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Original Issue

Quick as a cat

Few if any goaltenders have risen so far so fast as Toronto Maple Leaf star Felix Potvin

There are no signs that the hottest goaltender for the hottest team in hockey lives in this nondescript house in this nondescript neighborhood in Toronto. Felix Potvin lives here? Felix the Cat? Cannot be. A school is located across the street, apparently a junior high, and kids walk past in the morning and the late afternoon with their backpacks and conversations, and not one head turns toward the house. Wouldn't all eyes stare if Felix the Cat lived here, everyone looking for a glimpse of the face that inhabits the sports pages of the city's three newspapers, even in the midst of the Toronto Blue Jays' march to another baseball world championship? Nobody knows.

"I like it this way," Felix the Cat says. "I park around back, go through the back door. Not many people see me."

He is in and he is out. He is here and he is gone, moving at different hours than the other residents of the street. There is nothing special about his Jeep Cherokee, nothing special about the modest house at the end of a row of modest houses. He is engaged to be married to Sabrina Tardif, who is pregnant. They will take care of that marriage business when they find a spare day or two. The baby is due in March. There is a real cat in the household, a tapioca tabby named Tommy, and an active seven-month-old Labrador retriever named Thunder. The official language of the house is French.

"Assis, Thunder," Felix the Cat says.

Sometimes Thunder sits. Sometimes Thunder does not sit.

On the walls of the living room, there are no pictures, no memorabilia, no signs of what Potvin does for a living. A large television set is balanced atop a green leather hassock, and a video-game system is balanced atop a VCR, which is balanced atop the balanced television. A large green leather couch matches the green leather hassock. There is not much other furniture in the room. And Felix the Cat? The man who has led the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 9-0 record, the best start in the history of the NHL? The man whose presence has done as much as anything to transform this moribund franchise into the most intriguing outfit in the league? The man who slightly more than a month ago signed a $4 million contract for the next three years? He is 22 years old, and there still is a sprinkling of acne across his forehead and a pleasant shyness in his disposition. He lives here in this starring-out neighborhood in this starting-out life.

"I think the next-door neighbors know who I am," he says. "I'm not sure, but I think they do. I see them stare sometimes."

Everything has happened very, very fast.

"I remember none of the scouts in the NHL liked him at first," says Potvin's agent, Gilles Lupien, the former Montreal Canadien defense-man and enforcer. "The first time he was eligible, no one even drafted him. Three rounds, not one team in the league took a chance. I remember thinking, Am I crazy or are they crazy? Don't they see what I see?"

In 1989, when he was first eligible for the draft, Potvin was seen by the scouts, at best, as a pretty good goalie on a pretty bad team. He was playing for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, a thin kid from the streets of Montreal who was watching an awful lot of rubber every night. Sixty shots. Fifty. Sixty-five.

Even as the next draft approached in 1990, there were reservations. His team was better, mostly dragged by him into the Memorial Cup playoffs, but the scouts still did not respond to his style. He seemed to bend over too much, to lay his goalie stick along the ice as a last resort, to improvise too much. He was successful on a lower level, perhaps, but the scouts thought he was eminently solvable in the big time. He was...he was too short.

"Too short?" Lupien said. "He's 6'1"."

"Well, he plays short," the scouts said. "He scrunches up too much. He's always on his knees. He looks short."

"He looks good," Lupien said. "That's how he looks. I don't care if a guy is 7'1" or 6'1" or 4'1". If he stops the puck, he stops the puck."

The only scout who seemed interested in Potvin was Pierre Dorion, the director of scouting for the Leafs. He promised to take Potvin in the second round, if available, and followed through. One year later Dorion appeared to be clairvoyant as Potvin led Chicoutimi to the Memorial Cup finals and was voted the league's best goaltender. Two years later Dorion appeared to be absolutely brilliant as Potvin, playing at St. John's, Newfoundland, was voted not only the rookie of the year but also the top goaltender in the American Hockey League. Three years later, well, that was last season. Even Dorion, even Lupien, even Potvin himself could not have foreseen what happened last season.

"The plan was to send Felix to St. John's for another season," Maple Leaf general manager Cliff Fletcher says. "We wanted him to get about 3,000 minutes' playing time with St. John's. We didn't want him on the bench up here. We wanted him to play."

The starting goaltender for the Leafs at the beginning of last season was Grant Fuhr. He was the foundation of all hopes for the team's return to glory, the owner of five Stanley Cup rings with the Edmonton Oilers. The hope was that Fuhr could supply some defense and Doug Gilmour, playing his first full season as a Leaf, could supply some offense and new coach Pat Burns, brought to the scene from Montreal, could supply some guidance to a team that had not even made the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons. The backup goalie was Rick Wamsley, another veteran, a steady replacement for the nights Fuhr would sit. Potvin? He was next year. Or maybe the year after that. He was the future.

"Then Wamsley was injured during training camp," Fletcher says.

"Then Fuhr was injured early in the season," Fletcher says.

The trip to St. John's was delayed. Potvin was told to rent an apartment in Toronto on a month-to-month basis, to stick around until Wamsley returned. Fuhr was hurt before the eighth game. Potvin was the starter in the next 10 games. He won six of them, lost two and tied two. His goals-against average was 2.20. In the final six games of the stretch, it was 1.33. The one month in the apartment turned into another month and another.

Even when both Fuhr and Wamsley were healthy again in January and Potvin was finally shipped to St. John's, a move termed by the Leaf players as "going to the Rock," he was told to keep the apartment because he would be back soon. Seventeen days later, on Jan. 19, with Fuhr injured again, this came true. Potvin started three games in the next five days. He gave up one goal in each of the first two games. He beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 in the third game. It was the first time he had ever played against them, the team of his hometown, where he had grown up in a neighborhood near Olympic Stadium, the son of a Montreal fire fighter.

The Leafs suddenly had a very pleasant predicament. Burns is not a coach who likes to spin the goaltending wheel every night. He likes one man at the job for most of the action. Who would be that man? Burns now had too many choices.

"The thing we were looking at, too, was expansion," Fletcher says. "We knew that when expansion came at the end of the season, we would only be allowed to protect one goalie. Clearly, it would be in our best interests to make a move. We also thought sooner would be better than later, because at the end a lot of teams would be making moves."

The move was made on Feb. 2. Fletcher inhaled deeply and shipped Fuhr to the Buffalo Sabres for veteran scorer Dave Andreychuk, backup goalie Daren Puppa and the Sabres' No. 1 choice in the '93 draft. He kept the 21-year-old kid in the rented apartment. He disposed of the perennial All-Star. It was a gutsy decision.

"It was expansion," Fletcher says. "If we hadn't known we were going to lose one of these guys at the end of the year, we would have kept them both. Grant Fuhr is one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the game. What made us keep Felix was his youth, of course, but also his maturity. He's a very serious young man, works on a very even keel. He's the prototype of the modern goalie.

"Our one worry was throwing him into the pressure cooker so fast. How would he handle it? The security blanket was gone. Would this make a difference?"

No. The rest of the season brought more fun than Leaf fans had seen in 26 years, since the team last won the Stanley Cup, in 1967. Andreychuk brought some needed scoring to the operation, getting 25 goals in 31 games. Gilmour became a flat-out superstar. The team finished third in the Norris Division, then beat the Detroit Red Wings and the St. Louis Blues in the divisional playoffs before losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the conference finals. All three series went seven games, the final loss to the Kings, 5-4, on a goal by Wayne Gretzky. Potvin was the goalie for the entire run, finishing the playoffs with a 2.84 goals-against average.

"He did everything anyone could have expected of him," says Wamsley, who saw the inevitable and retired midway through the season and became the goalie coach for the Leafs. "He came in, and two guys had to go down for him to play, and two guys went down [with injuries], and he played and planted the seed about how good he could play. He went from there.

"He's unorthodox, stays back in the net and puts the paddle [stick] on the ice a lot, but it's very effective. All the teachers, all the years, said you never lay the paddle on the ice, that it's too easy for someone to lift the puck and go to the top shelf against you. But Patrick Roy came into the league and did it, and Eddie Belfour does it in Chicago, and now Felix does it, and it works. It might not work so well in practice, when players have time to shoot, but in a game, when there's all that activity and someone's always tugging at a guy, hitting him, it's a lot tougher to put the puck on the top shelf."

On the first day of this season's training camp, one year after he arrived as a third-stringer supposedly destined for those 3,000 minutes in the minors, Potvin signed his new contract. After the obligatory haggling with Fletcher, Lupien agreed to a $1.2 million salary for this year and $1.4 million for each of the next two seasons. Included are incentives that could raise Potvin's pay to more than $2 million in any of the three seasons.

"I don't want Felix to change," Lupien says. "I have him on a budget. I want him to live on $700 a week for now, to go through all the problems involved with living on $700 a week. To pay the phone bill, the rent, the heat, like everybody else. It is hard when a young guy makes money fast. So many people come around. The insurance agent—instead of trying to sell the $100,000 policy, he is there with the $2 million policy. The car salesman—instead of the $15,000 car, he is trying to sell the $60,000 car. The real estate agent—instead of the $150,000 house, it's the $800,000 house. Everyone is looking for the commission, see? I tell Felix that we will invest for the future and the other things will come."

So here he is. Here. In the middle of the afternoon the television is tuned to a succession of music videos. The schoolkids are on the street, walking past a house that contains a secret they couldn't imagine possible. Sabrina is talking about the start of the Lamaze classes she has found that are conducted in French. Thunder is running everywhere. Tommy, the cat, is banished to the basement for fear he might escape through the open door and be flattened by traffic. Felix the Cat is content. He is wearing a T-shirt with the cartoon character of the same name on the front, lying on the green couch, speaking in the English he started to learn only in Newfoundland. He says he is not surprised by his quick success. This is where he always wanted to be, isn't it? This is where he is. Here. Maybe someday soon he will even meet the neighbors. All things are possible.



Potvin's butterfly style had scouts doubting that he would make it in the NHL.



Potvin stopped almost everything during the Maple Leafs' record-breaking 9-0 start.



At home with Tommy, Felix plays cat and mouse with his unsuspecting neighbors.