TORONTO — At first, he figured it was because Ed Belfour had just gotten off a plane. Then, he figured it was because of their busy schedule. They had to go to CBC, then the hotel, then right over to the rink.
But by the time they walked onto the ice together Saturday night, Doug Gilmour figured it out. They all did.
There they were, the four Hockey Hall of Fame inductees – Belfour, Gilmour, Mark Howe and Joe Nieuwendyk. They were dropping the ceremonial first puck before a game between the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. They were all wearing ties and dark suits for this dignified occasion.
All except Eddie.
Eddie was wearing a black leather jacket over an untucked checkered shirt.
"I thought he was going to change," said Gilmour with a smile and a shrug. "But we were all looking at each other. 'Hey, that's Eddie.' "
That's Eddie. That has always been the way to explain Belfour when no other explanation makes sense. There have been so many that's-Eddie moments and that's-Eddie stories over the years, as Belfour rose from an undrafted free agent to one of the game's greatest goaltenders. Why should that change now?
Why should he?
"Well, that's Eddie, and Eddie is who he is," said Nieuwendyk, who played with Belfour with the Dallas Stars, Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers. "It's not shocking to any of us that he approached that the way he did, and he's going to go into the Hall the way he wants to."
Belfour wore a nice shirt and tie under his new navy blue Hall of Fame blazer at the ring ceremony Monday morning, and he wore a shiny silver tie and black tuxedo at the induction ceremony Monday night as he choked up giving his speech. But he said he had to buy those clothes, and for all we know, that tux was a rental.
How often does Belfour wear a suit these days?
"Never," he said.
He has some suits left over from his playing days. None of them fit anymore, because, he said, he has been "lifting weights and gained all this extra muscle."
But truth is, none of them really fit in the first place.
"You wear [a suit] all those years," Belfour said. "I'm more of a country guy, anyway. I like my plaid shirts and jeans and cowboy boots. It's something that's part of the game … you know, professionalism."
Gilmour and Nieuwendyk are general managers now – Gilmour for the Ontario Hockey League's Kingston Frontenacs, Nieuwendyk for the NHL's Stars. Howe is the director of pro scouting for the Detroit Red Wings. They still live in suits.
Belfour said he would "relish the opportunity to be a general manager." He said he has always been his own boss and knows what it takes to be successful. But he doesn't watch hockey much anymore. He'd rather play.
When the call came from the Hall of Fame, he wasn't at his owner's restaurant, like Gilmour was, or in his office, like Nieuwendyk was, or wrapping up his vacation to prepare for upcoming free-agency meetings, like Howe was. He was taking a nap – a pre-game nap before one of his men's league games in the Dallas area. Someone had to get a hold of his brother-in-law, who had to come over and wake him up.
Belfour is busy building a house, busy hunting and fishing and camping, busy working on classic cars, busy playing defense – not goalie – for two or three teams. He plays two or three times a week at the Stars' rink in Frisco, Texas.
"I still wish I was playing," Belfour said. "I really enjoy playing. I love the game."
Belfour has always loved the game. Just in his own intense, weird way. He mostly played forward growing up in Carman, Manitoba. But he had dabbled in goal, and it was a small town, and the goalies got tired of being goalies. So when he was 12, he ended up in net.
"I was the only one that had any experience – and I was getting a lot of penalties and thrown out of games at that period of my hockey career," Belfour said, laughing. "So they said, 'Ed, you're our new goalie.' "
That's Eddie, the hothead.
Belfour watched the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union and idolized the goaltender – of the Russian team. When he played with his buddies, they imagined one goalie as Tony Esposito, the other as Vladislav Tretiak. Belfour was Tretiak.
When he played for the national team developmental program, the Canadians toured with a Russian team. He knew Tretiak was watching one night. He played one of the best games of his life.
And when he signed as a free agent with the Chicago Blackhawks – after no one selected him in an NHL entry draft – who became his goalie coach? Tretiak. The Russian legend couldn't speak English. Didn't matter. They had an interpreter, and they found a way to communicate on their own. The legend put on his pads and showed the kid what to do.
"He sucked in everything like a sponge," Tretiak said through an interpreter. "He listened to me intently."
That's Eddie, the student of the game.
Belfour would do the drills Tretiak taught him – and do them in private when they were in enemy territory, so no opponents would see. He would make the trainers fetch him a certain kind of orange juice in a certain city.
He was always looking for an edge. Literally. He became famous for bringing his own skate sharpener on the road because he liked to sharpen his own skates, giving them "a little different edge on them than any other goalie," a certain edge he insists is "still top secret."
When Pat Quinn coached Belfour in Toronto, he would walk out of the rink at 1 a.m. and find Belfour's wife still waiting for him. He was still inside – working on his body, working on his equipment, sharpening his skates. That was his type of professionalism.
"He challenged our training staff," Quinn said.
That's Eddie, the competitor, the perfectionist.
"He's a different dude," Nieuwendyk said. "But he was one of the best teammates I ever had, and it wasn't because we hung out socially. Eddie didn't really hang out with anybody socially. He was a quirky guy who the rest of us respected unbelievably, because he took his position really serious and there was never a day that he didn't prepare himself properly. There was moments in his career that he'd probably like to take back …”
"But maybe he wouldn't," Nieuwendyk continued. "That's Eddie. But we knew that when the big games were on the line, he was the one we wanted in the net."
Oh, there was the time he took his big goalie stick, swung it upward and whacked Martin Lapointe in his undercarriage because the Red Wings forward was camped in his crease. There were the on-ice penalties and off-ice tantrums. There were arrests and the infamous billon-dollar bribe. All of that's Eddie, too.
But there was 1987, when Belfour won an NCAA championship in his only season at North Dakota. There was 1991, when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year and the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender. There was another Vezina in 1993. There was a Stanley Cup in 1999 – after he led the Stars past Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek(notes) in the playoffs. There was the Olympic gold he won in 2002 as part of Team Canada. There were his 484 wins, third all-time, and his 76 shutouts, 10th all-time.
That's Eddie, the winner, the champion.
"He was a late bloomer and told many times that he couldn't do some of the things that he accomplished," Nieuwendyk said. "He really likes to show people that he can do things. He reveled in going head-to-head against the best."
And here is now, head-to-head alongside the best, his face on a plaque on the same glass wall with Terry Sawchuk, whose book he once read, and Jacques Plante, whom he admires for what he did for equipment, and all the other immortals. Whatever he's wearing, whatever you call him, that's Eddie up there.
That's Eddie, the Hall of Famer.