Sports

Backing the unlikely Leafs

Curtis Joseph, a soft-spoken family man, leads the Toronto Maple Leafs in their quest for the Stanley Cup

James Deacon May 31 1999
Sports

Backing the unlikely Leafs

Curtis Joseph, a soft-spoken family man, leads the Toronto Maple Leafs in their quest for the Stanley Cup

James Deacon May 31 1999

Backing the unlikely Leafs

Sports

Curtis Joseph, a soft-spoken family man, leads the Toronto Maple Leafs in their quest for the Stanley Cup

James Deacon

There is a widely held notion in hockey that goaltenders are not entirely normal, the presumption being that right-thinking folks get out of the way when hard objects are fired at them from point-blank range. Curtis Joseph, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ backstop, offers an opposing image. Never mind that he is nicknamed Cujo, after a rabid dog from a Stephen King horror novel. The guy behind the snarling mask is a soft-spoken family man who lives with his wife, Nancy, and three young kids—daughter Madison, 7, and sons Taylor, 5, and Tristan, 2— on 21 pastoral hectares in horse country an hour north of Toronto. Away from the arena and the celebrity his talent has attracted, he chooses the golf course for recreational thrills, and opts for home to keep his feet on the ground. “At the rink, there’s all this attention, and that’s nice in

a way,” he says, not sounding terribly convinced. “But I enjoy being home. I can just be dad, the guy who takes the garbage out.”

Sane or not, goaltenders are the foundations on which most Stanley Cup champions are built. Bernie Parent was the MVP in both the Philadelphia Flyers’ victories in 1974 and 1975, and Patrick Roy was practically impenetrable as the last line of defence for the 1986 and 1993 Montreal Canadiens and the 1996 Colorado Avalanche. So it is no surprise that the other three starting goalies still in the current National Hockey League playoffs—Dominik Hasek for the Buffalo Sabres, Roy in Colorado and Ed Belfour on the Dallas Stars—have all been instrumental in their teams’ success. Still, none of those teams relied more heavily on their goalies in the playoffs than the Leafs did on Joseph. The

32-year-old who grew up in Sharon, Ont., kept Toronto in contention despite being outplayed at times by Philadelphia and then Pittsburgh, enabling the Leafs to become the first Canadian squad in five years to advance to the Stanley Cup semi-finals.

The modest Joseph bristles at suggestions he singlehandedly won the first two playoff rounds for his team, reminding inquirers that he is one player in a team game. But the highlights suggest that without him, the Leafs would surely have fallen. And playoff heroics are nothing new for Joseph. He produced similar feats for the 1 St. Louis Blues in the early 1990s, and more recendy for the Edmonton Oilers, for whom he made perhaps the y most famous save of the I decade. During overtime in I Game 7 of the 1997 Western Conference quarter-finals against heavily favoured Dallas, Joseph miraculously backhanded away a sure goal by the Stars’ Joe Nieuwendyk, then watched as the Oilers’ Todd Marchant sped down the ice to score the series winner.

Last summer, as the best available free-agent goalie and therefore too expensive for the cash-poor Oilers, he assessed a variety of offers and signed with Toronto for a whopping $35 million over four years. Not bad for a guy who took up the game late by hockey standards (at 11), was told to play goal because he could barely skate and was not drafted when he became eligible. “I wasn’t good enough,” he states flatly. But he got better, and was signed by St. Louis after completing only one year of college hockey at the University of Wisconsin. “I’ve learned to skate,” he says with a wrinkle of a smile, “and it has really helped my game.”

Joseph’s style defies description. None of his amateur teams had a goaltending coach, so he is largely self-taught, blending the two most common styles—

stand-up and butterfly—with sprawling, gangly, impromptu moves that are purely his own. “The textbook says you should stand up, face the shooter and keep your legs together,” says fellow Leaf goalie Glenn Healy, Joseph’s backup and friend. “Not Curtis. He’ll block shots with the back of his head if he has to.” The Leafs do not have a goaltending advantage over the Buffalo Sabres, who counter with all-world Dominik Hasek, the two-time NHL most valuable player. It was the Gumby-like Czech who befuddled Canadian shooters at the 1998 Olympics, and who led the upstart Sabres into last year’s conference final. But the Leafs, who failed to make the playoffs a year ago, have surpassed all expectations in a season when team executives Ken Dryden and Mike Smith have watched various player moves bear fruit. Young defenceman Daniil Markov and forward Mike Johnson blossomed into reliable performers, as did role players such as Kris King and Garry Valk. Veteran free agent Steve Thomas proved a deadly sniper on captain Mats Sundin’s wing, and lateseason addition Yanic Perrault, acquired via trade after injuries to Alyn McCauley and Igor Korolev, is a timely scorer and excellent faceoff man.

Presiding over this oddly assembled bunch is veteran coach Pat Quinn, hired last summer. His experience—among other things, he took the 1994 Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup final— gave his young roster confidence. He instituted a dynamic offensive system that freed his players to use their attacking skills, and turned the Leafs into the highest-scoring team in a league too often obsessed with boredom-inducing defensive strategies. And in the playoffs, his decision to insert minor-league callup Lonny Bohonos revitalized Toronto’s slumping top line against Pittsburgh. Looking down a roster with little postseason experience, however, Quinn says he has no idea how the Leafs will handle the pressure. “But this team, as it was finding out about itself all season long, found a way to bounce back after bad games,” he says. “So that, more than anything else, gives me confidence.” Joseph, too, has settled the nerves of

his mates by remaining calm in the chaos of the crease. Pittsburgh, led by the incomparable Jaromir Jagr, threw everything at the Toronto net during the second round and, time after time, Joseph made the saves. “When you’re a young defenceman and you make a mistake that ends up on the scoreboard, it kills your confidence,” Healy says. “But with Curtis in the net, those mistakes don’t usually end up as goals.”

The only specific goal tending instruction Joseph ever got as a teenager was at a brief summer hockey school where the head coach was Johnny Bower. And it was Bower who combined with Terry Sawchuk to backstop Toronto’s last Cup victory, on May 2, 1967. Joseph was exactly three days old the night those old Leafs beat Montreal and hoisted the silverware. It hasn’t happened since, and the current veterans are acutely aware of the opportunity they now face. “When you’re a young player, you think there will be lots of championships to come,” Joseph says. “But I know now that it doesn’t happen that way, and you have to take advantage of the chances you get.” With Joseph, the unlikely Leafs still have a chance.