TORONTO – It’s hard to imagine this scene playing out anywhere else:
Hundreds of people that support a hockey team in the midst of a four-year playoff drought attended a fan rally in the middle of summer Wednesday and repeatedly chanted the name of the 41-year-old backup goalie.
Clearly, this isn’t just any team or any backup goalie.
“It’s incredible,” said Curtis Joseph after making his first public appearance for the Toronto Maple Leafs since re-joining the team on July 1. “This is Broadway for hockey, no question. It’s the centre stage. It’s exciting.
“It’s a privilege to put this sweater on.”
The warm reception was also a testament to just how many dark days the franchise has been through since Joseph held a tear-filled press conference in the summer of 2002 to announce that he had signed with the Detroit Red Wings.
The Maple Leafs would make the playoffs the following two years with Ed Belfour in goal but haven’t been back since the 2004-05 season was wiped out by the lockout. The recent drought clearly has some of the team’s faithful yearning for the days when Joseph led the Maple Leafs to two Eastern Conference finals.
After additional stops in Phoenix and Calgary, Cujo is feeling equally nostalgic.
“I’m so excited to be back,” he said. “When I left I think a little piece of me was taken away. Being back in Toronto playing hockey, there’s nothing better for me.”
The main purpose of Wednesday’s rally was for the Maple Leafs to announce plans for a pre-season game that will be free for fans to attend. Strangely, the crowd reacted to that news by chanting: “Cujo! Cujo! Cujo!”
Joseph was joined by a couple teammates at Air Canada Centre for the announcement and looked genuinely sheepish at being singled out.
It’s been a busy off-season for the team as GM Cliff Fletcher has bought out two players, acquired three others in trades and brought in four new faces through free agency. Fletcher chuckled when asked if he thought that signing a veteran backup goalie would be his most popular move.
“Curtis had a lot of great years here and he’s very popular,” said Fletcher. “For us bringing him back, I think is terrific. He’ll provide leadership and stability in the dressing room.
“And when he’s called on to put the equipment on and play between the pipes, you’re guaranteed you’re going to get a good job.”
Barring something unforeseen, the key part of that job will be supporting No. 1 goalie Vesa Toskala. Joseph saw action in just 11 games with the Flames last season and is past the point of his career when he can be counted on to regularly steal wins.
Nostalgia overshadowed that reality on this July day.
In fact, it might be wise for all the optimistic folks who wore Leaf jerseys in summer heat to listen closely to the GM before getting too excited about the overall prospects for the upcoming season.
“We’re not kidding anybody,” said Fletcher. “We have a long way to go to become the Detroit Red Wings. We’re just going to build toward that goal.”
There’s still no indication if the team’s longtime captain will be part of the rebuilding process. Fletcher says he hasn’t heard from Mats Sundin and isn’t sure when the Swede will make a decision about his playing future.
Sundin’s teammates certainly want him to return.
“I’m hoping he comes back,” said forward Matt Stajan. “Trust me, I think everybody on our team does. He makes our team that much better right from the get-go. He’s one of the best players in the league.”
The Maple Leafs are set to open the regular season Oct. 9 against the Detroit Red Wings and will watch as the Stanley Cup champions raise another banner to the rafters in Joe Louis Arena.
That will only serve as another reminder to Leaf fans of the 41 years that have passed since an NHL championship was last celebrated in Toronto. There’s still a long way to go until that streak is brought to an end.
“We’re going to have so many new members on that team when we drop the puck in Detroit on opening night,” said Fletcher. “Groups of individuals don’t mesh as a team for awhile.
“It’ll be the start of a process. Hopefully it’ll go quicker rather than slower.”
Joseph is one of the few remaining links to the last successful Toronto teams and feels fortunate to be back with a group looking to turn things around.
He followed the Maple Leafs while playing in other cities and always hoped for them to do well. There was really only one team he wanted to join after becoming a free agent this time around.
“One thing I was sure of is that I always wanted to play for the Maple Leafs,” said Joseph. “I knew that in my heart.”