Thirty-three years ago, on a cold winter's night in the farm town of Carman, Manitoba, nine-month-old Eddie Belfour was being settled into his crib. His mother, Alma, cooed at him and looked lovingly into his pale blue eyes. She smoothed his fair locks, rubbed his tummy and handed him a bottle. Little Eddie hurled it across the room. "I went over and picked it up," says Alma. "When I tried to give the bottle back to him, he threw it away again. That's how Eddie was: If he wanted his bottle, there was no way to take it from him; if he didn't want it, he let you know. He did things his way."
Things haven't changed much now that Belfour plays goal for the Stars, who dominated the regular season (51-19-12), swept the Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs and, after a 5-4 victory last Saturday, led the Blues 2-0 in the second round. The baby's hair has long since darkened, but otherwise the man behind the league's most forbidding gaze—Belfour's eyes have the hard, bluish hue of an iced-over pond—is very much the boy from Carman. "I'll tell you this," says center Brian Skrudland, who was acquired by the Stars in March 1998. "In the years I played against him, he was an intimidator. You went into his crease, and he'd hack your ankles hard enough to sit you down for a week. Playing with him, you still don't want to get too close. The day before a game and on game day, he gets this look and his body language says, Leave me alone. So you leave him alone."
Belfour's competitiveness has put him in the goaltending elite. An aggressive, butterfly-style goalie who prepares assiduously for every start, Belfour has played in five All-Star Games and twice won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best netminder. Yet his intensity, too often unharnessed, may also explain why he's the most accomplished active goalie except for the Sabres' Dominik Hasek never to have won a Stanley Cup. Opponents know that if they can incite Belfour, they can throw him off his game and the Stars can be had. "It offends me when people talk about Belfour having a meltdown or something" says Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock. "His single-mindedness, the way he competes, has raised the level of our team. When you have an extremist like Belfour, you're going to get debris like what happened against Detroit in the playoffs."
In the Western Conference finals last spring, Belfour was thrown off his game by Red Wings provocateur Martin Lapointe, and that may have cost the Stars a chance to play for the Cup. In Game 3 Belfour was rattled repeatedly by Lapointe's crease-crashing ways, and he allowed two soft goals in a 5-3 loss. Then, in Game 4, Belfour slashed Lapointe in the groin and was penalized. Detroit scored on the ensuing power play and won the game 3-2, giving it a 3-1 series lead. The Red Wings went on to win in six games.
It would be nice to understand why Belfour is so tightly wound. Why, during the season in which he took North Dakota to the 1987 NCAA tide, did he smash a year's supply of sticks over the crossbar? Why, in '96, did he berate Blackhawks teammate Jeff Hackett in front of their teammates and the media, calling Hackett, among other things, a "career backup"? Why does he keep himself apart from the rest of the Stars now, come to the rink and disappear into what center Guy Carbonneau calls "his shell"?
Although Belfour allows you to ask him questions, he provides few answers: You can't ask his former wife, Rita, or his two kids, Dayn and Reaghan, because he has declared them off-limits; you can try his best boyhood friend, but the friend doesn't return your phone call; and when you ask Alma what makes Eddie the way he is, she chuckles and says, "I wish I knew."
However, there's plenty of good in Belfour, too. Earlier this year he rented Maple Leafs Gardens before Dallas played its final game there. Then he called in two dozen buddies, guys who'd never made the NHL, and they all played for two hours in the fabled arena. Belfour also buys tickets—hundreds of them—for kids in the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and he even wears the organization's wishbone logo on the chin of his mask.
Still, something churns inside Belfour, something powerful and dangerous that the Stars have felt from the moment he signed with them as a free agent in July 1997 "When a guy has that kind of intensity^' says Hitchcock, "it scares you."
His teammates eye him from a distance, confident in his ability but unable to get a measure of the man. They know that Belfour, more than anyone, controls their playoff fate. They steer clear and try not to bother him, and no one brings him a water bottle unless he asks for it.