by Jim Panenka, Dallas Correspondent
The Dallas Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup Championship was something special. There were so many interesting stories related to the players this season. And the championship meant much more than winning it all for one year.
For some, it was closure. For some, it was things coming full circle. For others, it was personal vindication.
But all these stories combine to describe something that transcended even the game itself. It was a big hunkin' slice of real life.
The Eagle Soars
by Meredith Martini
Even when the Hawks were their most dangerous with the likes of Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios, they were able to take the whole enchilada -- to win a championship.
Belfour left the Blackhawks, and bailed on the Sharks. He joined the Dallas Stars to simply cash in, some thought. His reputation as a hot-headed guy who was quick to get distracted from the game dogged him. So did the fact that he never held the hardware.
Belfour arrived to play with the Stars and immediately got into a pissing contest with head coach Ken Hitchcock. He kept to himself, and remained an enigma.
While it was obvious Eddie had great goaltending chops, the team didn't know what to make of him at first. He was definitely not used to players dropping in front of him to block shots, and it took 20 or more games before the team got it right.
Eddie would cover anything high, the D-men had first dibs at everything down low. And for chrissakes, if you can - just stay out of the way and let him see the shot! Belfour said he could stop it if he could see it.
Goals did bounce in off defender's sticks, skates, chests, pads, you name it. But, they were relatively insignificant in the big picture - to form a solid shot-blocking defense working in synergy with Belfour's style.
There was that streak that Belfour went through at first where he would either pitch a shutout or totally stink in the nets. There was not much middle ground there. People were questioning his heart, his dedication. But, it was just a period of adjustment.
It was the beginning of the transformation of Ed Belfour from just being a goalie to being a member of a team. A real team. A magical team (OK, that's the last time I'm using that magical thing).
Eddie slowly kept plugging along and got more solid as time went on. His back problems had plagued him the last few years, and some thought they might be too much for him to overcome. In fact, Belfour sat on the bench regularly to avoid flaring up the back problems when they were bothering him. (If you've never had back problems before, lemme tell ya - they are no picnic, Chester! Imagine having evil little gnomes in your back wrenching your muscles 24-7. It ain't pretty)
Anyway, Belfour worked harder than anybody to rehab that back and make it a non-issue. He went through rehab procedures reportedly for an hour or more before and after games to keep everything loose.
And the team got more dangerous with every passing game. Slowly but surely Eddie began to let the real Ed Belfour out in the open. He got more comfortable with his surroundings, and had more trust in his team, as they had for them.
Of course, there was that nasty little business during last year's playoffs, where Belfour did go postal and started to really give it to some of the Detroit Red Wings. His self-destruction directly let to a goal against, and also led to many goals that should have been saves.
No question that was a big setback, and only fueled the fire. But this season things were immediately different. Eddie began the year strong and stayed that way. He remained quiet and let his play do more of the talking. And boy, what great play it was.
Belfour and his backup Roman Turek eventually combined for the best goals-against average in the league. And on they went into the playoffs.
So many were expecting Psycho Eddie to rear his ugly head again. Instead, Belfour was the picture of calm in net. He played better when the pressure was stronger. There is no doubt Belfour plays better when he is challenged.
It must have been tough, because there were some nights an average goalie may have fell asleep in net due to a lack of activity. The Stars were getting great at blocking shots and keeping the puck out of their end.
Playoff series would come and go, but there Eddie would be standing tall in net, unflappable. He gained a tremendous amount of respect from the team and the fans during the regular season, and that just took everything to a fever pitch during the playoffs.
The chants of EDDIE! EDDIE! were getting louder each game, and were coming from the crowd spontaneously - not on cue. Belfour reserved a small section of seats especially for special fans, part of the make-a-wish foundation. He wore symbols of charities on his helmet. He gave back.
There was no question Belfour was instrumental in the Stars winning the Cup this year. Without him, Dallas would have not beaten St. Louis or Colorado. And we all know what he did against Dominik Hasek and the Sabres.
Belfour began showing his true side, and commented that all the support from the legions of fans during these series really got to him. He said it was tough to stay focused on the game and not get emotional. Eddie? Emotional?
When the final goal was scored, Richard Matvichuk skated to Belfour and pounced on him in a congratulatory celebration. They both fell to the ice. Eddie got back up, shook hands with the Sabres, and looked like he was nearly about to crack. The raw emotion and exhaustion was evident on his face.
It was Belfour that held up the Cup and let all the fans that greeted the team at the airport when they came back from Buffalo touch the Cup and share in the celebration.
During the celebration parade and rally held by the city after the championship, the fans re-acted the loudest when the Eagle went by. They demanded Belfour make a speech at the end of the rally after Derian Hatcher thanked the fans. The cheers of EDDIE! EDDIE! were deafening. You could tell Eddie was really jazzed by the whole thing.
All along, the Stars supported Belfour when the media would raise questions about him. After it was all over, it was Eddie who reacted with the most passion. He screamed, he yelled, he laughed. He held the Cup and began kissing and licking it like a lover. Yep, its true - he went nuts - this time with relief and vindication.
All of the doubts, the questions, the insults were washed away with a little happy craziness and some champagne sipped out of the Stanley Cup.
"I'm just a hard working goalie who's proud to be a part of this team," proclaimed Belfour after winning the Cup.
That's just one of the stories. How about Mike Modano? Did you see his emotional breakdown on the ice after they finally won? He couldn't control himself. All of the pressure that was put on him was released that day. And man, was it a release - kind of like when the bum in Down and Out in Beverly Hills "serviced" Dave's wife with a kharmic massage - and some other naughty business.
by Meredith Martini
Bob Gainey pounded on him over and over to forget his individual glory and play for the team - to become a defensively sound player. Let's just say the battle wasn't pretty. Modano balked at the pressure to change, and often disappeared in games rather than go work hard and get his hands dirty. It was as if a thoroughbred horse was being restrained beyond its will.
It may have actually been Modano's refusal to buy into being a two-way player that prompted Gainey to step down as head coach of the team. If Modano, the most visible player on the team wouldn't listen to him, why should the rest of the team?
But slowly, surely old Mo began to turn it around. He saw the work it took to make the team a winner. He matured as a man and a player. He silently began taking on more and more of the pressure of producing for the team.
When Ken Hitchcock replaced Gainey, Modano heard more of the same message. Hitchcock declared that his system is a defensive system that every player must follow, or they will not play.
Not many people know this, but Modano nearly did leave the team when his old contract was up just before the 1997-1998 season. He didn't want to buy into the system fully. He considered moving to another team. But, somewhere along the way he made the decision to go for it, to see if the system could actually produce a winner. Too many times under Gainey's lead the team lost, because not enough players stuck to the system, and because the team already had that losing stigma. They didn't believe it could make a difference.
But Modano finally worked hard, and remained faithful to the team plan. The results were immediate. Modano still scored, and in bunches. He was on pace to blow out the scoring race last year before Marchment got to him and blew out his knee.
Modano recovered fully. He even scored hat tricks three times this season. But, he quickly got a reputation for being a solid two-way player that could kill penalties, score short-handed goals, shut down the opposition's best center, and score nearly at will to boot.
He received a lot of attention from the opponents because of this. A lot of attention. He was hacked, whacked, tripped and punched every game. He was many times double-teamed by the opposition. One player would knock him off the puck and the other would try to run him when he was off-balance.
But Modano stuck to his guns, and stuck to the team mission. He learned to contribute by baiting the opposition and then making a play, often resulting in an assist. Modano had over 80 points this year, most of them were assists. That signals a fundamental change in a player's style.
So Modano did whatever he needed to do to keep the team winning, whether it was scoring or not.
Going into the playoffs, Modano was kind of quiet at first. He was too tense, he wasn't making a big enough contribution. Instead of receiving praise for his 2-way play, he was criticized for not scoring when he was called upon. Joe Nieuwendyk's second line was really saving the team's bacon when it came to scoring.
Modano took it to heart and eventually figured out how to make an impact. He scored the goal that put the Blues away.
The last two games he played against Buffalo were some of the best games Modano's ever played in his career. Modano played through a broken wrist he suffered during game 4. He wore a soft cast and had the wrist frozen with an anasthetic. Nobody thought he would even finish the series, much less play better than ever before. He was a true force out there, and was very impressive. It was his line that set up and scored the Cup-winning goal.
After that goal was scored, Modano hung his head low in an attempt to disguise all the raw emotion that was pouring out of him. Modano finally won the championship. He could finally be recognized as a legitimate superstar. His solid play will never be questioned, neither will his toughness. The young flashy player finally came full circle and developed into one of the best superstars the game knows.
"We did it and no one can ever take that away from us," said a choked-up Modano in response to answering his critics of all these years.
Mr. Conn Smythe
What about Joe Nieuwendyk's story? He battled through being second-fiddle to the more flashy Modano when he first joined the team, and quietly turned his line into one that could mix it up with Modano's goal-for-goal. Two years previous, Joe was shut out by Curtis Joseph. Cujo stopped Nieuwy's shot that would have won the series against Edmonton.
He was finally about to be rewarded for his efforts last year during the playoffs, that was until Bryan "The Wrecker" Marchment took Nieuwendyk out along the boards after Joe scored against the Sharks and nearly did it again the next shift.
Nieuwendyk had to have both knees reconstructed. Nieuwy came back this season stronger than ever. His knees were sore at first, and Joe was a little gun-shy at first. But once he was hit a few times and realized he would hold up, Nieuwendyk turned the corner and never looked back.
Joe ended up scoring many of the most important goals in franchise history. The call them game- winners. During the playoffs, they take on a whole new meaning. Joe was always there, out of nowhere, scoring goals when the team needed them the most. During one of the games, Nieuwendyk scored the only two goals the team had, including the game-winner.
At the time, out of ten goals he had during the playoffs, something like six of them were GWGs (game-winners). For his clutch play, and his reputation as a gentleman and a quiet leader, Nieuwendyk was rewarded the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. It was an amazing effort to battle back from the adversity he faced the previous year.
His first action upon accepting the MVP trophy was to immediately skate to Ed Belfour, who was definitely a front-runner for the MVP along with Nieuwendyk, and congratulate his teammate and tell him he could have won it just as easily. It's just the kind of guy Joe is.
Don't forget the stories of:
Ken Hitchcock and his remarkable turnaround after nearly eating himself out of a career. Derian Hatcher's evolution into a mature player and a true captain. Bob Gainey's great work as GM to construct this team. The Montreal Canadiens connection (Gainey, Wilson, Ludwig, Keane, and Carbonneau all played for Les Habs).
Not to mention the stories of:
by Meredith Martini
I could go on, but you get the idea. There are many stories behind the story. The 1999 Dallas Stars are a remarkable family. A family that stuck together no matter what the challenge. And a family that shared its triumphs with its fans. And a family that went through profound sacrifices to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. And that is another story all by itself...