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CuJo Product Of His Beginnings

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Ron Wilson | Jason Blake | Curits Joseph | Matt Stajan

Curtis Joseph, as you may have heard, is 41.

Regardless, he will be the Leafs’ goaltender Friday night in Buffalo. Martin Gerber is in the corner for three games for bumping an official.

Only three goalies, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour have more career wins than Joseph. The next trio Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante and Tony Esposito form an honour guard behind him.

The question is: are there any great stories yet to be written?

I think so.

I wonder if you know that Joseph has the greatest story in hockey. He was born in North York to a couple of high school kids. His mom worked in a nursing home. Distraught over the impending birth, she sought out a friend who worked at the home. The woman’s name was Jeanne Eakins.

Eakins agreed to adopt the boy. She and her new husband later moved to a home north of Toronto where they operated a facility for 20 male residents whose disorders ranged from schizophrenia to brain injury. You didn’t bring a whole lot of neighborhood kids around.

Joseph’s playground was the back Tarmac and he would have never been a hockey player were it not for the kindness of Jeanne Eakins’ grown daughter.

Karen Eakins had a left-over hockey registration. She hated seeing Curtis limited to playing goal in the backyard and pushed her mother to let him try out for a house league team. Jeanne Eakins didn’t want Curtis to play. She feared he would be hurt. Goalie made the most sense. The abundance of padding reduced his chances of injury and since Curtis didn’t know how to skate, any other position was impractical.

He could barely stand on his borrowed skates, but his house league team nonetheless advanced from last to first place with him in goal. Then he played on travelling teams and Tier II clubs.

At 20, with no real prospects, Joseph was referred to the Notre Dame Hounds. After two periods of his first exhibition game, Joseph was contacted by two U.S. schools. The prospect, at long last had come in from the cold.

From then, Joseph soared through two years at the University of Wisconsin and finally the NHL, first with St. Louis, then with Edmonton, Toronto, Detroit, Phoenix and now, for one final go, the Leafs again.

He has played 19 NHL seasons and throughout most of them, he has carried with him the aura of the hero. He’s not especially big. He has always been a mediocre stickhandler. But I have seen hundreds of his games and I will tell you that he is the product of his beginnings.

There is, in Curtis Joseph, an irresistible element of heroism, of the little guy from nowhere who stands in against anyone.

He is not, as he proved with the Red Wings, the goalie for a team that needs three or four good saves a night. He needs to be needed, needs to be noticed and over four seasons in Toronto, he gave the Leafs inspired, inspirational goaltending.

Pat Quinn’s freewheeling style was built not just on the formidable talents of Mats Sundin, but on the nightly assurance that a great many shots that could have been opposition goals, would not be. The closer the puck got to the net, the bigger Joseph got. In standing his ground, in finding the puck in traffic and in extending every possible effort to stop it, he was exceptional.

And it was just that sense of heroism on display Tuesday  when Joseph stopped Alexander Ovechkin’s one-timer after replacing Gerber.

 He stopped eight shots in overtime, then two more in the shootout and cowed the great Ovechkin into pushing the puck into his pads for the game’s final shot.

Joseph will seek his 453rd win in Buffalo. If poor play marred his contributions in the early season, he showed Tuesday and in his last three starts that there is something left. Joseph’s stand, and the ovation accorded Mats Sundin, were the emotional high points of the season, a cathartic thanks to the two principal standardbearers of an often starry past. It was easily his best moment since coming back. Joseph left in 2002 to sign a free agent deal with the Detroit Red Wings, a move he sees with some regret.

“I think you can look at it two ways,” he said. “I didn’t realize the fan reaction would be so great about me leaving. Yes, I wished I stayed a Maple Leaf and had more years as a Maple Leaf. But, on the other hand, a lot of things turned out in my life that probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t chose that path.”

On the subject of a different route in hockey, Curtis Joseph is a singular authority

“I can tell you, when you choose a different path, things turn out,” he said.

“I’m happy.”

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