The earliest memory I have of being a hockey fan (though I know I watched before that) involves a dash to the television, flicking on Pittsburgh-Minnesota (because the Cup could be won that night) and enthusiastically getting pumped up by the old – and the real – Hockey Night in Canada Theme Song.
I was lucky to be a fan at the tail-end of a small market era before the league’s monetary mindset completely sunk its teeth into its money-making potential.
Somewhere through the ‘90s, obstruction held the game hostage on the ice, divisional playdowns were eliminated and the league’s virtuous teams from Winnipeg, Hartford and Minnesota – to name a few – were moved to unfathomable Phoenix, Carolina and Dallas, as the last remnants of the league’s modest soul were lost to the sands of time.
At least from my point of view.
The Canadian dollar was dooming Calgary, Edmonton and all Canadian teams not named Maple Leafs, so they became something to cling to; every upset pulled or playoffs made was a miracle. High-roller teams dominated the landscape and New Jersey, Detroit, Colorado and Dallas became year-in, year-out favorites. By the time this monopoly was made obsolete and the shroud of obstruction was lifted, a lockout soured allegiance and players of my youth were consistently moving into retirement.
Almost every time one of them goes – whether it is an all-star or someone more obscure – my good friend Mike and I have to talk about it.
”Can you believe Jeremy Roenick retired?” “I know. Man, remember how good he was in NHL ’94? I wish that guy could have gotten a Cup.”
”I’m sad to see Shanny go; he was the best.” ”I’ll never forget that shot of him cleaning his bloodied face by squirting it with a water bottle…in the penalty box.”
These guys were all constants through the thick and thin. Vague memories from the glory days to vivid ones from adolescence, they’re the players who defined me and my friends as hockey fans.
So with Curtis Joseph officially calling it a career today, another one bites the dust. The Hall of Fame debate will commence and even though I wouldn’t qualify him in my own version, he certainly has a lasting place in my memories because images and instances of his game stick out through all these changes.
I wasn’t a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, but before Center Ice you followed and rooted for the local guys. So how could I not remember Wendel Clark knocking CuJo’s helmet right off his head with a rising slapper in the 1993 playoffs?
From there CuJo went to Edmonton and as the endangered small-market team battled the new power from Dallas, CuJo was the reason the Oilers pulled off a seven-game upset, standing on his head and making one of the most memorable saves I have ever witnessed.
When CuJo landed in Toronto, the team immediately became a contender for the first time in five years and remained that way throughout his tenure. The acrobatic ‘tender was now in our backyard and he led the Leafs to the conference final in his first season, falling short to the legendary Dominik Hasek in Buffalo. For four years in Toronto, Joseph gave Leaf fans legitimate reason to believe the curse could be snapped and I don’t know any Blue and White follower who didn’t have their heart broken when he signed with Detroit as a free agent in 2002.
Despite stellar numbers, he was upset in the post-season two years in a row with the Wings and played off into the sunset with Phoenix, before backing up in Calgary and returning to Toronto as a shell of his former self.
Even though CuJo didn’t go out on top, he was one of the top players at his position for years. Sprinkled from my earliest memories through to my more recent is CuJo, the undrafted underdog, one of the most athletic goalies who made some of the most impressive saves I have ever seen.
And whether he makes it to the Hall or not, I’ll be recalling stories about him into old age.
“CuJo’s retiring tomorrow, eh?” “I can remember the rumors he was coming to Toronto and being so excited about it.”
There aren’t many of these guys left.
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