Commentary

Ed Belfour's manic dedication

Updated: November 11, 2011, 2:00 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Ed BelfourJon Hayt/Getty ImagesEd Belfour posted 484 wins and 76 shutouts during his 17-year career.

Longtime goaltending instructor and hockey school operator Steve McKichan picked up the phone in the summer of 2004 to hear a man's voice asking him if he took adult students at his camp.

No, McKichan told the man, he didn't have room.

Too bad. The man said he had some problems against Philadelphia the previous spring in the playoffs and was looking to work on some stuff.

Philadelphia? Playoffs?

[+] EnlargeEd Belfour
Brian Winkler/Getty ImagesMercurial yes. But Ed Belfour was a relentless competitor, who expected the best of himself and his teammates.

Whoa.

"I thought I was talking to a beer-league goalie," McKichan recently told ESPN.com.

No, it was Ed Belfour.

"I said, 'Oh yeah, I think we'll find room for you in the camp."

McKichan, a promising goaltender whose career was derailed when he suffered a hit from behind during his first NHL game, told Belfour he would work with him as long as their relationship was professional and courteous.

He wasn't going to take any guff from the notoriously prickly Belfour.

But no guff was given, and McKichan ended up being hired as the Leafs' goaltending coach after the lockout while Belfour was a member of the Maple Leafs.

"He never said one cross word to me in all the years we worked together," McKichan said.

But here is the moment that tells you almost everything you need to know about Belfour, who will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night in Toronto. In his first week at the Future Pro Goalie School in Strathroy, Ontario, Belfour was watching the other young netminders get ready for a 45-minute off-ice run on a nearby track. He asked McKichan if he could join them.

McKichan looked at Belfour, a man with a Stanley Cup ring, more money than he could ever spend, a place in the Hall of Fame waiting for him and wondered, "Seriously, dude?" Sure, McKichan said, go ahead.

Off they went. With about a lap and a half to go, some kid from Boston was leading the group and Belfour started a charge. In a mad dash, Belfour crossed the finish line ahead of the teenager.

"Eddie walked over to me and puked on my shoes," McKichan recalled. "He looked up at me and said, 'That kid will never beat me.' And then he walked back into the arena. ... He could barely talk. That, to me, is Ed Belfour."

Few people who know Belfour would be at all surprised at that story.

"Eddie was a unique teammate. Socially, he probably wasn't real tight with anybody, but we all admired the seriousness he took at this position. He prepared himself. He was the first guy there and the last guy to leave," Joe Nieuwendyk, his former teammate in Dallas and Toronto, told ESPN.com. "There were a lot of things that went with that. Eddie needed his certain type of groceries; he needed a skate sharpener and all that kind of stuff. But we accepted it because we knew the type of goalie that we had. We knew the competitor he was. He was maybe the best biggest-game goaltender I ever played with.

"You think of the goalies he beat in '99 when we won the Cup [with Dallas]. He beat Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek in the last three rounds. That's unreal. And he was better than all those guys."

Ask those who played alongside or observed Belfour on the long arc of his career, a career that yielded 484 NHL victories and 88 playoff wins, and the bookend themes are consistent: focus and preparation.

"The bigger the game, the narrower the focus," current St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock recently told ESPN.com. "The bigger the stage the better he played all the time."

You might imagine Hitchcock would be drawn inexorably to that spring, but for Hitchcock, the quintessential Ed Belfour moments were the next season when the team was struggling with its Stanley Cup hangover.

[+] EnlargeEd Belfour
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesEd Belfour led the Dallas Stars to the 1998-1999 Stanley Cup -- his only championship in the NHL.

"He carried us for months on end with incredible play while we got our legs under us," said Hitchcock, who coached that '99 Cup-winning Dallas team with Belfour manning the pipes. "He just refused to let us lose games."

The Stars returned to the Stanley Cup finals in 2000 before losing to New Jersey.

For a player who had to scratch and claw for everything he got professionally, focus and preparation weren't just buzzwords but a way of life. On game days, Hitchcock said Belfour would sometimes never leave the rink, prowling around doing this and that, tinkering with his pads and gloves, sharpening his own skates.

"He needed to be by himself," Hitchcock said.

The tinkering, the need to have things just so, carried over to Belfour's love of classic cars. He still has his name attached to a classic car shop in Michigan, where his boyhood friend, Jeff Friesen, runs the operation (the name Carman Custom is a nod to his hometown of Carman, Manitoba).

Perhaps it was this almost manic dedication to his craft that makes Belfour the most difficult memeber of the 2011 Hall class to figure out (he declined to speak to ESPN.com for this story). Of the four inductees, Doug Gilmour, Mark Howe, Nieuwendyk and Belfour, the netminder sticks out as the one with the rougher edges, the one whose significant accomplishments are the most difficult to reconcile with the person beneath them.

Undrafted out of college, Belfour was a disciple of Russian great Vladislav Tretiak and wanted more than anything to be a Blackhawk, where Tretiak worked as a goaltending consultant starting in 1990. The two developed a special bond, and Belfour (along with his son, Dayn) regularly attended Tretiak's summer camps. The relationship between the two was hugely important to Belfour. He gave an impassioned speech at a special party to celebrate Tretiak's 50th birthday a few years back.

Perhaps because nothing ever came easily, being needed or accepted was an important, if complex, part of Belfour's make-up.

Craig Button worked with Belfour when Button was a member of the Dallas management team and then again in Toronto. He recalled the summer after the 1998 Western Conference finals when Belfour melted down against Detroit (he nearly castrated Martin Lapointe with a famously well-aimed move of his stick). The Wings went on to win their second straight Cup.

There were calls for the Stars to cut ties with the mercurial netminder, but then-GM Bob Gainey told Belfour he thought the netminder could get the Stars over the hump if he was willing to focus his energies on the game and not the peripheral stuff.

"That's when Bob Gainey really stepped in and believed in Eddie," Button said.

Perhaps it's no coincidence Gainey had roomed with another emotional young netminder named Patrick Roy.

"I think [Gainey] really understood that level of competitiveness," said Button, now a national broadcast analyst. "I don't think you can talk about Eddie without talking about his intensity. You just can't. He wanted to win in the worst way."

Whatever the motivation was -- the desire to prove people wrong, the desire to be loved or needed -- Belfour focused all of his energies into preparing to win. And though he was demanding of his teammates, he saved his greatest demands for himself.

[+] EnlargeEd Belfour
Andy Marlin/Getty ImagesNothing ever came easy to Ed Belfour, but there's little doubt his tireless work motivated him every day on the ice.

"Eddie was as hard a worker as anybody on that Dallas team -- anybody," Button said. "A lot gets lost about how prepared he was, how dedicated he was to preparation. He wasn't going to leave anything to chance and he expected that of his teammates."

The characteristics that sometimes left him at odds with the media and even some teammates did not blunt his ability to perform at the highest level.

Still, when it came time to pick Canada's 2002 Olympic team, executive director Wayne Gretzky and coach Pat Quinn raised some eyebrows when they named Belfour as the team's third netminder behind Curtis Joseph and Martin Brodeur.

The view from the outside was Belfour would chafe as the bystander; to be the odd man out certainly didn't seem to be in his DNA. Yet Quinn said the experience was positive all the way around as Belfour turned out to be the consummate teammate, helping the coaching staff and working hard to help prepare his teammates, even though he never played a minute in the tournament.

"As always in this business, and maybe in life, rumors take on a life of their own when they really don't have substance," Quinn told ESPN.com.

The veteran coach was so impressed with Belfour, the Leafs signed him as a free agent in the summer of 2002. Although in the twilight of his career, Belfour embraced the hockey-mad culture and its attendant media attention, and was nominated for a Vezina Trophy after the 2002-03 season.

"He was a leader," Quinn said. "Goaltenders can be leaders and he certainly was one. I already had a great respect for him and the way he played, but I developed a real respect for him as a person."

Quinn joked that had Belfour not been hurt during the 2005-06 season, things might have turned out differently for all concerned.

"I might still be there," Quinn said.

Heck, so might Belfour.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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