Book excerpt: Curtis Joseph on being the ‘factor’ vs. the Blackhawks

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This excerpt from Cujo: The Untold Story of My Life On and Off the Ice by Curtis Joseph with Kirstie McLellan Day is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.  For more information and to order a copy, please visit Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Bookshop.org, or www.triumphbooks.com/Cujo.

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I remember after one of the anthems, Chicago started a checking line, which meant they were going to dump it in and then run our defence. It set the tone right away. Jeff Brown came back to me and said, “Cujo, play the puck,” because he didn’t want to be plastered up against the glass. They had speed and size. Wingers like Jocelyn Lemieux or Jeremy Roenick would rocket in at a hundred miles an hour, ready to clobber anybody near the puck. The strategy was to flatten our D every chance they got, wear them down. The more we got hit, the more likely a turnover might happen, and in the playoffs, you only need one to turn a game around. It worked like a symphony. And they were very good at it.

When they dumped it in, I went after everything. This meant that, instead of turning around and skating back for it, our defenceman would put his stick out and hold up the offensive player for a second and a half, and then let him go. That second was all the time I had to skate around behind the net, stop the shoot-in and pass it off. If one of their forwards hit me, they’d get a penalty.

The first ten minutes of a game were crucial. We had to hold off the attack and the enormous energy they brought. It was “Okay, this is survival. I’ve got to play the puck around the glass and make sure my D doesn’t get hammered. And make sure we don’t get scored on early. They can’t keep up this intensity for sixty minutes. If we can weather the storm, we’re going to be okay.” That’s what it was like, playing those guys in that building at that time.

After we upset the Hawks 4–3 in Game One, we knew they were going to come after us harder than ever three nights later. It was rough out there. Most of the eleven penalties called in the game were for roughing, charging, high-sticking and even kneeing.

We were competitive because we had traded a lot of toughness for talent. We still had Kelly Chase and Garth Butcher, but mostly we were loaded. Hully would become the fourth-leading goal scorer in the history of the league. Shanahan is a Hall of Famer, and then there was Craig Janney.

Craig was one of the greatest centres ever. He had 106 points that year. He was so smooth, and so underrated, a brilliant hockey player and a super-compassionate man. His game was directly related to his off-ice personality. He was a giver. Terrific at finding the open man. He’d rather pass the puck than put one in. He was reminiscent of Adam Oates, for whom he’d been traded. Don’t get me wrong, he scored plenty, but he was generous to a fault. I loved Craig Janney. He’d sit there and smirk and smile and laugh. Always fun, happy and positive.

Bob Bassen was all heart, as were Richie and Ronnie Sutter and Dave Lowry. And then look at our D, led by Jeff Brown and Rick Zombo. Z was integral, but you never heard much about it. He always played against the best of the best. And yet, even at the pinnacle of his career, he was more or less unknown. Shutting down the opposition’s best line? That’s big. You have to be damn good. But he never got the accolades he deserved. He didn’t have points, and his plus/minus was average. That’s all a lot of sportswriters see. But as a goalie, I relied on him big time. Just one of a long line of amazing players we had through the early ’90s.

As for the Blackhawks, they definitely had talent. Chelios was good — at thirty-one he was so incredibly fit that he was still, effectively, a young player. He’d come down to my end every once in a while and start yelling at me. Oh man, the obscenities — the gist being “We’re coming for you! We’re coming for you and we’re going to kill you!” I was trying to maintain focus and he was trying to get me off balance. But I recognized it as a great compliment to me. I thought, “This is good. It means I’m a factor in this series.”

I remember Roenick running around crushing people. For a skilled guy, he could hit. But like I told you before, the one guy I had to really pay attention to was Steve Larmer. He was thirty-two and he hadn’t missed a game in eleven years. He was two years from retirement, but he was still dangerous. He seemed unfazed by anything that was happening in the building. He had great patience, great poise, and then, suddenly, he would just rocket that puck into the top corner. I had to know where he was at all times.

That entire week, it felt like I was in a bubble and I was riding a wave. I didn’t think about it too much. I just got up, went to the rink and followed my routine. No superstitions, no rituals. I made a conscious decision early on not to hang my game on rituals. I concentrated on one thing. Focus.

Standing in my crease in Game Two, I found myself in a calm spot in the middle of the hectic world around me. The game ended with my first playoff shutout, 2–0. I was in the zone. It starts with the eyes — specifically, the fovea, a small depression at the back of the retina where visual acuity is highest. The fovea only picks up a tiny bit of your field of vision, so if you’re looking at something large, you need to move your eyes to take it all in. A lot of adjustments are needed. That’s why you see goalies moving and twitching so much. The more experienced goalies get, the quicker we are to get into a “quiet eye” state, meaning we stop shifting our gaze around sooner. We know where to focus our eyes.

Game Three, in St. Louis, was another shutout. It was 3–0 this time. Game Three is always the big game. It’s the swing game. Again, I was in the zone, connected to the puck. I could feel it moving along the ice and knew exactly where it was going. Other times, it seemed to be the size of a beach ball and moving in slow motion. When you are a goalie and in the zone like that, the opposing team gets frustrated.

In Game Four, Chicago scored early in the second period, ending my shutout streak at 174 minutes, 18 seconds, during which I had stopped 105 Chicago shots. We were tied 3–3 at the end of regulation, but if you look at the overtime, the Blackhawks knew they were finished. We could smell blood, and that’s when we found our stride. We had one scoring chance after another. There was nothing they could do to turn the tide.

Finally, Brett Hull made this wonderful play. A shoot-in sent the puck into their end. Ed Belfour went behind his net to play it, but it bounced over his stick. While Eddie was trying to get back to his crease, Brett took a shortcut, chasing the puck, and Eddie, trying to get back to his crease, bumped into Brett. Meanwhile, Craig Janney, who was such a quick-thinking player, recognized what was happening and slipped a quick wrist shot from the boards towards the net. Eddie, in a panic, dived and took a stab at it but missed. The puck dribbled in. Our guys leaped over the boards to celebrate, and Eddie went nuts —screaming at the refs, whaling his goal stick at the goal- posts. He gave it three full Paul Bunyan swings, hard enough to bend the iron, but he couldn’t make that stick break.

That was the game, and that was the series.

Eddie was pissed and complained to the ref. Brett yelled at him, “You’re an idiot, Eddie! I wasn’t doing anything. You tried to hit me!” The horn blew and Eddie beat up the crossbar and pushed the net over, something I would’ve done myself. On the way to the dressing room, he knocked over a big coffee urn and a water jug. I will always respect him as a fiery, tremendous competitor. Any time you come out on the winning end as a goalie, after facing a Hall of Fame goalie at the other end, you feel like you’ve done a good job.

The fans in St. Louis were going absolutely crazy. We were always happy to stick around and sign a few autographs and sticks, but we couldn’t get to our cars for three hours after the game. We could not get through the mob who were still waiting and cheering after that Chicago series.

I remember feeling the complete opposite of the way I felt getting that haircut once every two years when I was a kid. I felt proud. I felt great about myself. I felt good about being a good teammate, contributing to the win. And honestly, I can’t remember any moment, in all the time I played hockey, that I was a factor like that. When I played at Notre Dame and we won, it wasn’t because I dominated in any of the games or anything like that. For the first time in my life, I was a big factor.

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