TORONTO - David McNab was a big believer in the power of a baseball cap. He would send them to prospects whom he felt needed encouragement and, as a scout with the Hartford Whalers, he'd often take the extra step of writing personal letters as he did with one unheralded goaltender a little more than 20 years ago.
Curtis Joseph was playing amateur hockey in Saskatchewan at the time, and can remember running through the cold to the mailbox. In an era before the Internet, the promise of a free National Hockey League media guide was a big deal and the encouragement meant even more.
"In this business, sometimes there are really good players who maybe need to be reminded they're really good players - the guys who aren't drafted and things like that," said McNab, now senior vice-president of hockey operations with the Anaheim Ducks. "Sometimes, it's not the worst thing in the world to tell somebody, 'Geez, you really are good, and you really do have a great chance to play in the NHL."'
Joseph eventually clawed his way into the NHL as an undrafted free agent, en route to becoming an all-star, playoff hero and the fourth-leading winner among all goaltenders in league history. And on Tuesday, the 42-year-old brought the unlikely journey to a close, thanking McNab early in an upbeat news conference at the Air Canada Centre.
Pundits have already begun debating Joseph's candidacy for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Joseph earned 454 regular-season wins through his remarkable 19-year career, leaving him behind only Martin Brodeur (585, heading into play Tuesday night), Patrick Roy (551) and Ed Belfour (484) for the all-time lead.
The flip side is Joseph is also the winningest goaltender never to have won the Stanley Cup. And, thanks to a career that hop-scotched through St. Louis, Edmonton, Toronto, Detroit, Phoenix and Calgary, no one fan base can truly claim him as its own.
Joseph smiled easily as he recounted some of his favourite old stories with reporters. Two of his four children occupied seats in the front row.
"One thing I've always stressed to them is, it's all worth it, all the sacrifice," Joseph said. "They know. They've seen me in walking casts and other casts and different things, and not being able to jump on the trampoline for a couple of years with a bad ankle."
On the advice of his friend and long-time agent Don Meehan, Joseph said he will take at least a year to decide what he will do next. He does not know if he will seek to get back into the league, saying only that he hopes it will be something to "make me jump out of bed."
Joseph was born in suburban Toronto to an unwed teenaged mother who gave him up for adoption before he was a week old. By his own admission, he was a shy child who sought refuge in athletics.
"He did have a difficult childhood," Meehan said Tuesday. "I think it really, probably, gives a real indication as to why he's been so involved with the children's hospital, and donated a lot of his money and time to the children's hospital."
Joseph said a corporate initiative that helped to raise $1 million for the Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto was one of the highlights of his career, along with his time with the Maple Leafs. He powered the Leafs to the cusp of the Stanley Cup final in 2002, but lost the Eastern Conference final in six games to the Carolina Hurricanes.
"And to be frank, he did it playing on some teams that weren't as competitive, maybe, as some of the guys who recorded more wins than he did."
"He obviously has to rank up there as one of the very best," former Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher said. "He was a clutch goaler.
"He was extremely good under pressure and, time and time again in his career, he proved his worth."
Joseph, for his part, did his best to skirt the discussion about his future with the Hall of Fame. He smiled easily from behind the podium, in charcoal slacks and a dress shirt and tie without a blazer, saying he had done all he felt he could do as a player.
"I know the detractors from my career, and I know my strengths, for sure," Joseph said. "All I know is that, hopefully, my teammates will say that I was important, that I gave it everything and that I didn't leave anything to chance over my whole career."