Joseph defied odds to become NHL star
Curtis Joseph officially retired on Tuesday after more than 18 seasons in the NHL, establishing himself as one of the best goaltenders in the league despite having never been drafted.
Joseph, 42, made the announcement at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Joseph played twice for the Maple Leafs, in addition to stops with St. Louis, Edmonton, Detroit, Phoenix and Calgary.
"It's a good day and it's been a great career," said Joseph. "I'm a lucky guy to do what I love to do for a living for 19 years, almost two decades. [I'm] extremely happy and certainly felt I didn't leave anything on the table."
Joseph won 454 career regular season games, good for fourth on the all-time list. He recorded a 2.79 goals-against average in 943 games, a total number of appearances only surpassed by four netminders. The goalie known to teammates as Cujo was a workhorse, making 60 or more starts on 10 separate occasions.
His 51 shutouts are tied with Dave Kerr and Rogie Vachon for 20th all-time.
He's also tied with Hall of Famer Gump Worsley for the most losses in NHL history at 352. That stat reflected the fact that Joseph's teams were usually good — but, with one notable exception, not usually the most talented in the league.
But when Joseph did get to the post-season, he usually excelled. Joseph reached the conference finals twice in his career, with the Maple Leafs in 1999 and 2002. He recorded 16 shutouts in 133 playoff games — a frequency better than his regular-season totals — with a 2.42 goals-against average.
While he went furthest in the playoffs with Toronto, his most memorable playoff exploits may have come earlier with St. Louis and Edmonton. Joseph stopped 61 shots for the Blues in an overtime loss to the Leafs in 1993, and he helped the Oilers overcome a 23-point regular-season deficit to Dallas en route to an upset playoff win four years later.
Joseph also experienced some frustration in international play. He won gold in the 2002 Olympics with Canada, but the tournament was a disappointment from a personal standpoint. Joseph, who had been the No. 3 goalie four years earlier at the Olympics, was supplanted as starter after he and his teammates struggled in a 6-2 opening loss to Sweden.
Joseph played well in the 1996 World Cup for Canada, but was ultimately outperformed by Mike Richter as the United States prevailed in an upset.
Off the ice, he established Cujo's Kids for underprivileged children and travelled with Right to Play to Rwanda among his charitable endeavours. He was recognized by the NHL with the King Clancy Award in 2000, given to players who exhibit leadership and significant contribution to their communities.
He had held out for one more year in the NHL after spending last season with the Leafs, but found no takers.
Huge hit in Toronto
Joseph overcame the odds just to get to the NHL and showed pluck when he got there, traits first formed as an undersized kid who was adopted.
While announcing his retirement, the only time Joseph came close to losing his composure was when recounting a key development in his youth.
He grew up in East Gwillimbury, Ont., but had few prospects for an NHL career when he was nearly 20 until a contact led him to Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask.
"There's a guy by the name of Paul Saunders who helped me out … he told me to go to Notre Dame and that would help me get where I needed to go, and he was right," said Joseph.
Joseph said he never would have imagined an NHL career, even though it was his goal, when he was living in a trailer with five others while playing for the Notre Dame Hounds.
From there he landed an opportunity at the University of Wisconsin, finishing as runner-up for the Hobey Baker Award as top U.S. collegiate player.
Signed by St. Louis as a free agent, he played only 23 games in the minors before becoming for the Blues.
Joseph was the No. 1 goalie by the 1991-92 season, but the Blues were eliminated in seven games in the playoffs three separate times in his tenure, and the goaltender eventually clashed with coach Mike Keenan.
He would be the centrepiece of a multi-player deal with Edmonton in 1995, although his debut in Alberta was delayed by contract negotiations. He led the Oilers to an upset playoff win over Dallas in the 1997 playoffs, robbing Joe Nieuwendyk of a goal to help set up Todd Marchant's winner in the deciding game.
"Dallas was just great tonight, but Curtis was better," assistant coach and former goalie Ron Low said at the time.
When free agency beckoned in the summer of 1998, Joseph opted to bolt to Toronto on a four-year deal.
"Certainly that was in the back of my mind, that being a hometown boy, it's maybe a little bit harder to be successful, but fortunately things worked out tremendously," he said.
"Getting to play as [a Leaf] at a Maple Leaf Gardens was a thrill in itself," he added.
He was an immediate hit for a team that had missed the previous two playoffs. The five-foot-10 netminder stood tall as the Leafs beat Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before losing to Buffalo in the 1999 Eastern Conference final.
"Take away Curtis Joseph and the overmatched Leafs are likely golfing by now," a Hamilton Spectator headline declared midway through the postseason.
Disappointment in Detroit
Joseph rivalled captain Mats Sundin and enforcer Tie Domi in popularity, but he departed the team after a roller-coaster 2001-02 season.
The netminder put up great numbers, suffered the Olympic disappointment, broke his hand and then overcame the injury to help the Maple Leafs to another conference final berth.
Contract negotiations in the off-season were complicated by the fact that the same man who decided to bench him in the Olympics was also Toronto's general manager. Both Joseph and Pat Quinn said there was nothing personal between them to prevent another deal from being struck, but Toronto offered one less year in its pitch than Detroit.
Joseph left to finally play with a team already established as a contender, signing a three-year, $24-million US contract with the Red Wings.
Joseph's time in Detroit didn't go as planned, however. After a strong debut season in which the Wings piled up 110 points to lead the West, they were shocked in four straight by Anaheim as Joseph was outplayed by Jean-Sébastien Giguère of the Ducks.
The following season was excruciating for Joseph. He became the highest paid backup in NHL history after Dominik Hasek decided to come out of retirement. Joseph suffered an ankle injury, was waived and unclaimed due to his high salary, and was even derisively referred to in the media as "Cujo the Yoyo" after two stints in the American Hockey League to stay sharp.
Hasek provided a harbinger of things to come in the second act of his career by failing to stay healthy, giving Joseph a chance at redemption in the playoffs. But even with a 1.39 goals-against average in nine playoff games, Detroit couldn't overcome the upstart Flames in the second round of the 2004 post-season.
"At the time, I felt it was my best opportunity to win a Stanley Cup," Joseph said when asked Tuesday if he regretted the decision to leave Toronto for Detroit.
"I don't think I'd change the path that's got me where I am today," he added.
Joseph moved on to Phoenix, but after two seasons as starter with the Coyotes following the lockout, finding work became difficult in recent years. Joseph parlayed a stint with Canada's Spengler Cup team into a job as a backup with the Flames. He was thrust into Game 3 of the team's first-round playoff series against San Jose in 2008, stopping all 22 shots as Calgary came back to win the game and temporarily go ahead in the series.
Joseph said it had been a privilege playing beside or for the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Grant Fuhr, Brett Hull, Jarome Iginla and Brendan Shanahan, himself recently retired.
After the Flames decided to go in a younger direction with the backup position, he returned to Toronto. Joseph was 5-9-1 with a 3.57 goals-against average and .869 save percentage in his final season.
He said the highlight of last season was undoubtedly stopping Washington superstar Alexander Ovechkin in the shootout for a Toronto victory on March 25 at ACC.
"I remember staring down at Ovechkin — he was at centre — and being able to look around the crowd and saying to myself, 'This is pretty cool.'
"The best player in the world, and if I stop him, we win the game. And I felt a nice peace and a nice serenity about that."
Joseph was accompanied Tuesday by two of his three sons, all of whom play hockey. He has an 18-year-old daughter attending school in the U.S.