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The Underdog

By Allan Maki - Calgary Herald
September 21, 1997

Sure, you love him now. He's the greatest. Number one in your hearts. But wait until Christmas. Or February. Some of you will feel differently then. You'll be sneering at him. Shaking your heads after every goal he lets in, screaming for his backup to take over.
It happened to Pat Riggin. He went from fan favorite to the fans' favorite target at the drop of a puck. Dan Bouchard, Don Edwards, they were as popular as foot odor before they left Calgary. Reggie Lemelin? He was OK for a while, but he wasn't good enough to win a championship. Mike Vernon was, and he had to leave town. Trevor Kidd, too.
So why should the latest hero of the moment, Rick Tabaracci, think he's going to stay the people's choice for very long? Doesn't he realize goalies in this city are eaten up and tossed aside like chicken bones on 10-cent-wing-night? How long will it be before the Flames have to crank up the music during the player introductions so Tabaracci won't hear the catcalls raining down on his head?
Tabaracci doesn't know, and frankly, he's not worried about it. He sees success ahead, not failure. His approach to the coming NHL season is as straight-on as a Brett Hull slapshot -- you work hard, keep your nose clean and never surrender. The Flames may not win every game, Tabaracci says with a hard stare, but the effort to win will always be there. Starting in goal.
It's the only way he knows how to play.
"I can tell you what it's like: in all of sports, everybody loves the underdog. He's the favorite to cheer for. I've been that guy for a number of years and I'm going to continue to play like an under dog," he says.
"You know how people say the glass is either half-full or half-empty? I believe the glass is half-full. I'm a positive person. I think this is the beginning of great things, I really do. I'm not worried about this season. I'm excited."
It's still only the exhibition season. All kinds of players are saying all kinds of wonderful things about their team, except that in Tabaracci's case you can believe him when he talks about giving his all and playing like an underdog. The guy's been one his whole career. He's had to scrap for everything. For a chance to play in the NHL. For a shot at being a starting goaltender.
In Pittsburgh, where he was the second goalie taken in the 1987 entry draft, he got one game with the Penguins before being traded. In Winnipeg, he got his chances, but wasn't ready for them. "I hadn't learned the position," he admits.
In Washington, he was always injured. His first go-round in Calgary, he played extremely well, but was traded to Tampa Bay. Tampa then traded him back to Calgary this past off season.
Six transactions in nine years and always the same mentality: Never give up. Tabaracci says he got that from his mom and dad, a couple of working-class Torontonians who sacrificed plenty to make sure their two boys could play hockey.
"My mom worked. My dad left the house at 7 a.m. and at night (after work) would go straight to the arena to watch me play. My mom would bring him a sandwich and a thermos of coffee. They gave a lot. My dad spent 36 years painting cars in a garage. They taught me about work ethic.
"I always felt I was cheating them if Iwasn't giving my best. They were the biggest influence on me."
Tabaracci has given his best wherever he has played, but it was his last playoff start here that should have been his call to glory. Calgary's Game 4, triple-overtime effort against Chicago in the spring of 1996 was the highlight performance of Tabaracci's career. He made save after save against the Blackhawks until finally the Flames lost 2-1 on a silly screwup by defenceman Trent Yawney.
Had the Flames won, all doubts about Tabaracci's ability to be the man would have been erased. It would have been his signature game, his touchstone.
"It was a great game," Tabaracci says wistfully.
Has he ever watched it on videotape?
"No. Maybe in a few years, but not now."
Tabaracci bears no ill feelings towards the Flames for trading him to Tampa, although he knew soon after checking in with the Lightning he was only there until Daren Puppa got healthy. Coming back to an organization where he enjoyed friendships and success is sure to reep rewards.
Tabaracci, now 28, needs a team that has confidence in him. The Flames need his puck handling skills, the way he communicates with the defencemen and, most importantly, his relentless competitive streak.
That's why he's not worried about being booed and hissed at. Even in the bad times, Tabaracci is a battler; a guy who plays like Claude Lemieux with a toothache. Some of you will rant when he lets in a soft goal, but the angriest man in the building will be the one wearing jersey No. 31. He'll be looking for a way to get better. He'll be one of the first ones on the ice at practice the next day and the last to leave.
His parents taught him well. Even you hecklers in the crowd can't jeer that.
"Those other (Calgary) goalies, I don't think it was all on-ice stuff that dissolved their relationship with the fans. I don't think people turn on you unless something happens," says Tabaracci. "Besides, I think we're going to do well this season. We're going to be intense. We've got some big defensemen who can skate and we're not going to be very easy to play against.
"I plan on keeping that underdog mentality."

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