by Bill Althaus
Trying to describer Gerry Festa’s style in the nets is a bit like trying to explain the decadence of crème brulee.
You have to taste it to really understand just how good the carmel infused custard treat really is.
And you have to witness the second-year goaltender’s brilliance to understand what he means to the Missouri Mavericks.
The colorful Festa is part gymnast, part acrobat and full-time pit bull.
“No one wants to win as badly as Gerry,” teammate Simon Watson said. “We learned that last year when he joined team. Now, he’s established himself in the net and he’s been outstanding.”
With a chant of “Gerry! Gerry! Gerry!” filling the Independence Events Center, Festa dove, kicked and batted away shot after shot after shot as he led the Mavs to a season-opening 5-3 victory over league favorite Odessa.
Mavericks team president Brent Thiessen summed up Festa’s performance in one word: “Fantastic.”
Coach Scott Hillman used a few more.
“Gerry was just amazing – he’s been amazing all season,” Hillman said, as Festa sports a 4-2 record and 2.53 goals against average, which ranks 10th in the CHL.
“He came into camp this year and he had to prove himself. We have a very competitive camp, especially in the net. We brought in Rob (Nolan, who also made the team) and Zane (Kalemba) and it was fierce out there.
“Gerry was an outstanding goaltender for this team last year and he has raised his level of play this year. We are so happy to have him back. With him and Rob in the net, the boys feel like they can go out and beat any team in the league.”
Festa was 5-4-2 last season, serving as a backup to Charlie Effinger, who is now playing for the Newcastle Vipers in the Elite European League while he he earning his masters degree overseas.
Festa had a memorable 3-0 shutout victory over the Allen Americans when, ironically, Effinger was in the net for the opposing team before being traded to the Mavericks.
But Festa’s finest moment in the net came last year in the regular-season finale when he stopped all four Odessa shootout attempts in an emotion-charged 4-3 victory over the Jackalopes on a night the team honored captain Jeff Christian and his 8-year-old daughter Ryan, who is battling cancer at St. Jude’s Hospital (Christian is playing this season with the Mississippi RiverKings, where the family is 20 minutes
from St. Judes).
That performance gave us a hint at what to expect this season.
“This season is totally different than last season,” Festa said, as the team prepared for tonight’s 7:05 p.m. game at Tulsa (KCWJ, 1030 AM).
“I came over to the Mavericks in January and had to get to know all the guys. This year, I started with the team, earned a spot in the net after a very demanding and challenging preseason and now, I feel very comfortable with the guys.
“We’re a bigger, more physical team and no one is going to push this team around. Last year, it was pretty much Carlyle (Lewis, who earned the nickname the Grim Sleeper last season) against everyone else on the other teams.
“This year, he has some help – he has a lot of help.”
Another big difference between this season and the Mavericks first year is that Festa shared duties with Effinger in 2009-2010.
“I think every team needs two solid goaltenders, and I think we have that this year with me and Rob,” Festa said. “Rob and I complement each other and we both feel the same way – it doesn’t matter who’s in the net as long as we win.
“Rob could be 4-0 (he is 1-1-2) with a little luck. He’s the top rated goaltender in the league (1.94 goals against average). The good teams have to have two good goaltenders because there are nights you just have to relax – your mind, and your body – and we can do that here with me and Rob.”
While goaltending has taken on new signficance in professional hockey, Festa said it wasn’t always that way.
“Now, it’s fashionable,” he said, “with all the cool gear and the cool helmets. “When I started as a kid, it just happened to be the position I was best at. It wasn’t cool, but it is now.”
And no one is cooler than Gerry Festa.
Just ask the 5,000-plus fans who chant his name in the closing seconds of ever Mavericks win at the Events Center this season.