To appreciate the Byzantine goaltending situation in Detroit, you
need a grounding in sociology, a familiarity with Seinfeld and a
subscription to Soap Opera Digest. The two stars in this Red
Wings drama are Curtis Joseph, nicknamed Cujo, who essentially
has been fired by the team yet, like George Costanza, keeps
showing up for work; and Dominik Hasek, nicknamed the Dominator,
whose unexpected return from retirement last July shunted aside
Joseph but whose recurrent groin injury has made Cujo at the same
time indispensable. ¬∂ In last Thursday's installment the Red
Wings, who are paying their three goaltenders (including
third-stringer Manny Legace) $15 million in 2003-04, had to
summon a local golf pro and pickup league hockey player, George
Bowman, the grandson of Scotty Bowman--not that Scotty Bowman
but Ralph (Scotty) Bowman, a Detroit defenseman in the
1930s--to tend net with Joseph in practice. The reason? Hasek
was injured and the voluble Legace was away from the team
getting his divorce finalized.
When asked about the team's bizarre goaltending predicament,
right wing Brett Hull deadpans, "What goaltending situation? We
have one goalie who's never here, one goalie who doesn't know
when he's going [to be traded] and one goalie who never shuts
up." Faced with the equivalent of a dotty aunt at the dinner
table who keeps drinking from the gravy bowl and jamming bread
sticks up her nose, Detroit players have done the only sensible
thing: Act as if everything is perfectly normal. "We have chosen
to pretend that it doesn't exist," says captain Steve Yzerman.
The players have been able to do that because, through Sunday,
the Red Wings led the NHL in points (61) with a 27-13-5-2 record.
And it hasn't hurt that Hasek, 38, who led the team to the 2002
Stanley Cup before retiring, and Joseph, 36, who was signed as
free agent to replace Hasek in July '02 but failed to live up to
expectations last season, have given each other wide berths. On
Oct. 1, the day after Joseph reported to Detroit following
surgery in August to remove bone chips in his right ankle, he and
Hasek shook hands and exchanged cursory greetings, and they have
not spoken since. Between Joseph's various absences
(rehabilitation and two trips to Detroit's American Hockey League
affiliate in Grand Rapids) and Hasek's nagging injury, the two
have yet to dress for the same game. Unlike in the fall, when
Legace's stall was a buffer between them, their lockers are now
adjacent, but as with Clark Kent and Superman, Joseph and Hasek
never seem to be in the same room at the same time.
In a perfect world Hasek, who is getting paid $6 million and has
played 14 games this season (8-3-2 with a .907 save percentage),
will be ready to go back in net by mid-February, which for the
Red Wings is uncomfortably close to the March 9 trading deadline.
Though Joseph says he would rather be dealt to another playoff
contender than serve as Detroit's insurance policy, he might get
stuck behind Hasek. Having already paid the bulk of Joseph's $8
million salary and with Hasek a continual health risk, general
manager Ken Holland says the Red Wings will likely keep both.
(From the time Hasek came out of retirement until a month ago,
Holland tried to trade Joseph, but Cujo's huge contract and that
ankle injury scared would-be suitors.) After a 3-3 tie against
the Phoenix Coyotes last Friday in Detroit, where he was
serenaded with chants of "CU-jo" for foiling a flurry in the
final minute of regulation, Joseph had an 8-4-2 record and a .922
save percentage since his latest recall from Grand Rapids on Dec.
"This is a game of opportunity," Holland says. "If Cujo is
backing up Dom in the playoffs after carrying the mail for us for
six, eight, 10 weeks, Dom's play [down the stretch] will have
warranted that. And if Dom is backing up Cujo, it will be because
Cujo won the job."
After a humiliating two-year ride through Hockeytown, Joseph, who
left his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for a three-year, $24
million free-agent contract and what he thought was his best shot
at finally winning a Stanley Cup, could still find happiness in
Detroit. Improbably, the sport's highest paid netminder is again
an underdog. Throughout his 15-year career he has played his most
stirring hockey in that role, including leading the
seventh-seeded Edmonton Oilers to monumental first-round upsets
of the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche in 1997 and '98,
respectively, and making two trips to the Eastern Conference
finals with the overachieving Maple Leafs, in '99 and '02.
Joseph was admired in Edmonton and worshipped in Toronto, but
Detroit is a city that traditionally treats its netminders like
floss. Unless a goalie wins the Cup--and sometimes even then, in
the case of Chris Osgood, who won a chalice for the Red Wings in
1998 but was unceremoniously booted out of town because of his
unsteady play--he is bound to be a scapegoat. By those standards
Joseph failed last spring. His 2.08 goals-against average and
.917 save percentage in the shocking four-game, first-round loss
to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were decent, but juxtaposed with the
immaculate work of Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere (1.24 and
.965), those stats suggest that Joseph played only well enough to
lose. Worse, Joseph allowed some soft goals, and according to a
team source, his failure to step forward and accept some of the
blame for the defeat rankled the organization.
Certainly Detroit management had gone sour on Joseph, because as
soon as Hasek made noises about returning to the NHL, coach Dave
Lewis flew to Vienna to, as he puts it, "look Dom in the eye" and
gauge his sincerity. Lewis saw an accomplished goalie eager to
return and was concerned that if the Red Wings did not pick up
their one-year option on Hasek, the goalie would sign with
another Western Conference powerhouse, such as Colorado, which
needed a replacement for the retired Patrick Roy. Had Lewis felt
better about Joseph, he might have seen Hasek as a 38-year-old
who had been out of the game for a season, had a history of groin
ailments and had played capably in Detroit but not as masterly as
he had with the Buffalo Sabres in the late 1990s, when he won
back-to-back MVP awards and three straight Vezina Trophies. "We
had lost in four games," Lewis says, "and we reflected on what
Dom had done, and those [2002 Cup] memories came to the
At the time Hasek was also facing criminal charges in his native
Czech Republic. While playing forward during an in-line hockey
league game last May, he viciously cross-checked an opponent. As
the chairman of the Czech in-line league said, it appeared that
Hasek was seeking asylum in the NHL. The charge of causing bodily
harm was dropped last August by the local prosecutor, but on Oct.
30--coincidentally the day Hasek initially sat out because of his
injury, allowing Joseph to make his first start of the
season--Hasek learned that the country's chief prosecutor had
reopened the case, which is still pending.
By then Joseph, who had endured a conditioning stint in Grand
Rapids (his first minor league game since the 1995-96 season),
was as bitter as he was rusty. On Nov. 15, at an optional morning
skate in Minnesota, his anger bubbled over. Joseph took to the
ice with his practice sweater inside out, Detroit's famed
winged-wheel emblem facing in. This was a startling gesture
considering Joseph's generally low-key personality, and the
puerile protest might have roiled another team's dressing room.
But after having heated words with goalie coach Jim Bedard,
Joseph acceded to assistant coach Joe Kocur's demand that he wear
the jersey properly. The incident went unreported in Detroit and
basically was forgotten within a day. "Curtis joked with me that
he was trying to get the crest closer to his heart," says left
wing Brendan Shanahan. "If that's the worst thing he did to show
frustration, well, let's not get too caught up. I think he
regretted it afterward, but we all cut him slack."
Joseph did not dress for the game that night. A week later, on
Nov. 22, he made his fourth start of the season and won but then
gave up three goals on nine shots in his next start, against the
Washington Capitals, and was pulled. With Hasek then healthy, the
Red Wings put Joseph on waivers for the second time this season
(the first time was Oct. 3), and when he cleared again, he was
assigned to Grand Rapids, where theoretically he would showcase
his talent and hasten a trade. But Hasek reinjured his groin on
Dec. 8, and the next day Detroit associate coach Barry Smith
reached Joseph on a team bus in Cleveland and told him to be
ready to play for the Red Wings in Buffalo the following night.
Joseph got off the bus, rented a car from an agency across the
street and began the 200-mile trip with his fellow call-up,
20-year-old forward Jiri Hudler. During the ride Joseph had an
epiphany, struck by the revelation that he should no longer play
in anger. "I need a certain demeanor, certain feelings, to play
well," he says. "Anger isn't one of them."
While Joseph waits for the 2003-04 script to play out, he
desperately misses his wife, Nancy, and their four children, who
remained in suburban Toronto this season to avoid the possibility
of moving twice. "If she called and said to [quit and] come
home," Joseph says, "I would in a minute." Hasek, whose wife,
Alena, and their two kids stayed in the Czech Republic, also
waits, tending to his body and two Dominator clothing stores he
opened in suburban Detroit last fall, seeing no reason why he and
Joseph can't coexist while this No. 1 business is sorted out.
"We've been together for three months," Hasek said, "and the Red
Wings are in first place in our conference."
Pass the gravy and bread sticks.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER (HASEK) AND DAVID E. KLUTHO MISMATCHED After a groin injury sidelined Hasek (left), the displaced Joseph got a chance to win his job back.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN C. HILLERY/REUTERS (HASEK) NET WORTH Hasek (left) and Joseph are being paid $14 million combined.
COLOR PHOTO: GARY WIEPERT/REUTERS [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: CARLOS OSORIO/AP BUFFER ZONE Legace's stall was put between Hasek's (left) and Joseph's.
Faced with their goaltending predicament, Detroit players have
done THE ONLY SENSIBLE THING: Act as if everything is perfectly