In this edition of the "85 Years" series, former Blackhawks goalie and current NHL broadcaster Darren Pang speaks about the career of fiery and talented goaltender Eddie Belfour, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.
In the summer of 1987, I was preparing for my fourth season of professional hockey. That summer I had gone away on my honeymoon, come back, and by then the Blackhawks had drafted Jimmy Waite in the first round of the draft, signed Bob Mason away from Washington with a nice contract and added a well-regarded goalie from the University of North Dakota who had just taken the Sioux to the NCAA championship. There was a lot of competition, to be sure, even before I was given a three-year deal by Chicago. It was at that summer’s rookie camp when I first met the goalie from North Dakota: Ed Belfour.
I’ll never forget watching Eddie during that first camp. He had very little personality and was as intense as anyone I had ever seen stopping pucks; half the time I thought he was going to eat the puck.
"85 YEARS" SERIES
On November 17, 1926, the Chicago Black Hawks took the ice for the first time. 85 years later, the Blackhawks hold an important place in NHL history and Chicago sports.
In celebration of the Blackhawks’ 85th anniversary, Blackhawks Magazine and chicagoblackhawks.com will profile some of the greatest players to ever don the sweater, with essays written by the people who knew them best: teammates, rivals, broadcasters and other members of the NHL community.
Check chicagoblackhawks.com every Wednesday for another entry in the "85 Years" series.
Recent "85 Years" essays:
> Pierre Pilote on Bobby Hull
> Denis Savard on Patrick Kane
> Pat Foley on Eddie Olczyk
> Bob Verdi on Stan Mikita
> Tony Esposito on Doug Wilson
I had spent three years in the minors, played against the Blackhawks’ new goaltending coach Wayne Thomas, and I learned a lot of his movement drills and philosophies. But Eddie didn’t like the drills that Wayne preached – especially ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ drills, which are goaltending staples – and he showed it. Finally, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he smashed his stick over the crossbar, looked at me and without Wayne hearing said, “What did this guy ever do? Did he even play in the NHL?”
Now, Eddie was three days into a rookie camp and signed out of college after one season. I remember watching a drill later on and saying to Wayne – a nine-year NHL veteran, by the way – “This guy’s not going to play 10 games in the NHL.”
I was a little off.
What I learned from Eddie Belfour is that you can will yourself into greatness. He wasn’t great when he started, but he worked hard, and he wanted it badly enough that he made himself a Hall of Famer.
I have no doubt that Eddie’s intensity was a part of his greatness. Every day he went to the rink with the mission of being the best goalie. He had a little bit of that John McEnroe mentality in him. When McEnroe wasn’t playing well, he’d smash his racket, he’d yell at the line judge, and he’d find his game again. When Eddie wasn’t playing well, he would do the same thing.
That intensity carried over whenever he got onto the ice. I remember one particular practice; Eddie was just up from the minors, I had the start that night, and Jimmy Waite was on the team at that point, too. The protocol is always that the starting goalie stays in net as long as he wants and gets as many reps as he needs. But Eddie didn’t really care; he kept coming over to my net, and I’d keep pushing him away until we were going toe-to-toe with blockers on. He hit me once, I hit him once, and finally Mike Keenan blew the whistle and, almost like a dog, yells, “Eddie, go to the corner!” and Eddie went to the corner like an angry pit bull. But that was just Eddie. I came to learn what he was all about – it was passion for the game and his position and the desire to be the best that drove him.
His competitiveness went on after the whistle, as well. Eddie was married to goaltending. After a loss there were times when he slept in the trainer’s room at the old Chicago Stadium. He didn’t go home – he sharpened his skates and adjusted his equipment all night long. He invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a skate blade that could be removed and replaced in a minute during a game if he lost an edge. Anything to be the best.
I believe that there were two major turning points in Eddie’s career. The first was around 1990, when Eddie got his first molded mask. Up to then, Eddie didn’t really have a nickname and not much of an identity. But from the first time he wore that mask, with that beautiful eagle painted on the side, he finally had a personality. The fans grew to love “Eddie the Eagle.” There was rarely a game when you didn’t hear thousands of fans shouting “EDD-IE! EDD-IE!” throughout the stadium.
The second came shortly after Vladislav Tretiak was hired by Bill Wirtz as the goaltending coach. Eddie was very raw at the beginning – he gave up goals on the short side too often, and he had gaping holes between his body and his arms. But Tretiak helped Eddie find his game. I don’t know exactly what it is that Vladdy said or did to get through to Eddie, but he definitely got it. Eddie went from a rambunctious middle linebacker on skates into an actual goaltender with a great butterfly and solid positioning.
It took him a little while to find his way, and once he found it there was no taking it back from him.
After I retired and went to work in broadcasting, and especially when I moved on to ABC and ESPN, I would still see Eddie, and I got to know him even better. He trusted me because we had gone through it together, and he gave me great insight into his way of thinking and preparation. As the years went on I got to really admire Eddie and his approach to the game.
Whether it was the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup Final run in 1992 – one of the more incredible stretches I’ve ever seen for a team or a goaltender – or winning it all with Dallas, Eddie was always mentally tough and ready to battle.
Even though he’s now a Hall of Famer, I still think he doesn’t get all of the accolades he deserves. Part of it might have been his personality; not a lot of people got to know Eddie the way that I did, and he wasn’t the most outgoing guy. And another part might be the era, going up against goalies like Patrick Roy, Dominick Hasek, Martin Brodeur, Grant Fuhr, Tom Barasso, Curtis Joseph… the list goes on. But guys wanted to play for him.
Eddie took the Blackhawks to the Cup Final. He performed like a Conn Smythe-caliber player in Dallas. He stepped into Toronto and handled all of the pressure with no problems. Even when he was in Florida in his last few years, he was still a guy who could win 20 games for you.
To be a Hall of Famer, to win nearly 500 games in the NHL and to become what he became in a very tough era is an amazing accomplishment. Perhaps more amazing is the road he took to get there – from the raw football player I saw in his first camp to the patient, efficient and determined goaltender he became.