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'TENDER SITUATIONS

Dan Cloutier always has wanted to be the main man at goalie. After leaving New York, he expects to give Daren Puppa a fight for the starting position.

He always wanted to be a goalie.

No, that's not quite accurate. Dan Cloutier, 23, always wanted to be the goalie. Still does. Daren Puppa is not going to just cruise back into the Lightning crease as its No. 1 netminder. Cloutier, who amounts to Tampa Bay's No. 1 draft choice, will give him all the fight he can handle.

It comes easy to him. He was, um, competitive long before he put on his first pair of skates.

Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada on the television, was prime time for Cloutier, growing up here, about 80 miles north of Ottawa. He always watched the goalies. "The start of game, when they showed them, their stats, that was big for me."

Patrick Roy, in his prime with the Canadiens in the '80s, was his favorite, along with Ron Hextall of the Flyers, who considered every goal a personal affront and every opponent a trespasser.

The basement wasn't finished yet. Dan was 4; his brother Sylvain was 6. They were one team. Their father, Yvan, and cousin Norbert were the other. After watching each period of Hockey Night in Canada, they'd hit the basement and play one of their own _ Dan decked out in goalie gear _ for 15 sweaty minutes of Hockey Night in Mont-Laurier.

"He was a real competitor growing up," Sylvain said. "He hated to lose, hated to get scored on. He'd get frustrated, walk away."

But he always came back. "I wanted to play like Roy and Hexie. Roy's style and Hexie's competitiveness." Hextall's approach to life in the crease would emerge soon enough in Cloutier's game.

Short fuse

Sault Ste. Marie _ everyone calls it "the Soo" _ sits in south-central Ontario, 300 miles north of Detroit. The Cloutiers moved there when Dan was 8, returned to Mont-Laurier a year later and went back to the Soo again when he turned 10.

"We moved for him, for the boys," said Suzane Cloutier, who like her husband is a Quebecois and speaks limited, heavily accented English. "It's not that unusual for families up here to do that."

The Soo is a hockey town, much the way small Texas towns revolve around high school football.

Dany _ his Christian name _ was shy. He spoke only French and didn't want to be ragged in the English-speaking Soo. And he hated to skate. But two years earlier, his mother's team had needed a goalie. He was 6, pressed into service facing women in their 20s and 30s, and won the tournament.

"First big thing I did as a goalie," he said.

Back in the Soo, Dan was persuaded to join First Choice Haircutters, a winless team in a local league. "Mom was really nervous because she knew I got upset when I was scored on. She told Sylvain, "He's just going to leave.' We won my first game, beat Soo Police 3-0. First real game I'd ever played."

His father is a skidder. He drives a bulldozer-like machine with a giant claw that gathers fallen trees and carries them to a train or truck. Yvan only dreamed of playing pro hockey. But by the time Dan was playing bantam hockey (ages 13-14), he knew it would be his life _ when he wasn't fooling around with First Choice teammates Paul Godfrey and Brian Paradis and other kids in the Soo.

"It was tough for him when he first got here and hard to get to know him because he couldn't speak a word of English hardly," said Godfrey, who owns O'Aces, a bar in Sault Ste. Marie. "But me and Brian kind of took him aside and we became a little pack, grew closer and closer."

To kids in the Soo, "fishing" means trying to persuade adults to take their money and buy them beer. "Me and Dany and another friend," said Paradis, a bartender at O'Aces, "we split a six-pack and we're walking down the street with beer in our hands and a cop comes by. Nothing serious happened; he just took us home. It was our first experience getting in trouble. One of the last, too."

Unless you count the time Paul and Dan were 15 and Sylvain, 17, was driving Godfrey's parents' convertible. "Him and Sylvain were always competing," Godfrey said. "So they're in the front seat and they get into a thing about their girlfriends and we're in the middle of an intersection and they hop out of the car and they're really going at it, so I hop out to try and break it up. Except Sylvain forgot to put the car in park and it keeps going and they're fighting and I have to run it down and shut it off before it goes over the median.

"I don't know who won the fight but I'd guess it was Dany. Most of the time he got the upper edge. He was always the tough guy, coming from Quebec. Off the ice, same kind of character; a very short fuse. On the ice he was usually the biggest, toughest guy. Everyone looked up to him."

Brother against brother

Boys who are serious about hockey will play where pro scouts will be sure to see them. Cloutier moved 300 miles to St. Thomas, near the southern tip of Ontario. He was 15, facing players as old as their 20s, and he was homesick.

"When he went to St. Thomas there was a lot of crying, and big phone bills," Suzane said, seated in the living room of a house that has become a veritable shrine to hockey-playing sons. "Dany and us, we spoke two, three times a day." They still do.

Sylvain was playing in Guelph, about an hour's drive away. "I'd drive down to see him almost every week," he said. "I think that's when we became best friends. When we were in the Soo, we hung out with different people. Going away brought us together."

Dan moved in with a family _ that, too, is not unusual for budding hockey players _ but found their life too structured and moved elsewhere in St. Thomas, this time into Helen Monroe's house. She was 69, an elementary school teacher.

"He'd complain he wasn't getting enough ice time," she said. "He was eager to learn. He didn't want to just play hockey; he wanted to improve.

"He felt school wasn't important. I was a teacher and he'd tell me, "Well, I'm a hockey player.' When he left he said, "Helen, you failed. I still hate school.' But he was a good student. And he was a very thoughtful young man, still is." They have maintained contact, "Dany and Granny," he said.

The next year he was drafted by his hometown team, Sault Ste. Marie's Greyhounds. They would play the Guelph Storm. He would face his brother. "It was hard to play against each other," Sylvain said. "You want him to do well but you also want to do well, want your team to do well."

Dan wasn't as diplomatic. "I'd come into our locker room and they'd be complaining about my brother. He was a pretty chippy player."

Snowed

The Greyhounds were playing Windsor, one of the best teams in the Ontario Hockey League, and led the Spitfires 2-0 after two periods. "It's a big deal going into their building and stealing two points with a win," Cloutier said. "Then we got outshot 26-0 in the third and lost 3-2. They were celebrating and I was really steamed, so I went straight down the ice and jumped (goalie) Travis Scott."

Then there was Kingston. Someone "snowed" Cloutier, kicking a spray of ice shavings at him as he went down to stop a shot.

"That started a rumble," Cloutier said. "I just happened to see (goalie) Greg Lovell standing there, so I just happened to go down and challenge him. The refs separated us before anything serious happened and went back to the other fights. I pretended I'm going back to the bench and wheeled back and Lovell and I went right at it at center ice. Got a standing ovation in my hometown."

There would be the occasional scuffle during his brief time with Guelph and with Binghamton and Hartford of the AHL. But here's the classic:

On April 4, 1998, with Cloutier in goal and the Rangers down 3-0, the Islanders called timeout with about seven minutes to play. "They just wanted to show us up in front of their fans," Cloutier said. Rangers coach John Muckler responded by putting some enforcers on the ice.

The game resumed, left wing P. J. Stock immediately elbowed Isles defenseman Zdeno Chara and a brawl began.

"I went to the bench and (Rangers No. 1 goalie) Mike Richter and I were watching the fight when all of a sudden (Islanders goalie) Tommy Salo jumped into it. I jumped on the ice and went after him." Spectators said Cloutier won by a TKO.

"When I finished with him I challenged their bench." No one took him up on it.

"I don't like anybody bothering me. It used to get me off my game, but some people said I played better when it happened. I had (coach) Ted Nolan when I played for the Greyhounds. He said, "Keep playing the way you're playing. It's been successful so far.' But other coaches don't want anything to do with that."

Nolan recalled their first meeting, when the Greyhounds drafted him. "Getting into scruffs was part of his game and after he signed a contract he asked me if it was okay to continue to do that.

"Some people in hockey try to get everybody to conform to one style, one system," Nolan said. "But certain people have to fly on their own. Dan's one of those kids. Scrapping's part of his game; it makes him play better. He has to be one of the best young goaltenders in the league and I'd have to say the toughest."

Forward

In June, the Rangers asked him to sign autographs at Madison Square Garden before their fans watched the draft on giant screens. Cloutier would sit with Rangers goalie-turned-broadcaster John Davidson, analyzing the picks.

"Ten minutes before (the draft) I got a message from (Rangers general manager) Neil Smith: "Dan, we'd like you not to go up on stage for the next 5-10 minutes, then I'll call you back.' So I'm waiting in this room, knowing I've been traded but not where. Five minutes later, he called back and said, "We just made a trade and you're going to Tampa Bay. That's all I can tell you right now.' "

The Rangers had decided to stick with Richter, an 11-year-veteran with a four-year, $21.8-million contract. "I suppose in the back of my mind, I thought maybe some day I'd be the guy in New York," Cloutier said. "Then I heard, "Tampa Bay.'

"I had mixed feelings. I was upset leaving because of all the friends I had on the team. But then I sat down and thought about it _ new management and young guys like (Vincent) Lecavalier, (Pavel) Kubina, (Darcy) Tucker with a year under their belts. A young team like this, it can only go forward."

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