Curtis Joseph played just five seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, failing to qualify for a Stanley Cup final or capture a single major post-season award or all-star berth, yet his retirement was met, at least in Toronto, with deep appreciation bordering on hero worship.
After he announced his official departure from the game this week, local newscasts led with the item, his faced plastered prominently on the dailies. His appearance at the Air Canada Centre for a Leafs game was a true lovefest.
Imagine the reverence if he’d actually won something.
Well, in a manner of speaking, he did. Curtis Joseph made a career of winning hearts. That’s particularly true in Toronto where fans are so utterly starved for anything that resembles success, they’ll settle for less. That, more than anything, could earn Joseph a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
CuJo entered the NHL with the St. Louis Blues as an underdog, the adopted son of a Keswick, Ont., family who slipped under the radar of big league scouts and signed as a free agent. He had an acrobatic, athletic, determined style that was fun to watch, even more so when he engineered one of his handful of stunning playoff upsets against a favored foe.
He earned a reputation for integrity, for being a nice guy, for doing volunteer work in the communities in which he played. His smile was endearing. In short, he was very likeable.
And he’ll need all that goodwill built up over 19 seasons in six cities, especially those four in Toronto, to become an Honored Member.
His objective legacy alone is not enough. Aside from his position as the fourth winningest goalie in league history – which indeed counts for much – he doesn’t own another distinction that vaults him beyond extremely good to all-time greatness. His one major achievement, gold in Salt Lake City, came only after he was relegated to back-up duty.
Granted, he rarely had the luxury of playing behind a pre-eminent defense on a juggernaut team; that may explain why he also ranks tied for first all-time with Gump Worsley for career losses (352).
Hall of Fame voters, however, don’t cast their ballots based on any hard-and-fast criteria or guidelines. They all may be people of high integrity, but they’re also human, more prone to subjectivity when given extreme latitude.
And they’ve set a precedent for a nice-guy-who-never-won-anything wing in the Hall when they brought Mike Gartner and Bernie Federko into the fold. Both were eminently likeable, both had long, productive and even excellent careers and both won, well, squat.
Conversely, men with darker personalities or checkered pasts sometimes have a tougher time with the voters. Take Tom Barrasso and his Calder and Vezina Trophy wins; his multiple post-season all-star berths; his Jennings Trophies; his two Stanley Cups. But Barrasso wasn’t media-friendly during his career and still has to buy a ticket to get into the Hall.
But that’s not CuJo’s fault. The system allows voters to decide based on gut and feel, hence the occasional popularity party. And if a nice guy finishes first once in a while, is that really so bad?
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays.
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