CuJo back in NHL spotlight, and possibly Olympics

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There was a happy buzz in the Phoenix Coyotes' dressing room, the kind of buzz that is part relief, part euphoria. The kind of buzz that comes from dodging yet another bullet, coming from two goals down to defeat the visiting Atlanta Thrashers.

It is the kind of buzz that has become familiar in the Coyotes' room this season.

Still clad in his sweaty gear, Curtis Joseph received congratulations from his teammates. It wasn't quite a receiving line, but almost. Goaltending coach Grant Fuhr stopped by with some kind words. Next to Joseph sat his son. The rest of his family was nearby. And if there is a way to qualify a smile, the one on Joseph's face seemed to reflect more contentment than smugness.

Not that we could blame Joseph if there was a little smugness lurking beneath the familiar, calm exterior.

"This is only a personal opinion and obviously I'm biased and I don't mean to disrespect anyone else, [but] he's the MVP of the Western Conference," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky insisted recently. "Curtis has been absolutely phenomenal. He's been wonderful in the locker room. This has been, I think, a year where he's really proud of his accomplishments. I know myself, my second-to-last year, people thought I should have retired, and I went out and had a pretty strong year, so you fight back and you fight hard, so good for Curtis."

The subtext to Gretzky's praise is clear. As far as hockey folks were concerned, Joseph was yesterday's news. Indeed, watching Joseph's career the past three seasons has been a little like having a front-row seat at a root canal, painful but strangely compelling.

From starting goalie on the 2002 Canadian Olympic team to coveted high-priced free agent to playoff whipping boy to spare part, all in the blink of an eye. And now, in the amount of time it takes to say Vezina Trophy, he is back.

"I think you always take pride in how you play," he said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "And certainly how I was perceived in Detroit, certainly I wanted to change that around.

"I think all the experts predicted us to be worse than we are. It's fun to be a part of that."

Expected to battle Brian Boucher for ice time in the Coyotes' net, Joseph has carried the team into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. As of Thursday, Joseph was 14-9 with a 2.31 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage that ranked fifth in the NHL.

On a young team with an even younger defensive corps, Joseph's value goes beyond simple wins and losses. His ability to face down a barrage of shots without panicking or becoming disgruntled has allowed young defensemen such as Keith Ballard, Paul Mara and Zbynek Michalek to evolve more quickly than if their mistakes ended up in the net more regularly.

"He's bailed the entire hockey club out on many occasions but treats it as another day at work. He never shows any frustration," general manager Mike Barnett said.

Added Gretzky, "He's made the life of our young defensemen a lot easier and they've matured a lot quicker because of him."

In early 2002, Joseph had assumed a position among the game's great netminders. The most valuable player, not to mention one of the most popular players, on the Toronto Maple Leafs had been named the starter of the Canadian Olympic team in Salt Lake City.

The world was Joseph's oyster. Or so it seemed.

One game into those Games, Joseph was out and Martin Brodeur was in. After a fine playoff run that saw Joseph carry the team to the Eastern Conference final that spring, the relationship with the Leafs soured and drew to a close. Feeling underappreciated and determined to maximize his chances of winning a Stanley Cup, Joseph signed in Detroit with the defending champions. It was a decision that made sense on many levels. But in the end, it was a decision that sent Joseph's career off the rails and caused him no end of heartache.

After an up and down 2002-03 season, Joseph and the Wings were unceremoniously bounced in four straight games by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Joseph was flayed in the media, although people forget the high-powered, high-priced Red Wings scored exactly six goals in the series.

The following season, Joseph's tenure in Detroit took on more David Lynch-like qualities as Dominik Hasek announced he was tired of being retired and wanted to return. The Wings, loathe to let Hasek walk to another team, re-signed him. They promised to trade Joseph, but an ankle injury that was initially diagnosed as a sprain but was really a bone flaw kept him out of action and negated the possibility of a deal.

Although never full healthy, Joseph agreed to report to the Wings' AHL team in Grand Rapids. Then, when Hasek went down with an injury, Joseph came back to the big club where he and Manny Legace split duties. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Hasek was gone and Legace had taken over the starter's job. But after a couple of shaky outings in the first round of the playoffs against Nashville, Legace was displaced. Joseph played well as the Wings knocked off the Predators before dropping a tough six-game set to the Calgary Flames. Joseph was once again criticized, although the Wings' offense was again the real culprit in the playoff disappointment.

The on-ice problems in Detroit were magnified by the heartache caused by Joseph's separation from his wife and four children, who remained at their home on the north edge of Toronto.

In some ways, then, the lockout offered a well-needed respite for Joseph. He healed his wobbly right ankle, which needed three separate surgical procedures in less than two years. And then he waited.

When the lockout was resolved, there was a fairly limited market for a 38-year-old goalie with bad pins and a battered reputation.

"I wasn't too worried. I knew I wanted to play," said Joseph, the king of the understatement. "No. I didn't fret."

Soon, the tumblers began to click into place for Joseph.

When Gretzky decided he would take over the coaching reins in Phoenix, among the first calls was to former Red Wings assistant coach Barry Smith, who joined Gretzky's staff. When it came time to discuss the team's uncertain goaltending situation, Smith spoke up on Joseph's behalf. He explained that Joseph hadn't been healthy the entire time in Detroit. He also described the quiet grace that Joseph displayed during his tumultuous time there.

"He was adamant that if not for Curtis, the Red Wings might not have gone as deep in the playoffs as they did," Barnett said.

Former Leafs trainer Chris Broadhurst was dispatched to Toronto to watch Joseph work out and reported that he was as healthy as he'd ever seen him during the four years Joseph was a mainstay of a successful Leafs team.

Gretzky, who also knew Joseph from the Salt Lake City Olympics, called Joseph several times and explained why he was taking over as coach and why he felt the situation for Joseph was perfect.

"I don't know if there's two cities with more pressure than Detroit and Toronto and what he had to go through there day after day, year after year. And then how it sort of all unfolded there in Detroit," Gretzky said. "When I talked to him in the summertime, I just said it's an opportunity for you to get away maybe from all that, come here a little bit under the radar, you can enjoy coming to the rink and just worry about playing hockey and getting yourself healthy and really just enjoy yourself.

"I think there's something to be said when you come to the rink and feel good about yourself and get up in the morning and see the weather the way it is and say, 'Wow, this is great,' and I think that's all benefited for him."

From Joseph's perspective, he liked what Gretzky and Barnett had to say.

"I certainly bought in," said Joseph, who signed on for a base salary of just $900,000, a fraction of what he made the last time he was an unrestricted free agent.

"This was a guy that was interested in writing a happier ending to the story and he was willing to pay whatever price to do it," Barnett said.

Initially, Joseph talked about coming out by himself and taking advantage of breaks in the schedule to make trips back east to be with his family. But having endured most of two seasons living apart, Joseph couldn't bear the thought, so the entire family moved into the house once occupied by former Coyote Brad May.

Two of the boys are playing minor hockey (the third, 4-year-old Luke, is learning to skate) and the children are all being home-schooled, visiting a tutor each day. It's a different routine for the entire family, but given the alternatives, entirely acceptable. The kids are at most games and around the dressing room, as are many of the Coyotes' children, on a regular basis.

Is there a link between the closeness of family and high level of play? Joseph thinks so.

"A happy player is a good player, I think," he said. "It's important for me to have my family close. Everybody ticks differently, but family is very important for me."

If the emotional clock is running more smoothly, so too is Joseph's technical timepiece.

During the lockout, he trained with the instructors at the Franco Canadian Goalie School in nearby Vaughn, Ontario, where they work with younger goalies. Joseph liked what he saw and wondered if he could incorporate their teachings into his own game. Sort of an old CuJo learning new tricks.

"I'm more efficient in the crease," he explained. "More efficient in my movements. More compact."

Coyotes analyst and former NHL netminder Darren Pang sees a significant difference in Joseph's play this season, especially when it comes to his balance in the crease, likening it to a golfer whose balance is integral to staying in the groove.

"I don't see him chasing pucks as much as he was a few years ago," Pang said. "I don't see him leaning and cheating as much. He's as agile as ever. He's as combative as ever."

Mentally, Fuhr sees a goalie who has a great deal to prove here in the desert.

"I think Curtis likes to be the go-to guy. That helps to build your confidence," said Fuhr, the go-to guy on five Oilers championship teams. "He's got something to prove. He didn't like how things finished in Detroit. He's a proud guy. When you have pride and when you have talent, it's a pretty good combination."

Does Joseph have a sense of redemption here? A satisfaction at having proven detractors wrong? Joseph neatly sidestepped the issue.

"I don't think I played that bad," he said of the Detroit situation. Still, he acknowledges he didn't realize how difficult it would be to leave his family.

"I didn't realize how hard it would be to leave Toronto," he said. "I think it's made me tougher. It's made me stronger."

In that sense, he feels he's a better mentor to young goalies.

"I can say I've been through that, it'll work out," he said.

So, here's the bit of irony that makes the latest chapter in the Joseph story so delicious.

It's entirely possible Joseph will be named to the Canadian Olympic team Wednesday. Does Gretzky, the executive director for the Canadian team and the man who was at the forefront when Joseph was yanked four years ago, have any qualms about making such a decision?

"Not at all. He's earned the accolades that he's gotten here. He's a huge reason why our team has been as successful as it's been. And listen, I would be thrilled for him if he were to be one of the three goaltenders, and at this point in time there's a chance. He's earned that right of being talked about," Gretzky said.

"He's been absolutely outstanding, and when we meet, we'll take the three guys we think will help us win a gold medal. But I think it's a little bit different situation this time than '02 in the sense that he's won a gold medal, and I can't speak for him, but I think that this time around if he goes, he'll be thrilled. If he doesn't get selected, I think the feeling would be that he's going to enjoy the two weeks off here with his family.

"I think it's a little different situation. I think it's a win-win situation for him. But personally, I would prefer him to have the opportunity to go. If he earned his way on there, I hope he gets that chance."

How does Joseph view the talk?

"When you hear it, you think about it," Joseph acknowledged. "It's not something I started out with as a goal. The goal was to play and play well. Help the team make the playoffs and maybe make some noise."

The Olympics, though, that would be a bonus. Would he go, even if it was as the third netminder, a role he did not relish in 1998?

"Absolutely. Absolutely. Any time you're asked to represent your country, I don't think you can say no," he said.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.