Monday, October 25, 2010

A Backup Plan

Of all the on-ice positions in hockey, the category of most specialised belongs to the goalies. In a pinch, a forward can always drop back to play defence and vice-versa. It is another question to plunk a skater between the pipes. Can you imagine Bruce Boudreau calling out to Ovechkin "Hey Alex, your turn to play goal".

In the early years of the NHL, clubs employed one man to play goal. For the 1927-28 New York Rangers this job was held by Lorne Chabot. In the 1928 playoffs, the Rangers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final to face the Montreal Maroons. On April 15, 1928 the series got underway with the Maroons winning 2-0. Coach Lester Patrick and Chabot were confident the Rangers would improve in game 2. In the second period of game 2 both Patrick and Chabot became the focus of attention. As a result of taking a Nels Stewart shot in the eye, Chabot was taken to the hospital, and the Rangers were without a goalie. With Ottawa netminder Alex Connell in attendance, Patrick sought approval from his counterpart (Maroons GM, Eddie Gerard) to engage his services. Patrick's request was met with a resounding NO WAY!

With no other resources, Lester Patrick strapped on the goalie pads and took his place in the New York goal. The 44 year old faced 18 shots allowing one goal, and led his club to an overtime victory. For game 3, New York signed minor league goalie Joe Miller. Lorne Chabot returned for games 4 and 5, and with their regular goalkeeper guarding the twine, the Blue Shirts won their first Stanley Cup.

At the start of the 1930's there was no initiative by the NHL to improve the lack of goaltending depth at the major league level. The potential for extended delays within a game and the awkward appearance of a skater playing in net, didn't seem to faze those in charge.

A new rule was introduced for the 1932-33 season - If the goaltender is removed from the ice to serve a penalty, the Manager of the club to appoint a substitute - which seemed to be more of the same. In a game on January 29, 1929 Leaf defenceman Red Horner was called upon to replace Lorne Chabot (now property of Toronto) after he received a penalty and was sent to the box. All Horner did was to shutout Ottawa for the duration of the power play.

Although no rules were in place calling for a backup goalie, there is evidence some clubs took measures to address the issue. On March 12, 1929 goalie Benny Grant replaced Chabot to start the second period in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. Moves such as this seemed to be at the discretion of the individual clubs.

The next movement of any substance in this regard didn't take place until the 1950-51 season with this new rule - Each team required to provide an emergency goaltender in full equipment at each game for use by either in the event of illness or injury to a regular goaltender. The era of the substitute goalie produced many wonderful stories.

During a March 13, 1958 game in Boston, Montreal's Jacques Plante couldn't continue due to injury. John Aiken sitting in the crowd with his Dad got the call to duty via the PA Announcer "John Aiken, report to the Montreal Canadiens locker room immediately". Aiken was paid $25.00 per game by Boston to sit in the wings and be ready when necessary. Also, he would be the second goalie at practice for the Bruins. To keep sharp, he played in a semi-pro league with the Arlington Arcadians. While Aiken sprinted to the Montreal dressing room, his Dad retrieved his equipment from the car. "Johnny A" couldn't hold off the Bruins who defeated Montreal 7-3.

John Aiken wearing the famed Montreal Canadiens Jersey

The substitute goalie in Montreal was Claude Pronovost, brother of Red Wing defenceman Marcel. In a game on January 14, 1956 he was thrust into action to replace Terry Sawchuk in the Boston goal. Already languishing in an 11 game losing streak, the situation looked bleak for Boston. Say no more, with Pronovost coming to the rescue. He blocked all 31 shots directed at his net and shutout Montreal 2-0. His opponent at the other end? Jacques Plante.

Newspaper report chronicling Claude Pronovost's magical night

Hockey card commemorating Pronovost's achievement

As changes to the game evolved,  the goalies were having a difficult time keeping pace. With an increase in games played during the regular season, the amount of travel took a toll. The curved blade resulted in faster and harder shots. In the mid-1960's the NHL finally took action by implementing 2 rules.

*1964-65* In playoff games, each team to have its substitute goaltender dressed in his regular uniform except for leg pads and body protector. All previous rules governing standby goaltenders terminated.

*1965-66* Teams required to dress two goaltenders for each regular-season game.

With this last rule, the emergency, substitute/standby, and utility ( a goalie called up from the minors to only play when the NHL goalie was injured) goalies all became a thing of the past. An NHL team could now develop a goaltending strategy. The second netminder could push the incumbent for the starting job.

The perfect backup plan.

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