If any other team is going to win the Stanley Cup this season, it will have to go through the wide-open legs of Chicago Blackhawk goalie Ed Belfour. That won't be easy. The Blackhawks lead the NHL in victories and defense, largely because of this rookie who crouches low with his feet far apart, a seemingly vulnerable style that nevertheless works beautifully for Belfour.
Understandably, opponents assume that the best place to shoot on Belfour is between the pads. But then the puck is launched and those pads crunch together like the jaws of a crocodile, swallowing another scoring opportunity. Belfour doesn't spit back many rebounds, but when he does the Blackhawks usually get to them first. They have four lines of hardworking forwards, an inexhaustible herd of defensemen and, most important, an indefatigable goaltender.
Belfour has started 51 of the Blackhawks' 58 games. He has finished all but seven of them, which may be an even better indication of how well he has played than either his league-leading 32 victories or his 2.48 goals-against average. Last season, Chicago coach Mike Keenan yanked his starting goalie 23 times—including seven times in the Blackhawks' 20 playoff games—often with the excuse that his team needed a midgame shock treatment.
In truth, Keenan had no faith in any of the four goalies he used in '89-90. Deep down he is a one-goalie coach. He twice led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals behind iron-man goalies—in '84-85 with Pelle Lindbergh and in '86-87 with Ron Hextall. When Keenan finds a goalie he's comfortable with, he sticks with him. Belfour, 25, won the Blackhawks' goaltending job in training camp this season over two highly regarded prospects, Jim Waite and Dominik Hasek. Since then, Belfour has played as if he were deathly afraid of losing his hard-won position.
That's not a bad idea when you are the goaltender for a team coached by Captain Hook. Keenan will commit a man to the game's most important position only if he is convinced the player can take the heat. He wants his goalie to believe that every shot he faces could be his last of the game, reasoning that if a goaltender can't play under such pressure, he is likely to break when needed the most. "Mike makes you bear down," says Belfour. "I hate being pulled, and I figure that if I do my job, I won't be."
While that's generally true, there have been exceptions. When the Blackhawks, through no particular fault of Belfour's, fell behind the Flyers 3-1 on Dec. 9, Keenan yanked him at 10:42 of the first period. As Belfour skated to the bench, Keenan tried to explain the reason to him. "I did it to shake the team up—you're going to go back in," said Keenan. Belfour wasn't listening. He yelled something back, and Keenan grabbed him by the sleeve and screamed in his face. Before the end of the first period Belfour was back in goal.
Their relationship is usually as good as Belfour's last game. Keenan, who says a coach-goalie relationship is not dependent upon heart-to-heart conversations, communicates his confidence by continuing to send Belfour into the goal. Belfour expresses his appreciation by continuing to stop the puck.
Those saves are about the boldest statements Belfour makes. He is a reserved guy who grew up in Carmen, Manitoba (pop. 3,500), and his life revolves around his wife, Rita, their 20-month-old son, Dayn, and Belfour's two passions: 1) being hit by hockey pucks, and 2) buying and restoring old cars. So far Belfour has purchased eight cars, including his prized 1971 Barracuda Hemi convertible.
Belfour became a goalie when the coach of one of his youth teams back in Carmen put the then 12-year-old kid in goal because he was getting too many penalties playing center. Belfour enjoyed the new position but did not master it quickly. Because he was never invited to play Major Junior A hockey, the prime Canadian proving ground, he jumped at a scholarship offer from the University of North Dakota.
Belfour was not much of a student, but in his freshman year at North Dakota he went 29-4-0 and led the Fighting Sioux to the 1987 NCAA championship. He took immediate advantage of his sudden marketability, signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent (nobody had drafted him) and played 23 unspectacular games with Chicago in '88-89. Belfour spent last season with the Canadian national team, and the steady exposure to slick European shooters tightened his game.
There are skeptics who predict that Belfour will be exhausted by April and that it's a matter of time before the shooters figure out his "butterfly" style. By coincidence, two former Blackhawk stars, Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito, are among the few butterfly goalies—so named because they drop to their knees and fan out their lower legs on the majority of shots—who have had long-term success in the NHL. The style has its draw-backs. A classic stand-up goalie has trouble getting his legs closed quickly if a shooter catches him moving across the crease, but a butterfly goalie is even more exposed, because by dropping down early, he leaves the top of the net open.
Belfour, however, sets up far enough out from the goal to cut down on the upstairs shooting angles. Furthermore, the Blackhawks are good at limiting the time a shooter has to aim. Besides, there aren't many players who can accurately pick spots anyway. It is the quickness of a shooter's release, not the accuracy of his shot, that separates the good from the superior scorer.
The difference between an average NHL goalie and an excellent one is his mental makeup. That's where Belfour excels. He is quick, focused and, as evidenced by his 20 penalty minutes this season, confrontational. "He has to win, even at home in Scrabble," says Rita. Belfour spends his spare time playing with Dayn and doesn't torture himself over his last bad game, which is a key to goaltending success. He is also in top condition. A triathlete in the off-season, Belfour says the only thing that fatigues him is people asking him if he's tired. "If anything," he says, "I've probably had a few bad games lately because we had a stretch of the schedule where I wasn't playing enough."
"If I see him getting tired, I'll just tell him to stay away from the rink on off days," says Keenan. "But Eddie is a tremendously fit athlete. Goalies draw energy from the confidence a coach shows in them. For a guy like Eddie, goaltending isn't work anyway. It's fun."
He makes it fun for the Blackhawks, too.