Monday, March 5, 2012

George Abbott: The Preaching Goalie

When one opens the massive second edition of Total Hockey - the official encyclopedia of the National Hockey League - they can locate the Goaltender Register near the back.

The first goalie listed is George Abbott. Although Abbott only donned the pads for one NHL game, his journey to a big-league dressing room is most interesting.

George Abbott was born on August 3, 1911 in Sydenham, Ontario. His amateur hockey career came to an end while auditioning for a spot on the Hamilton Tigers. A deflected shot struck him in the eye, thus shutting down any thoughts of making a living in the game he loved.

Instead, Abbott turned all his energy and ambition in another direction - he studied and became an ordained Baptist minister. Still, like many who played the game, hockey was in Reverend Abbott's blood.

During World War Two, Rev. Abbott was assigned to Toronto to tend to the needs of military personnel. When the conflict first started, many players from the NHL enlisted to serve their country. As a result, Original Six line-ups were thinned out, leaving general managers to scramble for skaters.

While based in Toronto, Rev. Abbott came down with a wicked case of the hockey bug. The only remedy for such an infliction couldn't be found in the medicine cabinet. The good reverend sought relief from an unlikely source - Toronto Maple Leafs coach Hap Day.

Figuring he had nothing to loose, Rev. Abbott approached Day with an interesting proposal. If the Leaf coach required a practice goalie, the preacher was his man. Already faced with depleted numbers when attempting to form a practice, Day took Abbott up on his offer.

For the next couple of weeks, Abbott worked out with Toronto, occupying one net, while Benny Grant the starting Leaf goalie, worked the other cage.

Then, came a visit by the Boston Bruins on Saturday November 27, 1943. When Boston manager Art Ross arrived in Toronto, he immediately contacted Leafs assistant manager Frank Selke. Ross explained to Selke that his starting goalie, Bert Gardiner, was suffering from the flu and in no condition to perform.

With limited time to gather a number of prospects for the assignment to replace Gardiner, coach Day suggested Reverend Abbott. As the saying goes, Ross was "stuck between a rock and a hard place." His only alternative was to go with Abbott.

"I hear he's an ordained minister. All I know it was either a question of playing goal myself or getting a substitute. And I wound up with this fellow," said Ross when sizing up the situation.

After finding out about his new puck-stopper, Ross tracked down Hap Day and delivered this gem - "I ask for a goaltender. So you send me a preacher!"

Like the early Christians, Abbott was about to be tossed into the lions den. The Toronto attack was relentless. Not only did the Leafs offence blast 52 shots on goal, but at every opportunity they charged the Boston net. Leaf forwards came at Abbott with both "arms and elbows." A shot by Babe Pratt sent Abbott into la-la-land, but he eventually came to and resumed his duties.

Abbott, who stood  at 5'7 and weighed 153 pounds took his case to referee King Clancy.

"I haven't seen a thing," Clancy told the Boston goalie when approached.

"That's just the trouble," replied the battle-worn netminder.

Clancy, the former Maple Leaf legend, only called two minor penalties and both were assessed to Boston.

The scoring summary further reveals the type of night it was for Abbott. Toronto defeated Boston 7 to 4. On the positive side, three goals did go off Boston players into the net behind Abbott. Also, his new found teammates were very apologetic for their foul language.

Igniting the Leafs firepower was left winger Bob Davidson. His strong effort resulted in a hat trick and two helpers.

Abbott's appearance in a Boston uniform marked his one and only contest in the National Hockey League. He went back to being a shooting target for the Leafs. However, his contributions did go beyond the practice sessions.

Newspaper icon Milt Dunnell reflected on this aspect in  a subsequent column.

Following one workout, Gus Bodnar was stretched-out on the medical table waiting for a treatment from  Tim Daly. As the veteran trainer entered the room, he observed Abbott and Bodnar conversing. Daly backed off until the two finished talking. He noted Rev. Abbott was holding his black book containing his religious assignments.

The following night, Gus Bodnar fired home two goals,

This lead to the following sermon delivered by Daly to the rest of Bodnar's teammates. "If you bums 'll jest line up an' let Rev. Abbott read some more from that little black book, we'll have nothin' but 20-goal men on this here club."

Reverend George Abbott may never have been called upon to play in another National Hockey League contest, but as Tim Daly witnessed he did have another special calling.

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