Picture this: it’s January 25, 1997. You’re general manager Dean Lombardi. Your San Jose Sharks team is 17-24-5 and in last place in the Pacific Division, but they also sit just three points out of a playoff spot. It’s your first full season flying solo as GM (co-GM Chuck Grillo flew the coop the previous March), and you want to show you can make an impact trade.
Chicago Blackhawks general manager Bob Pulford gets you on the line: would you be interested in trading for the expiring contract of Ed Belfour? You know, the talented, temperamental goaltender? The same Ed Belfour who, while currently mired in a goaltending controversy and getting outplayed by Jeff Hackett, has two Vezina Trophies and has played in three All-Star Games?
Hell yes, you would. And so, at 2:38 a.m. on a Saturday night, Lombardi made Ed Belfour a San Jose Shark in exchange for Ulf Dahlen, Michal Sykora, Chris Terreri, and a conditional second-round pick. And the trade created a Sharks legend. Just not the way Lombardi figured it would at the time.
Ed Belfour was born on April 21, 1965. He grew up in Carman, Manitoba, a town of 3,000 souls not far from the North Dakota border, and goaltending became his passion. He was skilled, but not a phenom: out of high school, not one NCAA scholarship came his way, and no pro team drafted him. After a couple of years playing Junior II hockey and working on cars, he tried to make the University of North Dakota team as a 21-year old walk-on. He had a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He made the team.
Ed Belfour played one year at North Dakota, blew the entire NCAA away, and led them to a national championship. In short order, he was signed by the Chicago Blackhawks. He surged through the minors, and his raw, edgy goaltending style appealed to head coach and GM Mike Keenan. In his first full season in the NHL, he posted a .910 save percentage and 2.47 Goals Against Average across 74 games. He won the Calder, Vezina, and Jennings Trophy. It was a pretty good start.
Mike Keenan wouldn’t pay Belfour the money Eddie thought he deserved, so he held out until 19 games into the 1991-92 season. Upon rejoining the team, he led the Blackhawks on a run to the Cup Final, where they got smoked by a superior Penguins team. Belfour was threatened by the play of his backup goalie, a Czech named Dominik Hasek. They feuded all season, and Keenan decided to solve the problem by shipping Hasek off to Buffalo that offseason. Check out this newsgroup discussion from 1992 in the wake of the Cup Finals debating whether Belfour or Hasek was the better goalie.
Entrenched as the number one goaltender, Belfour was generally great for the rest of his time in Chicago. His surliness and general attitude issues continued, but the caliber of his play from 1992 through 1995 was excellent. He hurt his back before the start of the 95-96 season and tried to play through the pain, but his numbers began to suffer. Mike Keenan was out of the picture, and new coach Craig Hartsburg started to play Jeff Hackett more often. It was a bad omen. The Hawks lost in the playoffs to a Cup-winning Avs team in six games: once again, they had failed to climb the mountain.
Blackhawks owner “Dollar” Bill Wirtz responded with the kind of cheapness that had made him infamous and gutted the team. As a result, the 1996-97 Hawks were a putrid bunch with zero offensive firepower whatsoever. Belfour was an impending free agent who knew the Hawks wouldn’t give him the $4 million contract he felt he deserved. Jeff Hackett was playing well, and Eddie wasn’t. So, to quote Blackhawks GM Bob Pulford: “With Belfour being a free agent after this season, we had to make the deal now or else we would have gotten nothing. I had a long talk with Eddie, and he was out of our price range.”
How did Ed Belfour react to this news? Well, he said all the right things about becoming a Shark: “I'm a very loyal person. When someone shows that they want me, and they think I'm a winner and put me in that situation, I show a lot of loyalty to that person.” He talked up the possibility of staying in San Jose for a long time, observing that “Because [Dean Lombardi] traded for me, I'll do whatever it takes to be a winner for him and the organization. If we come to terms and it works out that I sign a multi-year deal, that would be great. If it doesn't work out...then I'll move on. But until that happens, I'm heart and soul a San Jose Shark.”
Eddie made his debut as a Shark on the road in Vancouver and coughed up five goals, surrendering three on Vancouver’s first nine shots of the game. He played better two nights later in Edmonton, saving 21 of 23 in a losing effort. He won in Calgary on February 1st in a phenomenal effort. The next night he was playing well against Patrick Roy and the Avalanche when he sprained his MCL trying to make a save.
Belfour missed a month, came back, and sucked for the entirety of March. On March 28th against Edmonton, his back injury flared up again, and he was shut down for the remainder of the season. Eddie Belfour’s Sharks figures: a scant 13 games played, and a hideous .884 save percentage. The team was bad. Eddie was worse. But hope remained that Belfour would stick around long-term and sign with San Jose.
The Sharks hired former Hawks coach Darryl Sutter, partially in an effort to woo Belfour into sticking around. "He felt [hiring Sutter] was a definite commitment by the team to instill the discipline and winning attitude that was missing," said Ron Salcer, Belfour's agent at the time. "He is real pleased. I would anticipate that Eddie would be a San Jose Shark and we are interested in making it a career in San Jose.”
To be cordial, Ron Salcer was full of crap. Free agency hit, and Ed Belfour signed with the Dallas Stars. As Ross McKeon reported at the time, Belfour took less money to sign with a team he perceived to be stronger: San Jose offered him $10.5 million over three years, while Dallas gave him $10 million for the same term. Sharks GM Dean Lombardi was blunt: “I wish he hadn't gotten hurt. If we'd had success, it would have helped us (re-sign him). We took a shot at a heavy-hitter, now we'll have to find another way.” That “other way” had already begun at the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, when San Jose used the second overall pick Belfour steered them toward to select Patrick Marleau.
Off to Dallas Ed Belfour went. In that 1997-98 season, Belfour posted a face-meltingly good 1.88 Goals Against Average and led the Stars to the Presidents Trophy. Then came an opening-round playoff series against San Jose that no one on either side would forget. Here’s an article where Eddie freaks out because the Shark Tank showed a side-by-side photo of Belfour and Yoda on the Jumbotron mid-game: “"hat's bush and maybe the league should do something about that. They should get over it and grow up a little bit."
In a closely-fought, incredibly physical series, a surprisingly strong Sharks team gave Dallas fits, and it was the birth of a rivalry that would persist for the better part of a decade. San Jose bowed out on a heartbreaker of an overtime goal in Game Six, but not before getting in their licks. Witness Owen Nolan’s finest moment as a Shark:
That series spawned the “BELLLLFOOOOOUR!” chant that would echo through the Shark Tank for years to come whenever Eddie came to town. Here’s a 2000 ESPN article detailing the special level of hate he received in San Jose. You probably know the rest of the story. Belfour led Dallas to a Stanley Cup the following season. He continued his Hall of Fame career, posting generally excellent numbers in Dallas, Toronto, and Florida over the next decade. The surliness continued, too: he feuded with Stars management after a rough 01-02 season, which led to his departure from Dallas. He got into a fight with a police officer after his teammate Ville Peltonen damaged a fire truck. And he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Throughout it all, Sharks fans loathed him with a passion they would later match for a select few: Chris Pronger, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne. But here’s something positive. Remember how angry Belfour made you? Remember the heckling and abuse you hurled upon him? Good news: maybe it worked! Ed Belfour’s save percentage against the Sharks in 37 career games played was a mere .889. That’s the lowest save percentage split he had against any Western Conference team in his career, and second-lowest overall behind the Buffalo Sabres.
So yeah, next time Corey Perry comes to the SAP Center? Chant away. Perhaps it’ll hurt his numbers. Probably not, though.
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