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The Simcoe guys exchanged phone messages last Monday night, some 72 hours before they were set to face off against each other in the National Hockey League playoffs.

One of the Simcoe guys, you know pretty well. That'd be Rob Blake, the Colorado Avalanche defenceman, a former Norris Trophy winner, a Stanley Cup champion, an Olympic gold medalist and one of the most accomplished defencemen in the league.

The other Simcoe guy is more of an unknown, someone who'd hung around the fringes of the NHL for most of the past decade, a player who'd been released by -- in succession -- the Calgary Flames, the Buffalo Sabres and the St. Louis Blues.

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He is Dwayne Roloson, the Minnesota Wild goaltender, and until the midpoint of the past season, was a mostly anonymous player on an anonymous team, a cog in coach Jacques Lemaire's goaltending rotation. Or he was until Manny Fernandez went down with an injury and Roloson, for the first time in his career, had a chance to become an uncontested No. 1.

Roloson and Blake are both 33. They both played most of their minor hockey together in Simcoe; and now they're getting after each other in the opening round. Roloson drew first blood, helping the Wild steal the opener with sensational goaltending. Blake got the better of his good friend Saturday afternoon, setting up two goals including the game-winner, as the Avalanche evened the series at a game each.

Of course, the NHL's original Simcoe guy is goaltender Rick Wamsley, the ex-Leaf, ex-Canadien, ex-Blue, ex-Flame, who now works for the Blue Jackets.

On the telephone, the original Simcoe guy was asked for his thoughts on the two players who followed him into the NHL and began by cracking: "First of all, I'm only a Simcoe guy because that's where they had the hospital. I want that stated right up front -- because if any of the Port Dover people ever read this, I'm in trouble."

Wamsley closely tracked the careers of both Blake and Roloson, two players he knows pretty well. Coming out of Junior B in nearby Stratford, Blake earned a scholarship to Bowling Green University and graduated right to the Los Angeles Kings, where he made a trip to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals.

Roloson took much longer to emerge. A star in college for UMass-Lowell, he signed with Calgary as a free agent and played two years in the Flames' minor system before moving up to the NHL in the 1996-97 season, where he played behind Trevor Kidd. Kidd was subsequently traded to Carolina in the summer of 1997 (with Gary Roberts for J.S. Giguere and Andrew Cassels) so the next year, Roloson essentially split the job with journeyman Rick Tabaracci.

That was a struggling Flames' team; it was Brian Sutter's first year behind the bench; and the Flames were playing all kinds of kids on the blueline (a young Derek Morris, Joel Bouchard, Cale Hulse, Todd Simpson, Jamie Allison).

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With such an inexperienced defence corps, Sutter wanted an established veteran in net so the next year, the Flames went out and traded for Ken Wregget. Roloson wasn't offered a contract and eventually signed on as Dominik Hasek's back-up in Buffalo, which for years was the NHL equivalent of joining the witness-protection program. With Hasek at the peak of his career, Roloson hardly played, which makes it hard to be sharp when the chance finally comes.

From there, Roloson was selected by Columbus in the expansion draft and wasn't offered a contract. With no place else to go, he signed with St. Louis and played exceptionally well for its minor-league affiliate in Worcester, but couldn't dislodge either Roman Turek or Brent Johnson. He then moved over to Minnesota, again as an unrestricted free agent, and blossomed in the second half.

Discussing Roloson's emergence as a front-line NHL goaltender, Wamsley said: "He told me once, the one thing he did that really helped him was, he went to see a sports vision doctor on his own when he played in Buffalo. I give him a lot of credit. He went down to the AHL and worked his butt off and put up good numbers and got a chance in Minnesota and has really done well.

"It would have been so easy for him to quit at that point. How old is he, 33? So all of this was happening to him when he was 30. To stick with it at the age of 30 says a lot about his character and how much he wanted to play.

"If anyone should win the Masterton trophy [for perseverance, dedication and sportsmanship]this year, it's Rollie."

It's a sentiment Blake echoed earlier in the week.

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"What he's done this year is great," Blake told the Denver Post. "He's fought his way back in the league, and he's been dominant this year. He's just battled and battled, and now he's made a name for himself."

Joseph outplayed

by Giguere

Toughest decision of the week? It belongs to Detroit Red Wings' coach Dave Lewis, who has to at least consider switching goalies after falling behind 2-0 in his first-round series against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. For the second game in a row, the Red Wings' Curtis Joseph was outplayed by his Anaheim Mighty Ducks' counterpart, J.S. Giguere, in Saturday afternoon's 3-2 Detroit loss. Statistically, the Red Wings' nominal back-up, Manny Legace, had a much better year than Joseph did (Legace was No. 5 in the NHL goalie ratings, Joseph just 24th), but even so, it would take a lot of courage to make a change now. Presumably, Lewis will take his cue from his mentor, Scotty Bowman, who's been hanging around Detroit all week. In a similar situation last year, when Hasek turned in a couple of so-so performances as Vancouver went ahead of Detroit 2-0 in the series, Bowman stuck with Hasek until the bitter end -- and the players came to Hasek's defence, vocally and publicly. Figure a similar scenario will unfold again here.

Eric Duhatschek writes a daily hockey column for globeandmail.com.

eduhatschek@globeandmail.ca

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