it all went wrong. Theodore struggled last season. He finished with a 2.90 goals-against average. The Habs never even sniffed the playoffs. Melanson doesn’t understate Jose’s struggles—“When you’re No. 1 in the world the only place you can go is down. What we didn’t anticipate was him coming into camp not in the condition he should have been in”—but he had no idea of the real struggles his protege was enduring.

In April, Jose had told family members that he was afraid they were going to hurt his career—a conversation that was recorded while Ted was under electronic surveillance.

While the front-page stories about his family may not have been Jose’s doing, the next media frenzy was. In June, two papers ran photos of Theodore posing with the Hells Angels. In the United States, the image of the Hells Angels might be along the lines of middle-aged weekend warriors on Harleys. But in Canada, and Quebec specifically, the gang represents nothing benign or romantic. For years, in fact, the Angels had been waging a bloody turf war with a rival gang, the Rock Machine, on the streets of Montreal: guns, bombs, the works. The toll across the province: 164 dead, including 29 innocents, one an 11-year-old boy. The Angels have also killed prison guards, bombed police stations and bribed cops and juries.

And Jose Theodore was their pet.

In the photograph published by Allo Police, a crime tabloid, Theodore was standing with 13 Hells Angels at a golf tournament sponsored by a strip joint in 1998. In the second, published by Le Journal and taken in 2000, he is seen with the Angels in full regalia, in one of their clubhouses just outside of Montreal.

The NHL prohibits personnel from associating with criminals, but the league didn’t punish Theodore or even confirm that officials spoke with him after the photos were published. Ouellette, the retired investigator, claims that Louis Laframboise, who heads the company in charge of NHL security in Quebec, said he had spoken to Theodore about the pictures. An NHL spokesman says only that league security is “an internal matter.” Theodore’s agent, Don Meehan, says the NHL has never spoken to his client about the Angels.

Whatever the truth, Theodore talked to reporters about the two scandals just once, in August. He was understandably cautious. “When you’re young, you don’t have the same judgment as today,” he said. “These photos were taken five or six years ago. I learn from experience. But I’m not perfect … These are the things that come with my fame.”

Even if the NHL never warned Theodore about running with the Angels, they had to be disturbed by one piece of evidence from the prosecution of Eric Bouffard, a boyhood pal of Jose’s. Bouffard is serving four years for drug trafficking, and when he was arrested police seized his address book. That Jose Theodore’s name and number were listed did not surprise Ouellette. But the digits did. “It’s not important what the first three numbers were,” Ouellette says. “It was the last four, 8181. For Hells Angels, these are very important. Many use 81 as a short form for the Hells Angels. H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, A the first. Hells Angels will pay a lot of money for a phone number with 81 in it.”


Jose Theodore is the best known NHL player with a family connection to crime, but he won't be the first. In fact, he won't even be the first goaltender from Montreal whose family was linked to the underworld.

A famous story retold many times when veteran hockey men gather: An agent walks through the lobby of a hotel in Montreal and spots Billy Johnston. "Good to see you, Billy," the agent says. "What are you doing these days?"

Billy Johnston looks at him stone-faced and in a matter-of-fact monotone says: "Bank robber, retired."

Billy Johnston may or may not have robbed banks but he was a known wiseguy in Montreal three or four decades ago and the brother of Eddie Johnston, former Boston Bruins netminder and former coach of Hartford and Pittsburgh. In fact, in the Johnston family, the hoods out-numbered the jocks, another brother Mickey being connected as well.

The Johnstons grew up poor just a few blocks south of the old Montreal Forum. Just like Jose Theodore, they dreamed of playing for the Habs. They couldn't afford tickets to Canadiens games and so they ran through the turnstiles and hid in the crowd in the standing room section. "In those days all the players in Quebec were owned by Montreal, so I played on the Canadiens junior affiliates," Johnston says. "To make extra cash I worked as a practice goalie for the Canadiens for a buck a practice. For one dollar I had Maurice Richard coming in from the blueline, running me over."

While Eddie Johnston saw hockey as a way off Montreal's mean streets, his brothers ran with what he calls "a tough crowd." Among those in the crowd, as it turns out, was Ted Theodore.

Still, Eddie Johnston said that his brothers respected his hockey ambitions. "Thing is, I was never involved with my brother and his friends and they never tried to involve me," Eddie Johnston says. "I don't know if they were protective of me or just wanted to see me make it."

There's the difference between then and now. The Johnstons were hands off with Eddie. It seems Ted Theodore wasn't worried about keeping a distance from his famous son. He recklessly tried to use his son as cover. Meanwhile Jose's boyhood friends were all too ready to capitalize on their friendship with him, no matter what the consequences.

Johnston wouldn't speculate about Theodore's future with the Canadiens. "Maybe it turned out easier for me because when I was still a young guy, Montreal traded me and I spent the rest of my life living in the U.S," he says.

And that's what many were looking for this autumn: a trade that would make life easier for Jose Theodore. Canadiens executives defended the goaltender during the summer—but as any Montrealer knows, even a Montrealer who has been stamped as the next great star of the Canadiens, this is the most image-conscious franchise in professional sport, more of a cultural institution than a team. If Theodore lost the fans, if the media turned on, or if somehow he were implicated in his family’s alleged crime syndicate, those trophies and gaudy numbers wouldn’t mean a thing. He’d be traded. Like Roy was. Like other Hall of Famers had been before him. In Montreal, the criminals are more sentimental than Canadiens executives.


Flu-ridden and rusty, Jose Theodore gave up two first-period goals in that first preseason game. Eric Fichaud, a goalie in the minors, started the second period, but left after breaking a finger in his catching hand. Mathieu Garon, Theodore’s regular backup, was in the arena in civvies and could have rushed into service. Instead, Theodore, white as the ice, skated back into the net. After last season’s uncertainty and last summer’s heat, he was relieved to be back in goal, even though the Habs would go on to lose 4-3. He had to keep his head in the game—on the bench his mind would have been racing.

After the game, as Jose unlaced his skates, reporters huddled around him. They observed his ground rules and asked no questions about the scandals. Despite the headlines, fans, journalists—even Guy Ouellette—wish him well. No one seems to hold his family’s alleged crimes against him. Besides, Theodore always seemed to have a bit of danger in him. Like Allen Iverson, his street cred is part of his appeal.

“Every time I made a save, I heard clapping and cheers,” he told the reporters. “It was a big boost. The coaches told me, ‘It’s only preseason. You’re sick. You shouldn’t play.’ I’ve played in worse situations.”

He’s lived through worse ones, too. All through Theodore’s summer from hell, there were as many trade rumors filling the air as mosquitoes. One had Jose going to Colorado, filling the void left by Patrick Roy’s retirement. But that would have been a very unpopular trade: One survey reported that 71% of Quebecers opposed the idea. “He’s not on the market,” Canadiens president Pierre Boivin told Le Journal. “He’s still our No. 1 goaltender.”

And he’s playing like one: Through six games this season, he has a 2.00 goals-against average and two shutouts.

Will it last? Even if it doesn’t Jose Theodore has made his mark on the franchise. Across from his stall in the Canadiens dressing room in the Bell Centre, Theodore can see his name engraved in marble. Carved into the gray tablet on the wall near the door to the ice are the names of Canadiens who have won the NHL’s individual trophies. “Jose Theodore 2002” is the most recent entry among Hart Trophy winners, a list that includes Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz. “Jose Theodore 2002” is also on the honor roll of Vezina Trophy winners, along with Roy, Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante.

It will be a struggle to get his name back on that marble, but Jose’s father may be able to help. At a hearing in September, prosecutors pushed for a December court date for Ted Theodore and the other defendants. They’re pressuring for a plea bargain, to bring a quick end to a proceeding that could drag for months. If Ted Theodore cops a plea, Jose can start to get on with his life—with a heavy heart, perhaps, but a clear mind. “What did Jose Theodore know?” will no longer be the burning question, and he’ll have a chance to answer the one that really matters. How will Jose Theodore be remembered?


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