CuJo one of NHL's feel-good stories

January, 12, 2010

TORONTO -- Curtis Joseph should be a reminder to all young athletes not to take "no" for an answer.

He went from being an undrafted player in the NHL to earning the fourth-most goaltending wins in league history. It's even more amazing when you consider where he was at 20 years old.

"There were six of us that lived in a trailer in Notre Dame," CuJo told a packed news conference at Air Canada Centre as he officially announced his retirement Tuesday.

That's Notre Dame, Saskatchewan. He was 20 years old and playing Tier II hockey. By then, most kids have given up the dream. At 18, most elite hockey players either get drafted by an NHL team or are playing major junior hockey in Canada or NCAA hockey in the United States.

Joseph wasn't doing any of the above at 20, much less at 18, but he stuck with it that season (1987-88) in the six-man trailer in Saskatchewan.

"That wind used to whip through that trailer," Joseph said with a laugh. "Six of us in there, right by the railway tracks."

He finally got his break the following year, starring at the University of Wisconsin, and the rest is history.

Ron Caron, the colorful GM of the St. Louis Blues at the time, took a chance on him. CuJo got himself a great agent in Don Meehan, and 19 NHL seasons in St. Louis, Edmonton, Toronto, Detroit, Phoenix and Calgary followed. Imagine if someone had told him that year in the trailer he'd up playing two decades in the NHL and racking up 451 regular-season victories?

"There's no way. I would have never believed that," said Joseph. "Playing Tier II at 20 years old, in fact I turned 21 that year. By then, Theo Fleury was tearing it up in Moose Jaw [major junior] just down the street. I felt I was a long way from the NHL. There's no way I would have thought I would have had the career that I did and the longevity. Absolutely no idea."

Many sports fans become jaded over the years (and rightfully so) when they see overpaid, prima-donna athletes who don't care about anyone but themselves. But then you get to know a player like Joseph. I had the chance to do just that over the years, and you realize why you're in this business to begin with. This is a person whose hard work and dedication had to be out of this world to get a foot in the door. He worked just as hard to stay among the league's elite netminders for a long time; he even changed his style midway through his career to keep up with the times.

But you likely already knew that about him. Off the ice, you may not know there are few hockey players I've crossed paths with who have given more of himself to charitable causes. The closest to his heart is the longtime association he's had with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

"Well, it seemed a natural fit for me," said Joseph. "I have [four] kids that I feel appreciative that are extremely healthy. It's a world-class hospital that does a lot of good for people that I know. It touches family and friends that I know. For me to be able to use my celebrity in a positive way, it was a great feeling."

Here's an excerpt from a recent book by my colleague Al Strachan, who outlines CuJo's charitable work:

    Joseph had done some great work for the Leafs and for the city of Toronto. He arrived in 1998 as a free agent and used a substantial segment of his salary -- more than $500,000 annually -- to buy a box at Maple Leaf Gardens and subsequently at the Air Canada Centre, which he donated to the Sick Children's Hospital.

    At each game, for the duration of Joseph's stay in Toronto, a number of children, many of them terminally ill, would be treated royally in that box. If their doctors allowed it, they would get the usual kids' treats of hot dogs and soft drinks. Otherwise, they would get as much fun food as their prescribed diets would allow. They all got a picture of Curtis, each one personally autographed to the youngster.

    Joseph also visited the hospital frequently, and on more than one occasion when expensive medical equipment was required, he bought it. All of this without fanfare.

People will debate his Hockey Hall of Fame credentials; I say yes, Scott Burnside says no. But the one thing you can't argue is our game is a lesser place today without Curtis Joseph in it.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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