July 19, 2011
This is question being asked by everyone from fans to media to ex-jocks on the occasion of Osgood's retirement, which was formally announced on Tuesday after 17 NHL seasons and three Stanley Cup championships.
This is the question that in many ways defines, but ultimately overshadows, one of the most impressive careers for an NHL goaltender in the last 20 years.
Osgood knows this. He candidly acknowledged his desire to be a Hall of Fame goaltender in his retirement press conference, and was equally as candid about the fact that the retirement wouldn't be taking place had he not reached the 400-career-win plateau last season.
"I'd be kidding myself if I said it didn't mean a lot to me, because it does. I know what I had to do to get to where I've been at, and I feel like I do deserve to be there," he said. "If I didn't [say that], I'd be kidding myself and lying to you guys."
He knows what kind of goalie he was during his time with the Detroit Red Wings, New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues. He wasn't the franchise. He wasn't a perennial Vezina finalist. He wasn't a name mentioned among the Roys and Haseks and Brodeurs as the legends of their era between the pipes.
He was the guy who made the key save to win his team a game. He was the guy whose stability and mental toughness provided the foundation on which championship efforts could be constructed.
"It's never easy to play goalie for any team in the National Hockey League. If your team's good or bad, you still have to make the saves. You have to make the plays when needed most," said Osgood.
The issue for many is that the teams on which Osgood played in Detroit were very, very good. How much of that was Osgood, and how much of that was circumstance?
Red Wings GM Ken Holland, whom Osgood likened to a "second father" during his retirement comments, spoke directly to the question of Osgood, the Hall of Fame and the notion of his being a "passenger" on those talent-laden teams.
"The NHL has been around for 90 years or so, and as he retires 90 years into the League he has the 10th-most wins in the history of the National Hockey League. Anytime you're in the top 10 of anything that's been around for 90 to 100 years, that's pretty special.
"People would say that Chris played on a good team, and use that as a reason why [he was so successful]. They say anybody could accomplish what he's accomplished. My response would be that most of the guys above him on the list played for good teams. If it was so easy, everybody would be doing it. Not everybody wins 400 games.
"It's difficult playing for a real good team. Some goaltenders can do it. Other goaltenders struggle at it. I think Chris thrived playing under pressure of playing on a team with high expectations, year in and year out. There's times when he had a bad game or let in a bad goal, and I loved his ability to bounce back."
Osgood's reaction? Pitching a shutout in Game 6 to win the series.
"Do you know how mentally tough you need to be to be in a playoff series and bounce back from an overtime goal at center ice?" asked Holland.
Very few goaltenders do, and that's Holland's point: In an era during which the mental toughness and gutty play of big-ticket goaltenders are blamed for a star-laden team's postseason failings — ask the Vancouver Canucks — Osgood wasn't a liability and, on many occasions, made the save his team needed him to make.
Osgood cited Fuhr as a goaltending idol. "I always loved the fact that when we were tied or the games were close in the last 10 minutes, I'd shut the door and we'd win the game," he said.
"I knew how I did my job on a great team."
It's not damning to say that Osgood played for elite teams but wasn't seen as an elite goaltender — it's accurate. Whether that changes in hindsight will depend greatly on whether he gets into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
And he will.
As Holland said, his numbers and postseason accomplishments make it nearly implausible for the selection committee to keep him out.
It's their Hall of Fame; Osgood might not be in yours, depending on your standards. He wouldn't be in mine, because I picture the Hall of Fame like Mount Olympus and Osgood is a demigod. But my standards, and my politics, aren't certainly in line with those of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
The standards they've set aren't for immortals; they're for mortals with really, really great numbers, some hardware and popularity among their peers.
Osgood hits on all of those points, even if he can't be considered on the level of players like Roy or Brodeur.
Not everyone can be Mick or Keith. Sometimes you're Charlie Watts. Without Charlie Watts, the Stones wouldn't be the Stones. Without Osgood, despite what his detractors say, those Red Wings might not have been championship teams.
He was clutch. He was a winner. And he goes out like one.