If you haven't read our story on Wayne Gretzky being ever so close to becoming a Leaf, go do so now. It is a good companion piece to this one, that will give you the context of how the Leafs operated in the late 1990s.
Here's the basic background: Gretzky wanted to sign with the Leafs as an unrestricted free agent in 1996. Then-GM Cliff Fletcher had a deal in place, but it was nixed by ownership. While no clear reason was ever given, the most logical explanation was that owner Steve Stavro, having to juggle financing the construction of a new arena (the Air Canada Centre) and stop the hemorrhaging of his Knob Hill Farms grocery chain, wanted to cut costs. Signing Wayne Gretzky would not do that.
The 1996 and 1997 offseasons seem pretty consistent with that modus operandi. The team cut significant payroll, trading most of the nucleus of the resurgent mid-90s team, including a five-player deal sending Doug Gilmour to the New Jersey Devils. If you look at the free agent signings in that time period, they're...well, uninspiring.
The teams were just as dismal on the ice. In 1996-97, the Leafs went 30-44-8 for a 68-point season, a low that would take until 2014-15 to match. They were third-last in the Western Conference, ahead of only Los Angeles (67) and San Jose (62). Their 1997-98 season was, despite what their point total suggested, not that nice. They finished 30-43-9, for 69 points, fourth-last in the Western Conference.
Their 1997-98 roster was, to say the least, pathetic. Look at that roster. It's Mats Sundin, and......well, that's it. In his first year as Leafs captain, Sundin was his usual self at 33 goals and 74 points. Mike Johnson was a very distant second in Leafs scoring, with 47 points. The team only had one other 20+ goal scorer in Derek King (???).
So, that's a brief history of the Leafs from 1996-1998. It's ugly, and there isn't a whole lot to talk about. The team cut costs by getting younger, cheaper, and much, much worse. You couldn't blame fans for not having high expectations for the 1998-99 season.
What's funny is we now know that things ended up way different than we could've expected in 1998. But, it happened almost entirely by accident. The Leafs needed the assistance of some summer heat and a cool treat.
For those who don't remember the summer of 1998, let me set the stage with the two things you need to know for this story:
1) It was the hottest year in a long time in Toronto, and the summer was certainly no exception;
2) The Leafs goaltenders were Felix Potvin and Glenn Healy. I'm pretty sure the latter is related to all the hot air surrounding Ontario at this particular time.
Free agency had just opened and, by some accounts, Leafs associate GM Mike Smith had told the media the team would not be a buyer on any of the big-ticket names. At this point in time, the Leafs had made just one signing, adding 36-year old veteran Steve Thomas on a 3-year, $7.5 million deal.
The biggest free agent on the market- the very kind the Leafs intended to eschew- needed no introduction to Toronto. Curtis Joseph had been one of the premier netminders of the early 90s as a member of the St. Louis Blues. His superb play in the 1993 postseason had them sweep the Blackhawks, and set a second round matchup against the Maple Leafs. Despite the Leafs outshooting the Blues by a wide margin, Cujo allowed just 16 goals in 6 games, forcing a Game 7. That culminated in a memorable 6-0 Leafs blowout in which Cujo took a Wendel Clark slapshot to the mask -- to this point, his most memorable entry in Toronto Maple Leafs lore.
The Blues eventually traded Cujo to the Edmonton Oilers, where he played from 1995 to 1998. While he was fairly pedestrian during the regular season (his .905 SV% in 1996-97 and .907 SV% in 1997-98 were among his worst pre-lockout seasons), he was a notable postseason hero for the Oilers. After a post-dynasty hangover in which the Oilers missed the playoffs from 1993 to 1996, Cujo backstopped the team to consecutive first round upsets against the Dallas Stars in 1997 and Colorado Avalanche in 1998. After his departure, the Oilers went 0-4 in playoff series (all to the Stars) in six years before their 2006 Cup run. Or as Oilers fans 30 or younger call it: the glory days.
The small-market Oilers, having barely been saved from a move to Houston, could not afford the salary Cujo would command on the open market; it was a foregone conclusion he would test free agency and sign elsewhere.
One week into Free Agent Frenzy '98, Cujo remained unsigned, though conventional logic dictated the big-spending Philadelphia Flyers were the likely suitor. With Ron Hextall nearing the end of his career and Sean Burke leaving as a UFA, the Flyers would be determined players on the goaltending market. The Flyers were one of the wealthier teams, and with no salary cap standing in the way, money was no object.
Sometimes, however, the universe has other plans.
A Convenient Meeting
In the midst of Toronto's drastic heatwave, Leafs GM Ken Dryden decided that the best way for his family to beat the heat was with a big helping of ice cream. He left his house and went to a nearby convenience store on Davenport Rd.
His ice cream would cost a little more than he initially budgeted for.
At the store, he encountered Don Meehan, who also happened to be buying ice cream. Meehan was Cujo's agent, and while he knew the Leafs weren't interested in signing big-name free agents or upgrading in net, he did what any agent worth their salt would do: he made a pitch.
While the exact conversation remains unknown, what he essentially told Dryden was this: you want Curtis Joseph. You need Curtis Joseph.
He wasn't wrong, either. The Leafs were 3rd last in goals against in 1997, and 5th last in 1998. Potvin was okay, but over the last two years (.908 in 1996-97; .906 in 1997-98), he wasn't much more than that. Healy was 35 and put up an .883 SV% in 21 games in 1997-98. The Leafs had come off scoring 2.37 goals per game, fourth-last in the NHL, and had no major personnel changes on the horizon. It was the heat of the Dead Puck Era. It seemed more realistic to improve by preventing goals rather than scoring them.
It is unclear where in the process of the ice cream transaction Ken Dryden accepted Meehan's sales pitch, but it was only a matter of days before the Leafs officially signed Curtis Joseph to a four-year deal on July 15, 1998.
You know how the rest of this goes: the Leafs offense clicked under Pat Quinn's free-wheeling style, leading the NHL in goals. The Leafs didn't prevent that many goals (they allowed 6 less than in 1997-98), but that was no fault of Cujo, who put up a .910 in 67 games. The Leafs clinched a playoff berth in their first season in the Eastern Conference, making it to the Eastern Conference Final. Along the way, they defeated in the first round the very same Flyers that seemed all but certain to sign Cujo that previous summer.
In a time in which goals dried up across the league, the Pat Quinn Leafs were one of the few offense-first teams. Cujo deserves a lot of the credit for that; Quinn's coaching style was to let the Leafs focus on scoring rather than defense, confident that Cujo would bail them out when needed. And he did.
Cujo would be an integral part of that playoff run, and of the team until his departure in 2002. He came back for a victory lap in 2008-09 that was largely forgettable, but at least we can say he retired a Toronto Maple Leaf.
And all it took was some freak weather and a chance encounter.