The Verdict: Belfour undrafted, yet undaunted
Editor's note: As part of a new alliance with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Daily Herald can now offer our readers occasional features by Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi, who writes for the team's official web site.
"ED-DIE!!" "ED-DIE!!" "ED-DIE!!"
It is rare indeed that a sellout crowd will break into a staccato chant for a player who is not playing, is not in uniform, is not in the lineup and is trying to retire from public life for a day. But Ed Belfour had no place to hide during the 1991 National Hockey League All-Star Game at Chicago Stadium. He sat in the stands with a black baseball cap pulled low and in his lap was a blanket containing his infant son Dayn. Belfour's venture into the world of incognito failed early and often.
"ED-DIE!!" "ED-DIE!!" "ED-DIE!!"
It was an emotional Saturday afternoon. A war, Operation Desert Storm, had broken out in the Persian Gulf earlier that week, prompting no less an oracle than Wayne Gretzky to opine that the annual midwinter classic should be canceled. But the game went on, and the Chicago crowd of 18,472 oozed patriotism, waving American and Canadian flags and sparklers. Denis Savard, a local hero, returned as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, inducing a huge ovation. Surely a man and his child could savor this spectacle in relative peace.
But not Ed Belfour. Although he was building toward a brilliant first full season with the Blackhawks, he had been omitted as a goalie on the Clarence Campbell Conference All-Star team. Mike Vernon of the Calgary Flames started via popular vote. Edmonton's Bill Ranford was selected as a sidekick by Campbell coach John Muckler of the Oilers. Once Belfour was identified as a spectator, however, the chorus began and a line formed for autographs.
"Great memories," he says. "The people in Chicago treated me great. They were fantastic. And that building, the Stadium, was the best ever. I used to come to the rink on game nights maybe three hours early and just sit there, looking at the banners, soaking in the atmosphere. It was an awesome place even when it was completely quiet. And when those fans filled it, there was nothing like it. Anywhere."
Those fans loved Ed Belfour. Later that season, he would earn the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's best rookie and his first of two Vezina Trophies as the league's most outstanding goalie. He had 43 victories, still a franchise record, in 74 games and a 2.47 goals-against average in 1990-91. It was the beginning of a career that would read like fiction were it not true. Belfour, an undrafted yet undaunted free agent who signed with the Blackhawks in 1987, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last November. He won 484 games, the third-most in NHL history, and a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He never won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (for "sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct"), nor was he ever nominated.
"I did collect some penalty minutes, didn't I?" says Belfour. Yes, he did -- 61 in 1993-94 -- because he guarded his cage with a passion and fire that endeared him to fans and teammates. If Tony Esposito, Eddie's favorite while growing up, stewed within, and Glenn Hall, another Hall of Famer, vomited to make sure he was ready, the animated Belfour greeted opposing shooters with righteous indignation. He defended his turf with a dare and a stare.
"Eddie had a chip on his shoulder, and in a positive way," offers the great Blackhawks broadcaster Pat Foley. "Maybe it was because he was overlooked by everybody in the draft, which is amazing when you think about it. I mean, he won the NCAA championship at the University of North Dakota and played with Canada's national team. When he settled in with the Blackhawks, he never played two bad games in a row. If he was off one night, he would come back the next game and be terrific. And he was the ultimate competitor.
"One night in Detroit, he covers a puck with his glove. Bob Probert of the Red Wings skates by the crease after the whistle and knees Eddie in the head. Eddie gets up, makes a beeline for the corner, winds up with his blocker and hits Probert with the waffle iron as hard as he can. Punches the toughest guy in the league right in the face. That was Eddie."
Belfour, a rare bird, was the embodiment of his mask that featured an eagle on either side because, he says, "The eagle is a bird that represents individuality, leadership, confidence and outstanding vision. It hunts and is aggressive, characteristics I admire."
In Chicago Belfour refined his craft while listening to Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet Union's goalkeeping legend who served as a Blackhawks goaltending coach for a spell.
"Belfour sucked in everything like a sponge," says Tretiak. Intensely proud, Belfour detested being pulled from games. That led to a few tense moments with one of his coaches, Mike Keenan, who treated goalies like pitchers and made frequent calls to the bullpen.
"That was a couple of real beauties there," recalls former Blackhawk Jeremy Roenick. "Two strong personalities, both wanting the same thing: to win. It was never dull with Eddie around. He was his own guy, but we were glad he was our guy. You wanted him on your side."
Belfour and his wife, Ashley, live on a farm about an hour northeast of Dallas. They have three children, and Eddie remains a man in perpetual motion. During his playing career, he was a conditioning freak who participated in triathlons and kept training staffs from going home at a decent hour. He was his own finicky master when it came to equipment, though, sharpening his own skates, sometimes even between periods. He has a pilot's license and occasionally flies to his auto shop near Saginaw, Mich., to check on his 15 or so muscle cars. The business is under the name of Carman -- after Eddie's birthplace, Carman, Manitoba.
Saginaw is where he began his pro career with the Blackhawks minor league affiliate. His last NHL stop in a long journey was with the Florida Panthers in 2007. Glenn Hall famously volunteered that, as a species, goalies are never sorry to retire. But Belfour was hungry for more. He went to Sweden for another season.
"I played 27 straight games for Florida, as many in a row as I ever played when I was young, and I was, what, 42?" Belfour says. "I would have liked to keep on, but after the lockout, guys my age were being phased out of the league. So I didn't really leave on my own terms, but to be voted into the Hall of Fame right away, my first year eligible, that's unbelievable. You never think of something like that when you're starting out. But when you get older and people talk to you about your numbers and stuff like that … well, I got choked up making my speech up in Toronto. Didn't plan on that either."
Eddie The Eagle is a perfect person to field the eternal question: Does playing goalie make you crazy, or do you have to be crazy to play goalie?
"You think I'm a little loopy, do you?" he says, laughing. "I definitely was on the edge, sometimes real close to the edge. I loved to compete; I hated to lose. It's been 20 years since we went to the finals, the Blackhawks against Pittsburgh, and it still haunts me. Very bad memory. We led the Penguins 3-0 and 4-1 and lost the opener. I blame that on TV. We swept the series before in Edmonton and celebrated a little bit, if you know what I mean. We weren't supposed to start the finals for a week. We fly back to Chicago on a Saturday and find out we're starting the finals on Monday instead. I don't know that we were tired when we got to Pittsburgh, but I don't think we were as prepared as we could have been."
The Blackhawks entered the finals with 11 straight victories, all of them behind Belfour. That's still a playoff record for goalies. He was traded to the San Jose Sharks in 1997 -- "contract issues, worst day of my life," he recalls. Belfour then joined the Dallas Stars, for whom he registered a 1.67 goals-against average over 23 playoff games in 1999. Dallas beat Buffalo in the Stanley Cup Final; the Sabres goalie was former Blackhawk Dominik Hasek, who would seize six Vezina Trophies and is also destined for the Hall of Fame. That summer, Belfour brought the Stanley Cup to Chicago, just in case his friends forgot what it looked like.
"We had about 400 people in a hotel ballroom," Belfour recalls. "Nice get-together. I met a lot of great people in Chicago. Darryl Sutter, my coach in Saginaw and then in Chicago, always backed me up. Chris Chelios is a godfather to our children. I got to be around some great players, and like I said, if you couldn't get up for a game with all those fans in the Stadium, there was something wrong with you. I was emotional and I took the game home with me. Too much so at the beginning. And I protected my area because I just didn't happen to like getting run over by people.
"I still play in a men's league a couple times a week, but I changed positions. I'm a defenseman now. I wear a cage over my head and have ever since some little rat ran me and opened me up for 30 stitches. Every once in a while I find myself going down into a crouch, going to my knees to block a shot like I'm still a goalie. I miss the game. I miss playing.
"I wouldn't mind getting back into it as a front office person. I think I have an eye for talent and that I have something to give. If I become a general manager, though, I guess I'll have to shave all the time and dress better than I do now. Don't you think? It's not like I have a closet full of suits."