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Veteran goalie Curtis Joseph rolls along during strange season in Toronto

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

TORONTO - It's important to remember that Curtis Joseph doesn't need to be doing this. He could just as easily be playing golf or sunning on a beach or probably even earning a living off his celebrity.

That he's chosen instead to endure a strange season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and is now talking about coming back for another at age 42 says a lot about the man.

Above all, he remains a competitor more than five years after he was last considered among the best goaltenders in the game. He's a survivor, too.

And he plans to be on an NHL roster when the 2009-10 season opens next fall.

"Sure, why not? It's the best job in the world I think," he said Thursday.

As recently as July, it seemed unlikely that he'd ever be talking like that. Most people viewed the one-year deal he signed with the Maple Leafs last summer as his final NHL contract.

The team's former star was coming home and what better swansong than one final season as a backup?

Strangely, Joseph's desire to continue playing might force him to leave the franchise for a second time. With Vesa Toskala under contract next season and Justin Pogge waiting in the wings as a potential backup, there might not be room in the Leafs crease.

However, the last month or two provides a good reminder that nothing can be taken for granted. The team's waiver wire claim on Martin Gerber and desire to give Pogge some NHL experience recently made it look like Joseph might finish out this season as a spectator.

Then he won a couple starts and stole the show on Tuesday night, coming in cold when Gerber was ejected in the final minute of regulation and securing a shootout win over Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals.

With Gerber now serving a three-game suspension, Joseph will get the start in Buffalo on Friday night.

"That's the life of an NHL player," said Joseph. "You never know."

He's living proof.

Never drafted by an NHL team, Joseph now sits fourth on the all-time wins list with 453. He's also only two losses shy of tying Gump Worsley for the most regulation defeats with 350.

Truth be told, neither figure seems to concern him much.

"It just means I've been around for awhile," said Joseph.

His primary motivation is a continued love for the game that is evident in the high regard he's held by teammates.

An excited group of Leafs players chanted "Cujo! Cujo!" when he entered the dressing room after being named first star on Tuesday night. Veteran forward Brad May later described Joseph's late-game performance against the Capitals as "one of the highlights of the season."

"Curtis Joseph's a great guy," said May. "Unbelievable guy, unbelievable teammate. Everybody loves this guy, he's got time for everybody and there's no edge to him whatsoever.

"In saying that, you cannot help but cheer for him."

There have been a number of moments when Joseph could have complained.

But he never once spoke out - not when he endured a long stretch of inactivity in January or even after coach Ron Wilson pulled the unorthodox move of inserting him directly into a shootout in October.

By all accounts, Joseph has been a first-class citizen.

"He's just a very nice guy," said Wilson. "He's positive every day, he works hard in practice.

"Especially someone who's had a great career like he's had, he's not bitter. He comes to the rink happy every day and that goes a long way with your teammates."

It clearly goes a long way with the fans too.

Joseph was the most popular player during his first stint with the Maple Leafs from 1998-2002 and seems to have stepped back into that role again. There aren't many backup goalies anywhere who regularly have their name chanted during games.

Even though Joseph has done well in his most recent action, his numbers this season remain pedestrian - 4-7-1 record, .871 save percentage and 3.44 goals-against average.

However, he knows that any action he sees before the end of the season offers the chance to show he still belongs in the NHL. And no matter how the next few months play out, Joseph won't have any regrets.

"I'm very happy with my career," he said. "It amounted to a lot more than I ever thought it would be when I started.

"So I can be nothing but happy with the way my career's turned out."

At least one of his current teammates will be cheering for him to get another shot.

"If he plays next year, it gives all of us a little boost," said May. "I think he wants to play. The bottom line is your skills don't diminish over night; it's your desire to work on them.

"Curtis is out there every day working his tail off and trying to be as good as he can be."

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