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Belfour Became First Ballot Hall of Fame Goalie by Evolving Game

Belfour Became First Ballot Hall of Fame Goalie by Evolving Game

Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour played his final season in Leksands Sweden

Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour changed his game significantly between winning the NHL Rookie of the Year award in 1991 and finishing his career in Sweden in 2008.

Ed Belfour’s path to the Hockey Hall of Fame was never a straight line.

In fact, it almost never got off the starting line. But after going undrafted while playing lower level junior hockey for the Winkler Flyers in his native Manitoba until he was 21, Belfour moved to the University of North Dakota in 1986-87 and won an NCAA championship his first season, catching the eye of the Chicago Blackhawks. A year later he shared the Rookie of the Year award in the now-defunct IHL, and the next season got his first taste of the NHL, struggling to a 4-12-3 record in 23 games.

After a one year detour to the Canadian National team, Belfour earned a full-time spot with the Blackhawks – and the league’s Rookie of the Year award – in 1990-91, winning 43 games with a then-impressive 2.47 goals-against average.

Twenty years later, Belfour was elected to the Hall of Fame his first time on the ballot.

“Obviously it’s a real honor and it’s even more of an honor to be picked right away,” Belfour told reporters on a conference call shortly after getting the news. “I was just flabbergasted when I heard about it. … It really surprised me actually. There’s a lot of mixed emotions. You always have it in your heart that you want to continue to play, but there is a point where it has to come to an end. But, it’s a great honor to be amongst the Hockey Hall of Fame and be inducted.”

Belfour’s induction shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.

Perhaps best known for his fiery personality, Belfour won 484 games during stints with five NHL teams over 17 seasons – the Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars, Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers – and currently sits third all time for goaltending victories behind only Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy. He also won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999, the above-mentioned Calder Trophy as top NHL rookie, two Vezina Trophies as the league’s top goaltender, four Jennings Trophies for the fewest goals agains, and posted 76 career shutouts, good for a ninth-place tie with boyhood idol Tony Esposito on the NHL’s all time list.

Belfour’s career playoff numbers are just as impressive: fourth all-time in wins with 88; 14 shut-outs, a 2.17 goals-against average, .920 save percentage, and three trips to the Stanley Cup finals, with the one victory coming in Dallas.

Belfour became a more conservative butterfly-based goalie in his later years.


Known as either “Eddie the Eagle” for the eagle painted on his masks, or “Crazy Eddie” because of several off ice incidents, including damaging a locker room in Vancouver after getting yanked from a game against the Canucks late in his career, no one will ever question the competitiveness or drive of Belfour, who continuously worked to evolve his game and stay on top of the NHL.

Even when he was done in the eyes of the NHL, Belfour wanted to keep playing, going to Sweden in 2007-08 for a job with Leksands in the second division, where he mentored a young Eddie Lack, now with the Canucks, in his final professional season.

InGoal caught up with Belfour late in his career for a feature story on the evolution of his game over the years:

FROM THE PENALTY BOX TO THE GOAL CREASE

No one has ever questioned Belfour’s fiery nature.

In fact, it was his tendency to be a little too competitive – and the bitter cold winters in his hometown of Carman, Manitoba – that first landed him between the pipes. He’d played goal before, but was primarily a scoring center until he was 12 years old. That’s when the weather took its toll on the other goalies, who bailed at the idea of stopping frozen rubber in minus-30 temperatures.

“I was the only one who had any idea how to play goal and at the same time I was always getting a lot of penalties, so they thought ‘we’ll put Ed in the net to keep him out of trouble,’” Belfour said. “That’s how I became the goalie.”

Belfour had actually dabbled with the pads before, both on the ice in practices and the odd game, and in street hockey games, where he pretended to be Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, Rogie Vachon, or Russian great Vladislav Tretiak. It’s not a coincidence the latter three all played a butterfly style long before it became the accepted method of stopping pucks.

“I liked that Tony O and Rogie Vachon and Tretiak were really butterfly goalies,” Belfour said. “They were always really flashy and came up with big saves and I always thought the masks were cool. It was the coolest stuff, the coolest position. You see goalies making those acrobatic saves and then you play street hockey and try to copy what they were doing.”

Belfour enjoying retirement

Belfour had to be woken up from a pre-game nap to be told he had been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

It seems he is still playing in two men’s leagues near his permanent home in Dallas, though most likely as a forward, something he used to do every summer to stay in shape before getting back on the ice in goalie equipment sometime in August.

That’s not all Belfour likes to do with his spare time.

Among the many off-ice activities that provided a balance to the pressures of tending NHL twine while he was still in the league, Belfour worked with kids in the Make-A-Wish Foundation, fished for bass, went deep-sea diving, played golf, flew planes, and restored classics muscle cars and building hot rods through Carman Custom, his shop in Freeland, Michigan. (Belfour says he still gets under the hood from time to time but lets partner Jeff Friesen do most of the dirty work now.)

He’ll have plenty more time for all of it, but will have to take a break Nov. 11 to 14 for the Hall of Fame induction weekend in Toronto.

Belfour must have copied his heroes pretty well. Cut from the varsity team his first year, he came back to win a championship his final year of high school hockey, then went on to play the 1985-86 season with the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, where he was named the top goaltender. The next year he led North Dakota Fighting Sioux to the NCAA title, earning all-tournament honors in the playoffs to go with his second team all-American award from the regular season. He signed with Chicago that summer, where for the first time in his hockey career, Belfour had a goaltending coach other than himself.

First it was Wayne Thomas, who Belfour called “a little bit technical” and credited for showing him a lot of good in-the-crease movements. But Thomas was replaced before the 1990-91 season and Belfour was learning from boyhood idol Vladislav Tretiak.

“I had to teach myself for the most part, but we had Tretiak as our goalie coach in Chicago and he wasn’t real technical with us, but we did a lot of drills,” said Belfour, adding it was his first time in a decade of stopping pucks that he did position-specific drills.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence Belfour, who wore No. 20 in tribute to Tretiak, went on to record one of the most remarkable rookie seasons ever by a goaltender. After splitting his first three seasons as a pro between Chicago, Saginaw, and the Canadian National Team, Belfour played a league-high 74 games for the Blackhawks that season. He finished 43-19-7 with a 2.47 goals-against average, winning both the Calder and Vezina trophies as the NHL’s top rookie and goaltender, and leading Chicago to an 18-point improvement in the standings and the Presidents’ Trophy as the best regular season team.

The next season he led the Blackhawks all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, winning a playoff-record 11-straight games before being swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He wouldn’t get back to the Finals for anther seven years, with the Dallas Stars, but when he did, Belfour wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. He went 16-7 with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage, beating both Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek to lead the Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup. Belfour followed that up the next season by leading the NHL in save percentage and the Stars back to the Stanley Cup Finals, going 14-9 with a 1.87 goals-against and .931 save percentage before losing to New Jersey.

THE SELF-DRIVEN EVOLUTION OF AN EAGLE

A lot had changed in Belfour’s game by then. Some 20-plus years after first being plopped between the pipes full-time, he played with a lot less flash than those goalies he first tried to emulate. While Belfour insists he was never really a “technical” goalie and his game hasn’t changed dramatically over 16 seasons, he clearly evolved into a better positional goaltender.

He was challenging less in Dallas, instead playing deeper in the net, which allowed him to make smaller lateral adjustments, staying square to the puck in a center-net position without having to travel nearly as far. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, he was upright longer, moving more on his skates and less on his knees, patiently waiting for shooters to make the first move.

Already one of the league’s best skating and puck-handling goalies, Belfour’s play with the puck also became even more refined. Instead of always looking to push the puck up the ice, he became adept at drawing in opposing forecheckers before making smart, quick passes that allowed the defensive-minded Stars to get out quickly into a transition attack.

“I used to play a lot further out of the net and move around quite a bit. I’m probably a little bit more stay at home now and a little bit more set in the crease,” Belfour said, attempting to quickly summarize how his game changed. “I play the puck a lot more than when I was younger and now I probably pick and choose a little bit better when to do that. I probably stand up a lot more than I used to. When I first started I was more of a butterfly goalie. Not that I’m not now, I just stand up a little bit more I think.”

Belfour added a patient, stay-up approach to the butterfly, helping make up for a 6-foot frame without have to be overaggressive in his initial positioning.

It’s an evolution he admits became more technical over his last eight seasons, and since 2003-04, Belfour, self-taught most of his career, has been working with goaltending coach Steve McKichan, an ex-NHL target with a solid technical foundation.

“I’ve never been a technical goalie, I just tried to do whatever it took to stop the puck,” said Belfour. “I guess I’m always learning new things … I only started thinking about the technical side of the game a lot probably in the last five or six years.”

In that time Belfour arguably became one of the most efficient goaltenders in hockey, rarely out of position, rarely needing to reach, stretch or scramble, instead playing deeper in his net, focused on staying set, square and centered, allowing the puck to come into his coverage. The spectacular saves were still there for Belfour, who at the age of 40 was flashing the catching glove with the best of them. The difference is that did it off a better technical base, making more saves with positioning than he does by reacting.

“You’ve got to be able to do both,” he said. “To play nowadays you have to be very athletic and very agile and I don’t think you can say anybody is not doing that very well. At this level now you have to be a great athlete, no matter where you are playing in the net.”

His simple but powerful positional approach allowed Belfour to control rebounds like few other goalies. It’s also an approach built from the skates up so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the ultra-consistent Belfour has sharpened his own ever since college. Sometimes, after careful instructions, he lets the trainer do it, but most of the time Belfour does it himself.

Either way the skates are freshly sharpened the exact same way every time he steps on the ice.

It’s all part of the unmatched attention to every detail – from equipment to his personal preparation – that allows him to be so consistent. But it may be Belfour’s relentless competitive fire, work ethic, and an undeniable belief in himself that some have mistaken for stubbornness, that truly sets him apart from his puck-stopping peers.

Asked what motivated him shortly after first arriving in Toronto in 2002, Belfour told reporters he wanted to be part of another Stanley Cup team, but quickly added that he also wanted to be known as one of the best – and most competitive – goalies to have ever played the game.

Not that he was getting a lot of arguments before, but the first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame assures he will be.

Ed Belfour was a big hit his final pro season in Sweden

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.

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