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IRON MAN : Fuhr Playing as Well as Ever While Not Missing a Start for Blues

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The night a teammate’s shot clipped Boston Bruin goaltender Ed Johnston in the head during warmups and ripped off his earlobe, Johnston left the ice, got stitched up, then returned to play 60 minutes.

“Teams had only one goaltender then,” Johnston said. “You were afraid to come out of there because you were afraid someone would take your job.”

That was the 1963-64 season. Johnston started all 70 of Boston’s games and played every minute of every game, routinely facing 100-mph shots with nothing on his face but a grimace.

“No mask,” he said. “No brains.”

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Johnston started every game because he had to. But Grant Fuhr has started every game for the St. Louis Blues this season because he wants to.

That is remarkable. What’s astounding is, he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career at 33, less than a year removed from a brief but horrible stay with the Kings that apparently signaled the sad end of an impressive career.

“It’s been a surprise, more than anything else,” Fuhr said of his streak, which will reach 61 when the Blues play the Kings here tonight at the Kiel Center. “Mike [Keenan, the Blues’ coach and general manager] said he’d give me the opportunity to play a bit, and here we are.”

This is what Keenan has gotten for letting his goalie play a bit:

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Fuhr is well on the way to breaking his single-season record of 75 games, which he set in 1987-88 with the Edmonton Oilers in an 80-game season. He’s also on track to become the first NHL goalie since Johnston to appear in all of his team’s games in a season. He has played 3,430 minutes, 400-plus more than runner-up Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, and has kept the low-scoring Blues afloat in the Western Conference with his acrobatic saves and 2.83 goals-against average.

“Grant has come up big this season, and it’s nice to see a guy like that do well,” said Kelly Hrudey, who shared the Kings’ goaltending duties with Fuhr last season. “He’s going to be one of those guys everybody is happy to see get the last laugh.”

But will he truly have the last laugh? To a man, his peers applaud him, but some wonder what he and the Blues are trying to prove.

“It looks to me like a personal challenge because of what happened the last two or three years,” said King President Rogie Vachon, himself a former NHL goalie. “I think now, he’s saying, ‘Here’s the goaltending I should have been doing the last two years. You’re seeing it now. And to prove it to you, I’m going to play every damned game in the league.’ I think that’s what he’s trying to do, and I think it’s good.”

If the satisfaction is great, however, there are some risks.

“It’s amazing, what he’s doing,” Chicago Blackhawk goalie Jeff Hackett said. “But I don’t know if it’s going to help him in the long run. If I were St. Louis, I’d worry about him getting injured or burned out.”

Said Rick Wamsley, an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs and a former NHL goalie, “They’ve definitely got all their eggs in one basket. But 11 out of those 12 eggs have been good.”

Johnston, now coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, also admires Fuhr’s resilience. Yet, he wouldn’t allow his goalies to follow Fuhr’s example.

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“I’m rooting like hell for him,” he said. “To do something like this and play at the level he’s playing, to be the No. 1 star or No. 2 star every night, it’s incredible.

“It would be kind of tough to let a guy do that, with all the travel. You play one night and then you play the next night somewhere else after a two-hour time change. I hope, if that’s his intention, he does it.”

Although teammate Brett Hull recently joked that he didn’t understand the fuss because Fuhr “just stands there,” Fuhr does far more than that.

His entire body is the target of shots, including shoulders and knees that have been surgically repaired more than once. At 5-feet-9 and 188 pounds, he’s vulnerable to being bowled over when 6-foot-2, 220-pound forwards are pushed into his crease.

He’s also facing more shots--and more dangerous shots--than goalies did in Johnston’s day, and they’re coming from opponents he may see only twice a season.

When Johnston played every game, it was in a six-team NHL whose players knew each other well. The westernmost outpost then was Chicago, so five of six teams were on Eastern time. Fuhr and the Blues play in a 26-team league that stretches from coast to coast, making flight delays, stale airplane air and jet lag occupational hazards.

“The biggest thing he has going against him is fatigue,” Johnston said. “It’s physically tiring playing, and mentally tiring when you’re traveling.”

Vachon, who won 355 games in goal for the Montreal Canadiens, Kings, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins from 1966-67 through 1981-82, believes Fuhr’s task is tougher than any goalie of his generation.

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“In our day, there was maybe three or four good scoring chances per period,” said Vachon, who in his busiest season, 1977-78, played 70 games. “Now you get six, seven or eight, and it’s night after night. So it does make a difference.

“The game has changed. In our day, it was not as wide open. There was always a blowout when you had a bad team against a good team, 50 shots against 15, but most times it wasn’t like that. I think it was easier for a goaltender then.”

Fuhr said Keenan has given him ample rest, and that, in his 15th NHL season, he has learned to shrug off bad goals and bad games.

“I’ve always been a person that if things do happen, I can get over it,” he said. “If you take it as live or die, you’re going to burn out a lot quicker.

“I try to keep it a game still. I go out on the ice and try to enjoy it. I think people take it too seriously sometimes. It’s not life or death. If you happen to give up a goal, you’re not going to die from it. You have to keep it in perspective.”

That equanimity may be his saving grace when he’s saving pucks.

“For myself, mentally, I’d probably start to wear down,” Philadelphia Flyer goalie Ron Hextall said in acknowledging he couldn’t do what Fuhr is doing. “He doesn’t do a lot of mental preparation before a game. He kind of goes out there and plays. For me, it takes a lot of mental preparation to get ready for a game.

“He’s playing the best hockey he’s played in the last four or five years. I give him a lot of credit.”

Ed Belfour of the Blackhawks is another workhorse among goalies. He led the NHL by playing 74 games and 4,127 minutes in 1990-91--Keenan was the Blackhawks’ coach then--and played a league-high 71 games and 4,106 minutes in 1992-93. In both seasons Chicago lost in the first round of the playoffs. Belfour believes he could play every game, but he hasn’t tried.

“It would definitely be a tough task,” he said. “It’s nice to have a game off. Once in a while you need a rest, mentally. Grant has done a great job.”

Fuhr has no intention of stopping now.

“You have nights when you’re not as sharp as you’d like to be, but I enjoy the work and I’m having fun,” he said. “I haven’t had too many nights when I even wanted to come out. I’ve had a couple where I had to come out, unfortunately [he has been pulled from 10 games], but I enjoy being in there.

“If the opportunity is there, I’ll play them. I enjoy it. As long as my body is willing and my mind is willing, I’ll play. As long as they keep carrying me, I’ll play.”


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