Tellqvist era is upon us

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

Mikael Tellqvist is such a nice kid even Ed Belfour doesn't hate him.

And Belfour has a history of treating backups with all the reverence of acne: He would rather find a way to be rid of the inconvenience, rather than have to deal with it.

Tellqvist had an idea about all this coming in, about what life would be like with Temperamental Ed. He knew a little about the stormy relationship with Marty Turco in Dallas. He knew a little about the relationship with Dominik Hasek in Chicago.

"I heard the rumours," he said.

So his strategy was firm on the way to establishing himself with the Maple Leafs. His plan? "Stay away from him as much as possible."

Funny thing is, they're almost friends. Not best friends. Not hang-around-on-weekend friends. Belfour is a man of many descriptions: Warm and fuzzy has never been among them.

"I think he's a lot calmer right now than he used to be," Tellqvist said. "I don't know if it's my personality or what (why they get along). It just works."

Mikael Tellqvist, career nobody, is suddenly the Maple Leafs' only real hope of getting to the playoffs. There are 18 games left in this season gone wrong. He is all but certain to play the majority of them.

Ed Belfour, career almost over, is either hurt or in hiding, and possibly both. The juxtaposition of backup suddenly becoming starter may be unique, but it's not lost on Tellqvist, who hardly fits the usual mould of eccentric netminders.

"When you're the backup, you're thinking all the time," he said. "When am I going to play again? How am I going to do?

"When you're the No. 1 guy, you just know you're going to play. You don't have to think as much. You just play. I've tried to think like I was a No. 1 goalie this year."

By default and by the fact that Leafs goaltending has floated somewhere between inconsistent and awful this season, Tellqvist is suddenly the man. It is his show, his team, his chance to prove he is something other than just another nice guy hockey player.

Belfour missed practice again yesterday with an apparent back injury that cannot fully be discussed here for fear that it may be violating national security regulations. What we can disclose is that the way Tellqvist is talking, he expects to be playing a whole lot of hockey in the immediate future. Or, at least he will start in goal tonight in Buffalo.

Which is a big change from his immediate past. He won a gold medal at the Olympics, ostensibly carrying a clipboard. He backed up Belfour last season, which meant he got to play on the rare occasion Eddie didn't feel up to it. Before that, he was expected to back up Curtis Joseph but lost his job to Corey Schwab.

Losing your job to Corey Schwab is not a promising way to begin your career. Now it doesn't matter. Now it's his time to see if he can't be the next Cristobal Huet or a reasonable facsimile.

"An old coach once said: 'With each injury a star is born, possibly,' " an old coach, Pat Quinn, said yesterday after practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "He has established himself as the backup. The next stage of development is to be that No. 1, to have people start to believe."

Tellqvist already believes. The trouble with his career to date is he is one of the few who do. No one wants him to fail, though. No one could possibly dislike him.

Said Quinn: "He just seems like a good kid."

A good kid who wants nothing better than to be a Leaf for life. He wears a goalmask with Johnny Bower painted on it, even though he had no idea who Johnny Bower was before he came to Toronto.

"I've learned a lot about Leaf tradition since I got here. I want to celebrate all the heroes."

And he wants to find out if he can become one himself.

"He has learned a lot playing behind Eddie," captain Mats Sundin said. "He has learned a lot about preparing for games and being the kind of pro Eddie is. Eddie is still No. 1."

Until further notice.

NFL CHAOS

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MARTIN GELINAS

Among the NHL's treasures is a winger who may be the ultimate team player. Martin Gelinas is plus-25 for a Florida Panthers team that has given up more goals than it has scored. It means, almost guaranteed, that the opponent will not score while Gelinas, a 14-goal scorer, is on the ice. In a day of selfish athletes, that has to be worth something.

WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC

I have a confession: Despite all its obvious travails, I am in love with the World Baseball Classic. I can't take my eyes off it. I watched Korea beat the U.S., and the Dominican Republic eliminate Venezuela and I want more. A lot more. This is baseball the way we rarely see it: With passion, with emotion, with intensity -- flawed, yet spectacular.


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