The story began last summer in a Toronto convenience store, when
Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden dropped in at around 11 p.m.
for a few pints of ice cream and walked out with a goaltender.
Dryden knew he needed the ice cream for milk shakes but wasn't
sure he needed a goalie--he already had a decent one in Felix
Potvin. That night in the store, though, he bumped into Don
Meehan, Curtis Joseph's agent. Of course Joseph, a free agent,
was going to cost a lot more than $2.99, but he wasn't just any
Tom, Ben or Jerry, as he'd proved with his outstanding playoff
work for the Edmonton Oilers during the previous two springs.
But the Leafs needed a jolt (they finished with the NHL's
seventh-worst record in 1997-98), so Dryden splurged, and within
days he'd signed the 31-year-old Joseph to a four-year, $24
million contract. The moral: In convenience stores, it pays to
The Philadelphia Flyers will have all summer to ponder the
meaning of going big or going home. The bitter twist to the
Maple Leafs-Flyers first-round series, which Toronto won in six
games with a 1-0 victory on Sunday, was that Joseph originally
was hoping to sign with Philadelphia. Flyers president Bob
Clarke, however, was looking elsewhere. Joseph is a master of
the spectacular, but Philadelphia had lost its stomach for
high-wire goaltender acts, such as those of Ron Hextall, Garth
Snow and Sean Burke, who in recent years left a legacy of bad
goals at the worst times. For a team longing for tranquillity,
the easy choice was free agent John Vanbiesbrouck, late of the
Florida Panthers, who is more serene than Khalil Gibran.
Vanbiesbrouck was a human table-hockey goalie, a stand-up type
who played angles and moved across the crease as if a metal rod
were attached to his spine. He also had a portfolio--he carried
the Panthers to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals, in which they were
swept by the Colorado Avalanche. The Flyers' hope was that
Vanbiesbrouck would make the routine saves and his teammates
would do the rest. The difference was not so much the $2.5
million per season that Philadelphia saved by signing him over
Joseph; it was the promise of peace and quiet.
So it was with a double scoop of irony that the Flyers' season
ended loudly on Sunday. Owner Ed Snider heaped abuse on referee
Terry Gregson, who had called forward John LeClair for an
obvious elbow at 17:06 of the third period in a scoreless Game
6, a match that turned into a Toronto triumph when wing Sergei
Berezin buried a power-play goal with 59.2 seconds left. In two
separate dressing room rants Snider called Gregson a coward and
insinuated that the Leafs got the call because Gregson is from
Ontario. Snider, however, neglected to mention one thing: In the
series as a whole the Flyers weren't jobbed, they were
beaten--by a goalie they had snubbed, a player who has had more
of an impact this season than anyone in the league other than
the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr.
In 1998-99 Joseph didn't score a goal, yet he turned Toronto
into the NHL's highest-scoring team. "His effect was like
Dominik Hasek's impact in Buffalo," Dryden says. "You can have a
bunch of talented players, quite young, and maybe you can
develop one or two at the same time, but a goalie like that
allows you to develop four or six at the same time. The players
become better, faster. Curtis allowed our younger players the
freedom of mistakes. He permitted us to open up, to put pressure
on the other team."
Vanbiesbrouck yielded only nine goals on 146 shots in the six
games, but those numbers camouflage a subtle but significant
breakdown. In each of the Flyers' three 2-1 losses, including
the pivotal Game 5 overtime defeat in Toronto last Friday, the
Leafs beat Vanbiesbrouck with weak, hurried backhands. Philly
was undermined by chintzy goals: Steve Thomas's in Game 2, Mike
Johnson's in Game 3 and Yanic Perreault's Game 5 sudden-death
winner, which slithered past Vanbiesbrouck to the short
side--BACKHANDED COMPLEMENTS, a Toronto Globe and Mail headline
slyly noted. After Game 5, Flyers coach Roger Neilson was
roasted like a campfire marshmallow for not shortening his bench
in overtime (fourth-liners Sandy McCarthy and Mikael Andersson
were on the ice for Perreault's goal), but the difference wasn't
McCarthy's three overtime shifts versus Toronto roughneck Tie
Domi's none; it was a sprawling save Joseph made on Rod
Brind'Amour 2 1/2 minutes before Vanbiesbrouck yielded the
winner. The primary issue regarding the Flyers' bench was that
Eric Lindros wasn't on it.
If a 6'4", 231-pound man can be spectral, Lindros was. His face
was whiter than French vanilla, his jawbone unusually prominent.
After conditioning drills over the past couple of weeks,
hockey's most imposing specimen would come off the ice gasping,
unable to speak in anything more than a soft rasp. In the month
since his right lung collapsed during a game in Nashville,
causing him to lose three liters of blood and 18 pounds, he had
regained half that weight. But his coordination was poor, and he
studiously avoided contact to protect the angry incisions in his
side from the surgery he underwent after the injury. If there
was any pressure on him to return, Willis Reed-like, it was
self-imposed. "Look, I'm a Toronto boy," Lindros said last week.
"Do you think there'd be anything as great as going up there and
scoring the winner in a seventh game?"
Lindros is one of the exceptional few who will never be measured
by goals and assists but by Stanley Cups. Wayne Gretzky needed
five NHL seasons and Mario Lemieux seven before leading their
respective teams to championships. Next season will be Lindros's
eighth, and he will be no closer to a Cup if Vanbiesbrouck, who
will turn 36 during training camp, proves to be the wrong
goalie, as last week's series suggested he might be. Clarke has
scurried to correct his past mistakes: Of the 18 Flyers skaters
who dressed for Game 6, only five played in the first-round
disaster against the Buffalo Sabres last year. Philadelphia made
a team-record 12 deals between training camp and the trading
deadline, 13 if you count its addition of a second sports
psychologist. The Flyers already had Joel Fish on hand, but this
season Neilson has also used David Scott, a University of New
Brunswick professor, to speak to the team.
The Flyers had a Kate Smith-God Bless America thing going with
Scott--they had been 3-0 after the professor addressed the club on
game day--but in Game 6 words finally failed the Flyers. In the
end Snider was livid, LeClair was distraught, and Joseph, with 26
saves and his eighth career postseason shutout, was magnificent.
For the Leafs, this was their ice-cream Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Close call In a series-turning play, Joseph stopped Brind'Amour's shot in overtime of Game 5, moments before Perreault's winner.