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The Eagle Finally Spreads His Wings In T.O.

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
by John Iaboni

John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and the NHL for nearly 30 years. For the last 11 years, he has been the managing editor of the team's game day magazine and now you can share his exclusive inside access.

The 18th game for the Toronto Maple Leafs ranked as the most sought-after ticket on the club's 2002-03 National Hockey League home schedule.

The Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings were in town for their only appearance at Air Canada Centre. What's more Curtis Joseph, who cast such an enormous shadow in his four seasons with the Leafs, was here for the first time in his Red Wings colours.

Let's face it, the fans loved Cujo, both for his exploits on and off the ice. It was that larger-than-life persona that Eddie (The Eagle) Belfour battled since he assumed the task as No. 1 goalie for the Leafs.

When the Wings elected to sit Joseph, the fans were not amused. In fact, when public address announcer Andy Frost bellowed that Manny Legace was Detroit's starting goalie, the fan backlash was evident with a chorus of boos.

Guess what? When Belfour was introduced as the starting goalie for the Leafs, the place erupted in a crescendo that became the norm when Joseph wore blue and white.

Belfour didn't disappoint. He was brilliant, completing a week when the slumping Leafs showed signs of life with wins over the Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres before succumbing 2-1 to the patient and talent-rich Wings.

Two of Belfour's best saves on the night came against Brett Hull. After one of them - point blank at 19:08 of the second period - the place echoed with the chant of "EDDIE, EDDIE!"

It wasn't the only time on the night that happened. And it was much appreciated by Belfour who acknowledged as much in the post-game media horde.

Since the day in early July that Belfour inked his deal with the Leafs, fans had been reluctant to bring closure to the Joseph era. Belfour walked into an unfriendly environment, often greeted with derision right from the pre-season if he surrendered a goal.

Yet he kept his cool, working hard to make himself available to the media and not taking a rip at the fans who chose to ride him.

When Belfour started the season as the first goalie ever to earn a shutout in his Leafs debut, the 6-0 rout of Pittsburgh was viewed by many as a victory over the "hapless" Penguins with an "old-looking" Mario Lemieux.

Well, a check of the standings since then indicates that Belfour's 33-save performance that night was well deserving of high praise and first-star selection.

When the Leafs lost 5-2 to the Montreal Canadiens in the Hockey Hall of Fame Game, Belfour took the blame and challenged himself to be better. In so doing, he refused to blame the poor defence of his teammates. You see, it's my opinion that Sports Illustrated has it all wrong. During the first part of the season, the Leafs shouldn't have been the most hated team in hockey, but rather, the most generous.

How could rivals dislike a squad that was so loose defensively that it was literally gift-wrapping wins for rivals and making life a nightmare for goalies Belfour and Trevor Kidd?

When the Leafs played in Dallas, Belfour shone in the spotlight despite Toronto's 2-1 loss.

When Don Cherry went on the radio and said that Belfour hadn't won games for the Leafs like Joseph used to, The Eagle said the bombastic broadcaster was standing up for Cujo just like he'd stood up for him in the past. Definitely no sour grapes for Belfour.

Put into a high-pressure situation, Belfour followed the Cherry outburst with a stellar effort in Buffalo and a great night's work against Detroit. He put the Leafs in a position to win but his teammates wasted the opportunity.

It says here that Belfour will one day be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. This is the guy Hull - and many other Wings - thought Detroit should have signed in the off-season. Sure, Belfour is 37 now and many wonder if time has caught up to him.

Well, Patrick Roy is 37 and he's doing just fine in erasing records established by the great Terry Sawchuk. And speaking of Sawchuk, when the Leafs acquired him in 1964, he was thought to have seen better days, too. But at the age of 37, Sawchuk and the ageless Johnny Bower backstopped the Leafs to their last Stanley Cup.

Ken Hitchcock, Belfour's coach with the Dallas Stars, once told Pat Quinn that the goalie has an unbelievable way of shutting out distractions to focus on the job at hand. He's needed all of that to survive in this demanding hockey market.

Last Saturday, Leafs fans finally warmed up to The Eagle while Cujo watched from the Detroit bench. Life goes on for Joseph in Detroit and Belfour in Toronto. Get used to it.

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