I wonder if Ken Holland ever apologized to Curtis Joseph. If not, he still owes him one.
Holland, the Red Wings' GM, did Joseph rotten back in 2003 and, while he was at it, the team as a whole as well.
It comes to mind again now that the news is in: Cujo is retiring after a brilliant NHL career as one of the game’s best-ever netminders.
That Joseph’s name isn’t engraved on the Stanley Cup doesn’t lessen his stature; He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
But he was treated about as shabbily as the Red Wings have ever treated a player, and they don’t do shabby around Joe Louis Arena very often.
Holland actually made two mistakes in two years that were catastrophic: He hired Dave Lewis as coach, and he brought back Dominik Hasek from retirement. Both might have torpedoed any chances the Red Wings had at winning another Cup or two.
The Hasek decision put Joseph in a bad spot.
The Wings signed Joseph as a free agent in the summer of 2002, needing a goalie after the “retirement” of Hasek, who had just led the team to the Cup a month prior. This was in the days before the salary cap, and the free-spending Holland had carte blanche, pretty much.
So Joseph signed on and the Red Wings cruised through another regular season with pretty much the same cast of characters as the ‘02 Cup team, with the exception of coach Scotty Bowman, who’d retired and been replaced by assistant Lewis. More on that later.
The Red Wings gathered 110 points and looked to be the team to beat, once again. Joseph did what he was hired to do, winning 34 games, posting a 2.49 GAA, and a .912 save percentage.
Then the playoffs came.
The Red Wings were blitzed by the buzzsaw known as the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who swept the defending champs away in four games in the very first round. The Ducks were coached by a fiery young man named Mike Babcock.
Red Wings fans did what they usually do—blame the goalie. But Joseph wasn’t why the Wings lost the Ducks series. Every game was a one-goal humdinger, but the Red Wings only managed six goals in the four games, after averaging well over three a game in the regular season.
Meanwhile, Hasek was getting restless in retirement. He made it be known through his agent that he’d like to strap on the monkey suit once again and stop some more pucks. Holland’s interest was piqued.
Explaining later that he was afraid the rival Colorado Avalanche might snag Hasek, Holland brought Dom back to Detroit, despite having a highly-paid guy already between the pipes—Joseph.
Joseph hardly embraced the signing of Hasek. He felt betrayed, as well he should. This was his job, and the guy who left to create the opening was returning?
Hasek and Joseph mixed as well as oil and water. It was the worst pairing in Detroit since Chrysler and Daimler.
The 2003-04 season droned on, with Lewis, who was in over his head to begin with, unable to broker peace between his two high-profile goalies. The tension in the locker room was thicker than pea soup. Hasek only played 14 games before being shelved with a groin injury. He and Joseph didn’t speak the whole season.
Holland was to blame for the mess. I hit him with it a couple years later.
“Well, certainly it didn’t work out like we thought,” Holland told me. “But the idea of Dom playing for one of our conference rivals made it worth the risk.”
Tell that to Curtis Joseph, who was ruined in Detroit by the move.
The lockout came and went, and before the NHL resumed play, Joseph, at 38 years of age, had signed with Phoenix. The Red Wings fired Lewis, who never should have been promoted because of his closeness to the players. They made Manny Legace the No. 1 goalie, and then Manny gagged in the 2006 playoffs like he was trying to swallow a puck whole.
It’s been my belief that had the Red Wings been coached by just about anyone other than Dave Lewis, they might have won at least another Stanley Cup. Lewis lost many key players, including Brett Hull and Sergei Fedorov. He didn’t handle the Joseph-Hasek drama very well, though his boss placed him in that awkward situation.
Holland’s fetish for bringing Hasek back, though, paid off in 2006, when he hired Dom on the cheap and the Red Wings made it to the conference finals.
And as for not having won a Cup, Joseph ought not to feel deprived, though it’s easy for me to say.
Meet Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby, Cup-less as well in 20 NHL seasons.
“I had a great time playing hockey. I even liked practice!” Gadsby, the former great defenseman for the Red Wings, New York Rangers, and Chicago Blackhawks once told me. “I never won a Stanley Cup but I had enormous fun. I loved my teammates. I loved the camaraderie.”
Joseph retires with 454 wins, 51 shutouts, and a 2.79 GAA in 19 seasons. He played five seasons with the Maple Leafs, and he’ll be back in Toronto in a few years—in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Stanley Cup or not.
Despite what the Red Wings did to him.