In hockey, goalies have always been a contradiction solitary men in a team game, the last line of defence and the stalwarts expected to save the day after any and every miscue and collapse from his teammates. It’s no wonder that anyone who played the position has had his sanity questioned; yet some of the biggest innovations in the game have come from its puckstoppers. In The Goaltenders’ Union, Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen talk to more than 60 keepers of yesterday and today, finding common threads to their stories, and in dozens of interviews about them with other coaches and players. From Gilles “Gratoony the Loony” Gratton, who refused to play because the moon was out of alignment with Jupiter, to Jonathan Quick, the athletically gifted master keeper of today’s game, the book is an entertaining and enlightening peek behind the mask.
About the Author
Greg Oliver is a writer, editor, producer, and stay-at-home dad. He has had six books published and lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Richard Kamchen is a freelance writer in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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The Goaltenders' Union
Hockey's Greatest Puckstoppers, Acrobats, and Flakes
By Greg Oliver, Richard Kamchen
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2014 Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen
All rights reserved.
THE EARLY DAYS
There is no single position in professional sports that has changed more than that of the hockey goaltender; the rules have been amended, the equipment has been adjusted both for safety and puckstopping, and the styles have evolved from strictly stand-up to butterflying to a hybrid of the two.
For all the differences in the ways Georges Vezina and George Hainsworth played versus modern-day netminders, they would still be able to empathize with the basic pressures the Jonathan Quicks and Marty Brodeurs of today face. It doesn't matter when you stood in goal; you're the last line of defence and sole protector of the six-by-four goal. That being said, neither they nor Clint Benedict, the first goalie to wear a mask, would recognize the armoured warriors flopping to the ice in the current game, the equipment's changed that much.
Organized ice hockey has been around in some form since the 1870s, and the "Montreal Rules" were laid down in 1886, establishing consistency in the game. In the 15 rules of the world's first hockey league, the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, it was stated that "the goal keeper must not, during the play, lie, kneel or sit up on the ice, but must maintain a standing position."
There was no special equipment. The net used to be two 6-foot high posts, 6 feet apart, marked by flags. Later, the height was lowered to 4 feet and a crossbar was added.
Like the game itself, which changed from seven players aside to six, added forward passing, and allowed substitutions, the evolution of goaltending did not happen overnight. Goaltender pads — cricket pads, really — made their way into the sport in the early 1890s; after George "Whitey" Merritt of the Winnipeg Victorias wore pads in a Stanley Cup challenge against the Montreal Victorias, their use became widespread.
Goalies and defencemen have been allowed thicker blades on their sticks for years, but that changed too, and it was the netminders who stuck with the bigger weapons; the formation of the National Hockey League, for the 1917 season, established the paddle blade width at 3½ inches. Depending on a keeper's playing style, the "lie" of the blade — the angle of the "L" portion between the shaft and paddle — could be modified as well.
With the guardians of the cage not allowed to handle the puck, there was no need for gloves. By the 1910s, thicker gloves became the norm for all players. Over time, a padded glove on the dominant hand became a blocker, designed to protect the hand and wrist that were controlling the stick. The other hand held a trapper, a glove that was initially based on the idea of a baseball catcher's glove but that has evolved into a streamlined instrument for nabbing pucks in the air.
Other objects in the air were more difficult to defend against. In the early days, goalies were prime targets for fans — opposition or disgruntled homers — who hurled everything from empty bottles to batteries in their direction, often timed to force a misplay on a shot.
You had to watch opposing players for projectiles too. In a 1969 interview, Jake Forbes told a Toronto newspaper, "Newsy Lalonde came around the net and caught me in the eye with his stick. I went ... to protest to the referee ... He said he had not seen the incident and sent me back to the net. The next time Lalonde came down to my end of the ice, I went out to stop him, using a high stick if possible. He skated to the side and spat his tobacco juice in my face and, when I fell, skated around me to score."
Also alien to the modern fan would be the early day rinks.
"I've seen them lining up at six o'clock in the morning for a game that night at Quebec's Grand Alley rink," said Paddy Moran in 1944 of his days with the Quebec Bulldogs from 1910 to 1916. "We played to gas-light. The rink held only 1,400 but sometimes there would be 2,000 there." In the Montreal Star article Moran also figured his total earnings throughout his career was $4,000, with the average wage for a season being $500.
In 1939, Redvers "Red" Mackenzie wrote a series of articles for the Washington Post that introduced the game of hockey to the area. He noted how difficult it was to compare the past to the action he was watching at the time. "George Vezina was great. He never went to his knees or fell to the ice to smother a shot, but he never played in the days when forward passing was allowed in the attacking zone, and this is a different age," wrote Mackenzie, citing Frank Brimsek, Charlie Gardiner, and Dave Kerr as the top trio of his day.
The March 14, 1938, edition of Time magazine tried to explain both hockey and the lonely men in the nets to the masses: "Target of whizzing pucks, he must be nimble as a squirrel, sharp-eyed as a hawk. And since a perfect performance for him is a shut-out, he works for naught on the scoreboard."
In 1918, an amendment to the rules permitted goalies to leave their feet to make a save, with Frank Calder, president of the National Hockey League, decreeing that "they can fall on their knees, or stand on their heads" while trying to stop the puck. But it wasn't until the 1930s that a goaltender was actually allowed to catch — and hold onto — the puck.
Most of the credit for that change goes to Clint Benedict. In his Globe and Mail column "On the Highways of Sport," M.J. Rodden wrote, "Goaltending has changed a lot since the days when Benedict broke in. Net-guardians then were not permitted to fall down when stopping shots, but Benedict never bothered much about that rule, and he became hockey's greatest stumbler. The 'praying goalkeeper' they called him, and Benedict often served sentences for such offences, until finally the magnates ruled that goalkeepers could do as they pleased."
Benedict may have also been the first to add some showmanship to his position. "In contrast to Georges Vezina, who played his position standing straight and without any antics," wrote Charles L. Coleman in his 1964 epic, The Trail of the Stanley Cup, "Benedict put on a continuous show in the nets. His proclivity of hopping to the ice when the pressure was on necessitated a rule change. The officials claimed that the game would become a farce with frequent penalties to Benedict for going to the ice to make saves."
The 1890s saw the debut of specialized skates just for goalies, but today's blades allow for movement forward, backward, and sideways that could not have been imagined then.
"You've got to be the best skater on the team," said '70s goalie Paul Harrison, adding that the ability to skate well has always been an overlooked skill for a goaltender. "All of your agility, timing, reflexes, all your skills come from your ability to skate. That's certainly your balance."
Today's better skates and lighter equipment have allowed goalies to venture farther afield, into the corners, and act like a third defenceman.
The defence and the goaltender have to work together, and Percy LeSueur's advice in his 1909 book, How to Play Hockey, still rings true today: "Have your defense play what is known as the open game — as that gives the goal-keeper a much better chance to see the puck and follow its movements."
The changes to the rest of the equipment are pretty obvious. Brave men who stood in net without a mask and wearing rudimentary pads stuffed with deer hair, a homemade protective cup, and maybe a little felt sewn into a jersey gave way to masked men who hacked away at the gear that the skaters wore to create functional gear to fit the action. Today, the outcry over the size of the lightweight, scientifically engineered goaltending equipment — the pads, the catching mitt, the blocker, specialized skates — is a regular topic for fans and pundits and is brought up at the general manager meetings.
Those equipment changes allowed goalies to adapt their style in the net as well. The ban on going to the ice resulted in stand-up goaltending, sure, but think about the simple principle of human nature and fear. Today's keepers can drop to their knees in the butterfly position, legs splayed to cover the entire bottom of the net, without a worry in the world. Without a mask, who in their right mind would purposely put their face in the way when the brunt of the shot could be absorbed by their legs or arms instead?
Time to find out.
THE FIRST NAMES IN GOALTENDING
GEORGES VEZINA The Vezina Trophy, presented to the NHL's top goaltender, is an award that is familiar to all hockey fans. It's named after Georges Vezina of the Montreal Canadiens, who played from 1910 until 1925 and died in 1926 of tuberculosis at age 39. The Chicoutimi, Quebec, native made his National Hockey Association debut in the Canadiens net in 1910–11 and stayed there until illness knocked him out. Four months after the disease forced him from a game, he was dead. He was consistently one of the top keepers in the NHA/NHL, establishing the standard for stand-up goaltending, and helped the Canadiens to one Stanley Cup, losing out on a couple of other challenges — plus he was the guardian during the 1919 Cup Final against the Seattle Metropolitans, which was cancelled due to an influenza epidemic.
GEORGE HAINSWORTH A less well-known award is the George Hainsworth Memorial Trophy. Hainsworth played in the NHL from 1926 to 1937, and in some ways he surpassed the great Vezina — beyond being the goaltender who replaced the legend in the Canadiens' net. Born in Toronto in 1893, Hainsworth spent his early hockey years in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, playing his junior and senior hockey there. After a couple of seasons with the Western Canada Hockey League's Saskatoon Crescents, Hainsworth was brought up to the NHL. Suitably, he won the first three Vezina Trophies. Hainsworth played in Toronto from 1933 to 1936, finishing up with a final four games with the Canadiens after signing as a free agent in December 1936. His greatest season, and maybe the greatest ever for a goaltender, statistically speaking, came in 1928–29, when he recorded 22 shutouts in a 44-game season, with only 43 goals getting past him all season.
Upon his death in October 1951, the George Hainsworth Memorial Trophy, the hardware having been donated by the barnstorming Carling-Kuntz touring softball team in April 1951, was established by the Ontario Hockey Association to honour the "hockey player chosen as most valuable and sportsmanlike from among OHA teams competing in Kitchener and Waterloo arenas."
Hainsworth — who was an alderman in Kitchener and helped spearhead the construction of the city's showcase rink, where the OHL's community-owned Kitchener Rangers still play — was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
In March 1950, Hainsworth told the Toronto Star's Milt Dunnell, "I have three of those Vezina replicas in my attic. The winning goalie gets a thousand bucks now, and the club duplicates that. So those three little trophies would be worth $6,000 at today's rates. There was no cash award when I won them. Leo Dandurand of the Montreal club told me the actual value of the replica was $60. So, after I'd won it once, I suggested he give me the $60 and put a little shield on the original trophy for each of the two additional wins. Leo didn't like the idea."
Vezina, the "Chicoutimi Cucumber," and "Little" George Hainsworth are just two of the significant names — with some great nicknames — from the early years of the NHL, which was established in 1917.
Others in the Hockey Hall of Fame from the pre — Original Six era (which began in 1942) include the players profiled here.
CLINT "PRAYING BENNY" BENEDICT (1892–1976) In the spirit of Benedict's nickname, the Holy Trinity of goalkeeping of the early years was Vezina, Hainsworth, and Benedict. And while Vezina's name lives on through the trophy, Benedict's influence on the game was certainly his most important contribution. Not only did he force the change that allowed goaltenders to drop to the ice to stop the puck — "You had to do something," he said in the Ottawa Citizen in 1965. "Quite a few of the players could put a curving drop on a shot, and the equipment wasn't exactly the greatest in those days" — but he was the first to wear a mask in a game. The set-up to the mask was January 7, 1930, and Benedict was in net for the Montreal Maroons against the Canadiens. Benedict told the Citizen, "It isn't too hard to recall it. Jimmy Ward accidentally screened me and Howie Morenz hit me right on the bridge of the nose with a drive from 25 feet. I woke up in hospital and I wasn't right for a month."
Though he recovered from the shattered cheekbone, his vision remained clouded and never improved. Over the final games of his career, Benedict tried out a couple of models: a Boston firm designed a heavy, awkward leather mask for him, and another was closer to that of a baseball catcher's mask. The Maroons didn't think he would get better and released him outright in November 1931. Benedict spent a final season with the team's farm club in Windsor, Ontario, winning the International Hockey League title, a nice complement to his four Stanley Cups (three with the Ottawa Senators and one with the Maroons, during which he counted three shutouts in a four-game victory over the Victoria Cougars in the 1926 final). He tried refereeing but eventually settled into life as a municipal clerk in Ottawa. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965. For the final two decades of his life, he was confined to a wheelchair.
ALEX "THE OTTAWA FIREMAN" CONNELL (1900–1958) When Connell died, teammate Tommy Gorman recalled "the greatest goalkeeping performance in the history of hockey." The game was in Toronto in 1935.
"It was in the Stanley Cup playoffs when the Maroons were two men short. For three minutes, Connell put on an astounding effort against the Leafs and the Maroons went on to win the Cup," said Gorman.
As great as it was, consider that Connell also holds the NHL record for consecutive shutouts, with six from January 31 to February 18, 1928, or 460 minutes and 49 seconds. He had 81 career shutouts and won two Stanley Cups, playing primarily for the first incarnation of the Ottawa Senators but also for the Detroit Falcons, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. Connell, who usually wore a black cap while in net and was a notorious prankster, excelled in baseball as a catcher, playing in the Interprovincial League, and in lacrosse, helping Ottawa win successive Eastern Canadian League championships in the 1920s. He coached the Ottawa Senators of the Quebec Hockey League in the 1940s but gave it up in 1949 because of ill health. As for his nickname, he worked for the Ottawa fire department from 1921 to 1950, as a secretary to a succession of fire chiefs.
"SMILING" CHARLIE GARDINER (1904–1934) A triumph and a tragedy, the flashy Gardiner went out on top. His best season was 1933–34, when he served as the captain of the Chicago Black Hawks, claimed the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaler, and won the Stanley Cup. Eight weeks later, he was dead at 29; he collapsed on a street in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and died on the operating table as doctors attempted to remove a tumour from his brain. He had a remarkable 42 shutouts over 316 games through seven NHL seasons and another five in 21 playoff games, on some not-so-great teams.
"He grinned his way through the toughest going with a team in front of him that could hardly be called good for major league competition," wrote Redvers "Red" Mackenzie, adding, "He had his angles down pat and never seemed to bog down or give up even when his team failed to give him the protection that a junior goalie would expect."
In A Breed Apart, Elmer Ferguson expressed how Gardiner "bounced and dived around, shouted an endless flow of encouragement or advice to his teammates, occasionally exchanged jovial repartees with nearby customers, and often shouted jibes at opposing players as they bore in on him." Gardiner was inducted into the Hall in 1945.
Excerpted from The Goaltenders' Union by Greg Oliver, Richard Kamchen. Copyright © 2014 Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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