Cujo's class gives Wings a chance

Now that their goalie-go-round is over, the Red Wings can resume their previously scheduled Cup-chasing.

Updated: February 19, 2004, 3:54 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Dominik Hasek bailed out on his Detroit teammates as assuredly as if he had declared himself D.B. Cooper, strapped on a parachute, asked the pilot of the team chartered flight to open the door, and then jumped and pulled the ripcord.

In that case, his teammates would have seen the parachute open, waved goodbye and said good riddance.

As it turned out, his return from retirement, while entirely legal, turned out to be every bit as much of a money grab as the famous parachutist's stunt decades ago.

The Red Wings are better off, and they can win the Stanley Cup with Curtis Joseph in the net. In fact, now that the mess is resolved -- well, as long as Joseph's sprained ankle doesn't become an ongoing problem, rather than a short-term issue that will keep him out of the lineup again tonight against the Coyotes in Joe Louis Arena -- the air is cleared.

The Wings have both a pertinent legacy and a Legace in this area.

There are enough older players on the Wings roster now who remember the back-to-back Cups of '97 and '98, when a past-his-prime Mike Vernon actually was good enough to win the Conn Smythe and then Chris Osgood delivered the clutch saves when he needed to do so. If it comes to that, Manny Legace is capable of delivering a good enough performance, as long as the cast around him steps up.

But Joseph is the man, and the mess this season has added a subtle, yet crucial component to all of this.

The classy way he handled all of this mess has is teammates both pulling for him and more prone to believe in him when it really matters. In the playoffs, that's a delicate issue, because it requires men willing to write off the aberrational bad goals -- whether allowed by Hasek, Patrick Roy or a rookie from Moose Jaw -- as exceptions and to keep the faith. Joseph has bought himself some more breathing room that way. But he also is good enough to lead this team to the Cup.

"I'm just so happy for Curtis," Wings defenseman Mathieu Schneider said the other day in Detroit. "He has just battled through so much this year and he's been the ultimate professional. You expect a guy to do that, but you don't know until you get into a situation. It was really a strange situation throughout most of the year. The guy has really been through a lot and he's been there for the team from day one. He's the guy we're going to ride this year."

Mathieu Dandenault has been on all three recent Cup champions, and he remains one of the most reflective Wings.

"You always want to know what's going on and what's going to happen," Dandenault said. "It lasted a long time and there were still so many trade rumors. That's behind us, though Cujo is hurt right now. That's kind of bad, a little bit. But we know where we're going, and we're very confident with Curtis and Manny."

Joseph is "a class act," Dandenault said. "From the start, he was. Good things sometimes happen to good people, too. He fought through it, he stayed patient. Next thing you know, he's the No. 1 goalie for the Red Wings and he's got a shot at the Cup."

Joseph has 120 games of playoff experience, and despite his sub-.500 record, that's as much attributable to the teams he has played for as his own work. Know how many one-round-and-out teams he has played for since 1997? One. Last season's Wings. That was a team collapse against Anaheim, not a one-man systems failure. Yes, he could have earned the gratitude of his teammates by singularly saving their bacon, but that didn't happen.

But that's more than balanced out by the increased loyalty generated by Joseph's travails this season and, more important, the way he handled them. Schneider's and Dandenault's attitude is typical of what prevails in the Wings' room, and it isn't disingenuous build-the-guy-up posturing, as often is the case when hockey players talk about their own goaltender. When Joseph was in the net for the Wings' 3-2 overtime win over the Avalanche in the final game before the All-Star break, a host of the Wings said much the same things about Cujo. So did coach Dave Lewis. He's a pro. He's got class.

Know what? That matters. Joseph had dozens of opportunities to spout off during the messy interim, and he didn't do so. Even when approached by out-of-town reporters, he would be nice enough, but politely say that talking too much -- if at all -- about his situation wouldn't do anyone any good. The situation was an absolute, awkward mess, but he also could have made it a lot worse. He didn't. His unhappiness and uneasiness was obvious, but he didn't verbalize it in public. In Denver two weeks ago, Joseph even acknowledged that it was gratifying to have heard from so many - even members of the media -- that the way he didn't rock the boat was noticed and appreciated. In similar situations, other players -- especially in other sports -- would have had their agents holding daily news conferences, and would have been spouting off themselves.

We all know we could suffer a lot of indignity for $8 million a year, right? Where do we sign up? Playing cards on the Grand Rapids Griffins' and standing in their crease isn't so bad, is it? Being waived, being told you're expendable, being told you're not wanted? Not abominable treatment, especially if the checks keep coming.

But he behaved.

Hasek's bailout has been the latest episode in this bizarre saga. Given the circumstances last summer, the Wings had no choice but to accede and even embrace Hasek's return. But hindsight being what it is, it seems apparent now that the Wings would have been better off telling the enigmatic Hasek they wished him luck in his un-retirement, but they weren't going to exercise their option to keep his rights. In that case, there's a chance Colorado would have done some juggling and added him as -- oh, the irony -- Roy's replacement.

Wouldn't that have been interesting?

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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