Saturday, August 13, 2011

From Hatred to Admiration: Mike McKenna Reflects on Ed Belfour

This article was published at InGoal Magazine. On a personal note, I follow Mike McKenna on twitter, and he is a fun follow. His dog Bauer is super adorable. ;o)  He signed with Ottawa for the upcoming season after this article was published,  and he'll begin with their AHL affiliate, Binghamton (who won the Calder Cup last season.) Another sidenote of interest to me is he spent time here in Springfield, IL (where I live) playing with the Springfield Jr. Blues when he was in high school. He's one of only 2 Jr. Blues players to make it to the NHL. Now the article.

From Hatred to Admiration: Mike McKenna Reflects on Ed Belfour

Mike McKenna is a professional goaltender who has played for New Jersey and Tampa Bay in the NHL. He contributes to InGoal Magazine, melding his talents as a writer with his insight and experience as a pro. He is also one of hockey’s most popular on Twitter – follow him as @MikeMcKenna56

Growing up in St. Louis, I was lucky to witness the height of the rivalry between the Blues and Blackhawks: one that featured Curtis Joseph at one end, Ed Belfour at the other.

For a youngster like me who was already enamored with goaltending, seeing these two battle it out on countless occasions was a joy. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that both Belfour and Joseph were just breaking into the NHL and elevating their status to elite goaltenders.

I have often credited Greg Millen and Curtis Joseph as the main reasons why I became a goalie. While that remains true, I was also inspired and influenced by several goalies from the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I always thought Ron Hextall was cool for his puckhandling, and Kelly Hrudey – with his brightly colored bandanas and custom Vic McMartin pads – brought memorable flair to the game. When Patrick Roy came to town with the Canadians (they only played in St. Louis once every other season), there was an aura surrounding him I had never experienced (If you’ve ever seen the Rick James episode of The Chappelle Show, you know what I mean). Everyone in the old St. Louis Arena knew they were watching the best in the business, and because of Roy, Les Habitants were going to be tough to beat.

Then there was Ed Belfour. A man who I taunted endlessly and chanted defamatory phrases at alongside other loyal Blues fans.


I can still hear the sound of 20-thousand people repeating it, encouraged by the old light boards at the Arena which prominently displayed a picture of a bell followed by the number four.


Blues fans chanted long and hard, emphasizing each syllable of his name with a vitriolic passion I haven’t heard since.

I hated this guy! Or at least I was trained to. As is the case with many fans young and old, team loyalty plays an important role in determining our favorite players, as well as enemies. And being that Belfour was the goaltender for the Blues’ most bitter rival, how could I not engage in the mass taunting? As a child, not even in my teenage years, it was irresistible.

Deep inside, however, my respect for Ed Belfour was immense. He was a goaltending pioneer, which – despite being slightly blinded by my Blues loyalty – I quickly discovered.

At the time, Belfour had the lowest and widest stance I had ever seen. He dared shooters to beat him 5-hole, quickly sealing the ice with a wide and effective butterfly. And despite the low center of gravity, Ed’s hands were always alive. He was truly an athlete in the net, snaring pucks through traffic and fighting for his position in the crease.

Belfour also took part in triathlons before it was cool for hockey players to be well-rounded athletic machines. Now it’s a necessity.

He was the first goaltender I saw shoot a puck high around the glass in warm-ups; probably sending a half-dozen biscuits in either direction during the session. This was a revelation; I’d seen Hextall shoot and score, but never before had I witnessed the curvature of the glass effectively utilized to beat the first forechecker and jumpstart a team’s breakout. Eddie possessed a strong forehand and could clear the zone with ease, something he often did during games. Additionally, Belfour – along with Joseph – helped popularize the paddle-down save selection, taking it from a desperation move to a preventative method of sealing the ice.

Another part of Eddie’s game that stands out to me is how it evolved over time.

As his career progressed, so did his style in net, eventually gravitating towards a patient yet effective half-butterfly style rooted in conservative movements in and around the crease. He ditched low and wide in favor of a more upright and mid-width stance, partly because of back problems that had developed around the mid-point of his career. Whereas some goalies would have remained steadfast in their stylistic tendencies, Belfour proactively altered his game to fit his body.

In doing so, he became a more patient and consistent goaltender, leading the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup.

Ed continued to put up solid numbers for the rest of his lengthy career … which only ended when a suitable contract could not be found. Despite being well into his 40’s, he still wanted to play.
From an equipment standpoint, Belfour was always interesting.

For a while he wore pads from a local Chicago company called Great Saves that was known more for their mail-order catalog than goalie equipment. During his time in Dallas, he used a Vaughn glove featuring a T-trap anchored by over an extra inch of lace at the base of the T.

And who could forget the famous Eagle mask that Belfour wore throughout his career? Distinct, powerful, and downright beautiful, Eddie’s helmet design could be seen clearly by anyone in the building. Very few goaltenders in the history of the NHL have had such a trademark paint scheme. When you saw The Eagle, you knew it was Ed Belfour in net.

When he first broke into the league, Ed used the roundest heel I had ever seen on a goalie stick.
While attending a summer goalie school one year, I distinctly remember the instructor (who was very successful at the college level and claimed several NHL goalies at the time) chastising any goalie in camp who used Belfour’s Cooper pro pattern because of its perceived lack of coverage along the ice. What the coach didn’t understand was that Belfour’s heel was rounded for a reason: it allowed him to effortlessly transition into the paddle-down, which at the time was a very important part of his game. Walk into any hockey store today and you’ll be hard pressed to find a square-heeled goalie stick.
Belfour was ahead of his time.

There are also countless stories about Eddie’s skates; in particular, the way he liked them sharpened. One year in playoffs, the ESPN guys (and if I’m not mistaken, Darren Pang) showed a close-up of his blades.
Whereas most goalies simply have their skates sharpened at a particular radius (mine are usually about 5/16”), Belfour preferred his inside and outside edges to be staggered in height. This blew me away. Not because of the staggered edges – the theory makes some sense – but because he had actively pursued finding a solution. So many goalies rely on parents or – in the case of professionals – equipment managers to maintain their gear. They don’t think about ways to improve and innovate.

Eddie Belfour was at the top of the hockey ladder and he was constantly trying to find ways to improve himself and his equipment. That says a lot about his competitive fire!

This brings me to my favorite Belfour moment, which as you could imagine, occurred in St. Louis.

The Blues were up 3-0 in a playoff series against the Blackhawks, when in game 4, one of the Blues players collided with Belfour at the side of the net. Upon impact, Eddie fell to the ice. Sure enough, the puck went directly to a Blues player who slammed it into the open net, thus knocking the Blackhawks out of playoffs and sending Belfour into a tirade of epic proportions.

Gesturing wildly at the referee, his claims of injustice fell on deaf ears. Turning his stick over in a scythe-like manner, Belfour began thrashing away at the crossbar with unparalleled ferocity.
When it wouldn’t break, he turned his attention to the post, pounding on the lumber until it finally cracked.

In a final fit of rage, he hurled the crippled remains of his stick directly at the referee. Go ahead, YouTube it. Watch from about 3:50 until 4:30 and tell me it isn’t incredible. At 10 years of age, it was the most amazing display of emotion I had ever seen on the ice.

When I saw it happen live, I thought it was funny. I was young and naïve.

What I didn’t realize until later was the amount of passion Belfour had not only for goaltending, but for winning.

He was a competitor in every sense of the word. I learned a lot from that.

Everywhere he went, success followed.

Granted it’s easier to be a good goalie on a strong team, but the simple fact is that Belfour – despite his notoriously quirky attitude – was coveted by top teams due to his reputation as a big-game player.
The man won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic Gold, and countless other individual trophies and accolades.
He directly inspired countless goaltenders and showed them a path to innovation and creativity.

I’m proud to say that watching and emulating Ed Belfour helped me achieve my dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

Welcome to the Hall of Fame, Eddie, it’s most deserved.

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