Ken Hitchcock was a big deal in 1997. He coached a first-place Dallas Stars team with Stanley Cup aspirations and was known as an intimidating taskmaster. But his own starting goaltender gave him the willies.
The Stars had bowed out of the ’97 playoffs in the first round despite a breakout season and were deciding whether to go forward with Andy Moog and Arturs Irbe as their goaltending battery. That’s when Ed Belfour called. He’d flopped as a deadline rental in San Jose, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks, but a back injury was to blame. He was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with lots of good hockey left in him at 32, so he reached out to the Stars, a team he felt could win a Cup, when July 1 rolled around. The Stars’ brass, Hitchcock included, felt Belfour was a great fit, so they signed him. But when the season arrived and it was time to interact with the famously intense, quirky Belfour, Hitchcock froze. “I was afraid of him,” Hitchcock said. “I was afraid on the day of the game to say anything. I didn’t know even whether to say, ‘Good morning.’ I didn’t know the right things to say, because he was in such a zone on the days of the game, so a lot of times I left him alone and I talked to him on off days.”
That was Belfour. He was as competitive and obsessive as any goalie ever to play the game. He wanted no opposing player near his precious crease. He prepared for hours on end before a game, often studying specific shooters like a pitcher would study hitters in baseball. He’d stay in the weight room so long that he’d sometimes take a break by sleeping up against a wall, Hitchcock said.
That unrivalled fire always existed in Belfour, as far back as he remembers. He detested losing. “When you’re on the ice playing at the NHL level, it’s a great thing that you have this, but it’s hard to turn it off,” Belfour said. “I think you’re born with it. As I’ve gotten wiser with age, I’ve learned I don’t need to win all the board games or the shinny games that we play still with the men’s league, so I have a different perspective now. When I was younger, I wanted to win at everything I did. It was God-given talent, a gift.”
That devotion, explained by Hitchcock as “that singular focus, the ability to shut out the whole world,” almost drove Belfour mad. He felt compelled to control everything he could about his game, including his equipment. He’d spend hours tinkering with it before and after games. He’d do all his own prep work with his sticks and pads. He sharpened his own skates. If you touched his gear, it was your funeral. “When you get a set of pads and they feel perfect, back then, from one set to another, they didn’t always feel the same,” Belfour said. “Nowadays the pads are probably very, very consistent, but back then they weren’t. So that’s how I got involved, because I wanted the equipment to be just the way I wanted it. When it felt good, it’s hard to duplicate that, so I started designing all my equipment. We actually designed the skates and skate blades, which was pretty interesting, and I learned a lot from that. I also enjoyed that. It’s somewhat creative.”
‘Eddie the Eagle’ earned the freedom to do things his way by producing tremendous results during his Hall of Fame career. He won the Vezina and Calder Trophies as a rookie with the Blackhawks in 1990-91. He guided the Stars to their one and only Stanley Cup in 1999. He led the NHL in shutouts four times. He won more games than all but two goalies: Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy.
The resume was especially remarkable considering Belfour was never projected for stardom. By his early 20s he was stopping pucks at the University of North Dakota during a time when it was rare for college kids to make the NHL. Belfour had no sense he’d even get a sniff of the NHL, let alone become one of its best all-time goaltenders. But winning an NCAA national championship got the Blackhawks’ attention. They gave him a shot and paired him with Russian legend Vladislav Tretiak as a mentor. Belfour credits Tretiak with instilling that trademark maniacal work ethic – the rigorous physical training and treating every practice drill like overtime in the playoffs.
Pairing those traits with Belfour’s raw skill made him a star. He was an extremely efficient positional goaltender with such smooth lateral movement that he didn’t have to stretch out and make dramatic, acrobatic stops since he was always in such good position. “He didn’t care where the shot came from,” Hitchcock said. “It could come from 15 feet or directly in front of him. If he saw it, he thought he could stop it. He wasn’t a big guy, but his angle control put him in a position where there was just nothing to look at. That’s how impeccable his angles were.”
Being such a competitive personality, it was only natural that Belfour wouldn’t relinquish his crease easily to a young upstart. As he reached his mid-30s and the final years of his contract, backup Marty Turco began outperforming him. It produced friction between Belfour and the Stars, and Belfour wound up suspended in 2000-01 for an off-ice skirmish with security guards at a Dallas hotel. The Stars opted not to bring Belfour back in 2002. Hitchcock and Belfour both regret the way things ended, though they remain great friends. “It’s water under the bridge but, at the time, I’ll tell you, I was heartbroken,” Belfour said. “No one ever wants to leave their team. There are a lot of friendships and relationships you create in organizations, and winning a Stanley Cup, you create the fondest memories. I didn’t want to leave, and I could feel that they were shoving me out the door, and that’s never a very good feeling.”
But Belfour wasn’t the type to fade away even when he was supposedly past his prime. He signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and enjoyed two outstanding seasons before the 2004-05 lockout robbed him of what was probably his last good year. He speaks fondly about his time with the Leafs. He relished playing in a high-pressure market and felt the organization treated him “first class.”
Today, Belfour has stepped away from the game other than playing shinny. Four years ago, he and his son, Dayn, were having a drink and got the idea to start making their own. They did their schooling, acquired the necessary license and went into business alongside Belfour’s daughter, Reaghan, making rye and bourbon whiskey in Cross Roads, Tex. They plan to make vodka and gin, too, and someday hope to expand to rum, brandy and tequila.
Belfour couldn’t sound happier talking about his new family venture. And, knowing the dedication he showed to his craft as a goaltender, it’s fair to assume he won’t stop until he’s winning in his new business.
Born: April 21, 1965, Carman, Man.
NHL Career: 1988-2007
Teams: Chi, SJ, Dal, Tor, Fla
Stats: 484-320-125, 2.50 GAA, .906 SP, 76 SO
All-Star: 3 (First-2, Second-1)
Trophies: 3 (Calder-1, Vezina-2)
Stanley Cups: 1
DID YOU KNOW?
Belfour’s nickname, ‘Eddie the Eagle,’ comes from his iconic masks, which always featured a huge eagle head on each side. His choice of bird was deliberate: Belfour admires eagles for their confidence, independence and tremendous vision – characteristics he felt made for a great goaltender. He also has said the eagle represents leadership. During his Blackhawks days, Belfour’s mask eagle had an edgy, tough look to it, seemingly inspired by Native American art and matching the team logo. Later in his career, it became brighter and a bit more cartoonish.