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After Illustrious Career, CuJo Calls It A Career

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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It’s official. Curtis Joseph is of another time.

Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre, Joseph announced his retirement.

“It’s a good day,” he said “and it’s been a great career. I’ve been a lucky guy to do what I love to do for a living for 19 years.”

He is 42 and a hockey dad now for his three boys but it should not surprise that the kid who took the most roundabout way to the NHL would linger as long as he could.

The route to the NHL travelled by Curtis Joseph does not exist any more. Kids don’t take up the game in their early teens, move up from house league to travelling team to Tier II club and, after a year of college hockey, find themselves NHLers. Now there are combines, hockey camps, draft lists, personal coaches and trainers. The parents of Chicago star Patrick Kane figure it cost them $200,000 to get their son into the NHL. Growing up near Keswick, Ontario, Joseph's whole wardrobe might not have been worth today’s graphite stick.

“Any parents who come up to me and ask I tell them I played single A hockey all the way up,” he said. “Times have changed. If you play AAA you’re not going to make it. You’ve got to play spring hockey, you’ve got to play summer hockey. The ante is up. It’s hockey, hockey hockey at an early age.”

Goaltenders don’t look like Curtis Joseph either. At five-foot-ten, he seems barely bigger than Jonas Gustavsson’s pads.

Joseph’s reactive, reckless style is a relic as well. The science of goaltending may be a sweet geometry, but Joseph never broke it down like a gambler calculating a point spread. He played the game by feel.

“Before me was Mike Palmateer and I got excited watching him play,” Joseph said. “He was very athletic and very exciting and showy. I tried to be along those lines and make sure I never gave up on a puck.”

When Joseph found St. Louis, the Blues were playing in a cavernous barn called the St. Louis Arena. His contemporaries, Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull are, like the Arena, long gone.

His journey included a profitable stop in Edmonton, a protracted salary squabble with Glen Sather and then blinding popularity and success as a free agent signee for the Leafs.

“That was the pinnacle of my career. I remember being able to skate around and looking up at the crowd and seeing teachers, friends, all kinds of people that I knew. It was like playing for friends.”

Over four seasons, Joseph played 60 playoff games. With a dashing captain in Mats Sundin, an oft-caustic white haired coach and an aged  power forward named Gary Roberts who was stuck together with barbed wire and glue, the Leafs were a compelling team good enough to warrant even the most heightened optimism. There were, in retrospect, prodigious holes in the club. That Sundin and Joseph never made the Stanley Cup final said more about who wasn’t there than who was.

Benched by Quinn at the 2002 Olympics, Joseph famously did not shake his coach’s hand at a ceremony honouring Canada’s championship team and while all involved dismissed it as nothing more than a slip-up under a spotlight, Joseph’s discontent would soon deepen.

When his contract expired, Joseph signed with the Detroit Red Wings. To this day, the circumstances of his departure aren’t entirely clear, but the Leafs turned to the 37-year-old Ed Belfour. It was a curious move. Belfour was two years older than Joseph and while he had a Stanley Cup to his credit, his creaky back made him a chancy proposition. Joseph was engaging but just cautious with the media. Unlike Joseph, Belfour never looked like a player who loved every element of his work.

Leaving Toronto, Joseph now admits, was a mistake. He didn’t realize, he has said, how much it would have meant to stay.

Joseph was led to Detroit by the chance to win a Stanley Cup and his estimation that such a chance did not exist in Toronto was proven true…the moment he left town. He struggled in Detroit but rebounded in the playoffs. He fashioned a 1.39 goals against average in his second post-season there but when the Wings lost, the very thing that drew Curtis Joseph, a mentality that winning was the only thing that mattered, bit him on the ass. The Red Wings had already imported Dominik Hasek and despite some very strong play on Joseph’s part, he was gone the next season. Joseph bounced back in Phoenix where he played 115 games in two seasons but failed to make the playoffs. He had a short stint with Calgary before last year’s 21-game salute with the Leafs.

The movie My Favorite Year ends with a victorious turn by a character named Alan Swan. Swan is a caricature of Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling star of countless action adventures. Under the lights of a live television show, Swan musters up his old magic and conquers the bad guys. As the audience rapturously applauds, the scene slows into a hazy rememberance as Swan is bathed in adoration. There is a tangible sense of peace.

It was Swan’s final moment, not as a man but as a hero, or at least the kind of hero who we can easily identify and identify with.

That moment for Curtis Joseph came last March when he came in for the last few seconds against Washington and stoned Caps’ star Alexander Ovechkin. Then he played marvelously in overtime before stopping all three shots in the shootout as the Leafs gained the win.

“Certainly that was the highlight of my last year in Toronto,” Joseph said. “You can appreciate this: where you are in time, staring down at Ovechkin. He was at centre and I remember being able to look around the crowd and saying to myself ‘this is pretty cool. The best player in the world and if I stop him we win the game.”

“I felt a nice peace and a nice serenity about that.”

Last season was for posterity. And while he was not particularly effective, he was at least accorded his moment.

He can go now and it will be fascinating to see where his numbers do take him. His 454 wins are fourth on the all-time list. Interestingly, he is also tied for first in losses. His 2.79 Goals Against Average is, in these times, hardly earth-shaking.

Those things, of course, are just details. No number can summarize a player, even those conceived to do just that.

Instead, people will remember that night against Washington or moments where his foils were the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens or Calgary Flames. Curtis Joseph has one of the most expansive collections of the impossible in hockey history.

Pick one. Listen for the buzzer. Then picture him in your mind’s eye, slowly drinking in the applause, rocking on his right skate as he wheelies to the bench.

Treasure that image. It’s all you have left when the swashbuckler hangs up his sword.

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