- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

When he was shopping for a new goalie last summer, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee didn’t just want a proven veteran with postseason success.

McPhee wanted someone who had shown character, someone who had overcome professional failure and disappointment and successfully hurdled real-world obstacles. In that regard, he found his man.

Free agent Jose Theodore, 4-0 in first-round playoff series, signed a two-year, $9 million deal with the Caps on July 1.

“When it doesn’t go well for a guy, sometimes it’s a good thing because they know how to come back from that,” McPhee said. “You want all athletes to have experienced failure at some point. Once they get through that and get back on top of their game again, they always have that frame of reference: ‘If things don’t go well, I can always get back.’

“He’s been brilliant at different times in his career. We’ve always felt if you’ve been great once, you can be great again.”

There is no smooth, parabolic arc to that career.

“Up and down,” Theodore said. “Which is part of the process, I think. I’m happy with the way I bounce back. I’m proud of it.”

Theodore, 32, hit the daily double when he won both the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie and the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP in 2001-02 with Montreal. But within a few years, he was practically booed out of town, traded to Colorado late in the 2005-06 season.

He remained stuck in a post-lockout funk until he led the Avalanche to the playoffs during the second half of last season and practically willed them to a first-round victory against Minnesota. A 3-2 win in Game 5 especially stood out.

“Jose saved us tonight,” Colorado star Peter Forsberg said at the time. “It’s great to have a goalie like that to steal a win on the road.”

Sprinkled in, too, have been rumors and whispers and hard facts. Sometimes things just happened, such as when he slipped on the ice and broke his heel during the 2006 Olympics break. Critics said he grew complacent after his 2002 season, caught up in off-ice activities. He denies that, noting that he made the All-Star team in 2003-04. But he does admit he lost his “focus” and his “edge” for two years after the lockout.

He’s not sure why that happened but insists the arrests of his father and half brothers on dozens of criminal charges, including extortion and “gangsterism,” didn’t distract him. They avoided prison, but a Montreal-based sandwich chain pulled commercials featuring Theodore.

Theodore, who once placed 12th on Sports Illustrated’s list of best-looking male athletes, has a 2-year-old daughter and has toned down an active social life that produced a rite of passage among certain high-profile athletes - an official, linked-with-Paris Hilton tabloid and Internet blitz.

“I have no comment about that,” he said.

During a pre-Olympics screening in 2005, Theodore tested positive for a substance that some athletes have used to mask steroid use. It’s found in the hair-restoring product Propecia, which Theodore said he took for its intended purpose. The NHL took no action.

McPhee and his staff did their due diligence, learned all they could and discovered no major red flags. But mainly, Theodore was the best goalie available after negotiations broke down with Cristobal Huet, who helped lead the Caps’ memorable surge to the playoffs last year. Hours after Theodore agreed to a deal with the Capitals, Huet left for Chicago.

After a shaky start, Theodore has played to mostly positive reviews from Caps management. But some of the fans, less enthused, have mockingly called him “Jose Three-or-more” since early in the season.

He was pulled from his first game, a 7-4 loss to Atlanta in the season opener, and wound up sharing the job with Brent Johnson. When Theodore injured his hip in December, the Caps temporarily called up Simeon Varlamov, the Russian phenom and their goalie of the future. But when he returned, Theodore reclaimed the No. 1 job from Johnson, who remains a fan favorite.

Before Tuesday’s game against Edmonton, Theodore had allowed just 10 goals in six games. But against the Oilers, it took less than 44 minutes for him to yield four goals in a 5-2 loss. Afterward, coach Bruce Boudreau blasted the team’s effort, and he and McPhee said at least some of the goals were not Theodore’s fault. The next night in Pittsburgh, Theodore helped the Caps beat the Penguins 6-3. He has a 15-8-1 record and a 2.94 goals-against average.

“We didn’t know him, and he didn’t know us,” Boudreau said. “There’s a learning curve - me getting used to him and him getting used to me and the team. Sometimes we forget. We look at what we perceive to be a bad game and we blow that out of proportion and think that’s the way it’s been.”

Theodore said, “It obviously takes time to adjust. Sometimes you try to do too much. I remember the first game of the season I tried to do too much, and I put that extra pressure [on myself]. It takes a couple of games to feel comfortable and be yourself. And [Johnson] was playing well, and we were kind of splitting games, which is kind of tough to get a rhythm going. But it’s all good. It’s all part of the learning process.”

On Dec. 23, Boudreau pulled Theodore after he yielded three goals on five shots against the New York Rangers. But Johnson was fighting an injury, and Boudreau quickly put Theodore back in. The Caps won in overtime, and from that point Theodore improved.

“I think it had a profound effect,” Boudreau said.

“I had some solid games early on,” Theodore said. “But the Rangers game was definitely a turning point because being able to come back is good for your mental approach and confidence, to show everybody you’re tough enough mentally to forget about those three or four goals and make big saves when it’s a tie game in the third.”

His Montreal experience made a distinct impression on Theodore, a native of Laval, Quebec, a Montreal suburb. As a French Canadian, he was idolized when he played well. When things soured, the fans acted betrayed.

“I saw the two sides of playing in Montreal,” he said. “For most of my career, I think it was great. I had some great years there, obviously. The fans were really supportive. But when things are not going well, it’s the other way around. It’s tougher to kind of focus. There’s a lot of distractions around the game, and the last year I was there I had a really tough time because it seemed like everything was falling on my head.”

There is less pressure here, the critics more a source of motivation than a hindrance.

“People who didn’t believe in me, I like to show them wrong,” he said. “And after a while, they might change their opinion.”