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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS / 1998 PREVIEW SECTION

FUHR IS ON. . .Solid Ground

Written Off as a Has-Been by More Than One Team, Blues' Goalie Is on Top of His Game Again

April 22, 1998|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — He had hit some low points in his life, including a rehab stint for a drug problem that got him suspended for most of the 1990-91 season, but Grant Fuhr scraped bottom professionally in 1995.

Traded from Buffalo to the Kings--his fourth team in four years--he couldn't stop a beach ball. In his first five games with the Kings, who acquired him for a package of players that included popular defenseman Alex Zhitnik, Fuhr had a 6.55 goals-against average and an .813 save percentage; simply standing upright should have brought him better numbers than that.

The Kings needed a goalie who could play regularly but couldn't wait for Fuhr to play himself back into form and didn't re-sign him when his contract expired. Thirty-two years old and only four years removed from the last of five Stanley Cup championships he had won with the Edmonton Oilers, Fuhr had no idea what he would do.

"I was getting ready to shut it down. I was honestly thinking of retiring," he said.

Help came from an unexpected source.

St. Louis Blues General Manager Mike Keenan offered Fuhr a contract. It seemed like another misstep when Fuhr reported to his first St. Louis training camp overweight and was suspended for a week by Keenan, but Fuhr's perseverance has turned his career around.

Under conditioning coach Bobby Kersee, Fuhr stretched to gain flexibility and plodded on a treadmill to lose weight. He set NHL goaltending records by starting in 76 consecutive games and appearing in 79 games in 1995-96, and he played in 152 of the Blues' 164 games over his first two seasons. His greatest feat, though, was becoming a steadying presence on a team that walked a tightrope of taut nerves throughout Keenan's hard-driving tenure.

"Maybe I have just as many lives as a cat," said Fuhr, who weighs 192 pounds, three pounds more than he did as a rookie in 1981.

"I've been written off a few times before. They thought I was done in Buffalo, then they thought I was done in L.A., and lo and behold, I'm still here and still going.

"Mike just gave me an opportunity to prove I could play. You can't ask for much more than that. I have nothing bad to say about him. He gave me an opportunity to prove I wasn't dead and buried yet."

He's far from done--and so are the Blues, who will meet the Kings in a best-of-seven playoff series starting Thursday at the Kiel Center.

Although minor surgery on his right knee in February and a bruise on that knee April 11 limited him to 58 games, Fuhr had a 2.53 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage. However, his contributions toward helping the Blues compile a 45-29-8 record and earn the fourth playoff seeding in the Western Conference go far beyond his statistics.

"He doesn't get the recognition he deserves," teammate Al MacInnis said. "Even playing in Edmonton, he played behind Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey, and now it's [Colorado goalie Patrick] Roy and [Buffalo goalie Dominik] Hasek everyone talks about. But in the four years I've been here he's provided us some of the most consistent goaltending in the league. I have as much faith in him now as I've ever done. I'd go to battle with him any time."

Said St. Louis defenseman Steve Duchesne: "He's the backbone of the team. Fuhrsie's the wall. Everybody responds to what he does. Everybody's excited because we know what he has done in past playoffs. Everybody is geared up because we think we have a good chance."

This was the Blues' first full season under Coach Joel Quenneville, who replaced Keenan as coach in January 1997. Players had to change from Keenan's reliance on a handful of key players to Quenneville's one-for-all-and-all-for-one defensive system, and Fuhr has been there to save their mistakes. He also has offered occasional warnings when they stopped working, reminding them they might not be lucky enough to again reach such a promising position.

"What I like about Grant the most, and naturally you look at his past and everything that goes with that, is Grant's stability. It's amazing to me," said General Manager Larry Pleau, who recently gave Fuhr a two-year contract extension. "His temperament around the team in this situation was important, and that's why we wanted to keep him here.

"It's not so much that we expect him to play every night and be the Grant Fuhr of 10 years ago. What's important to us was his stability and his temperament around the hockey team, in the dressing room and in games. He's very in control of himself. Things don't rattle him. And he's got a lot of experience to pass on."

In Edmonton, Fuhr was overshadowed by the Oilers' spectacular offense. Not that he was a weak link, but with his teammates setting scoring records, he didn't have to be perfect.

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