Between the Pipes
Goaltending is a vital position in hockey, a position that I played a lot growing up. It all began when I was maybe four or five in Regina, Saskatchewan during the late-1950s. My dad flooded the back yard a couple of winters and made a small rink for us kids in the neighborhood. I wanted to play goal, so my dad carved out a goalie stick made of plywood for me.
Throughout grade school, I also played road hockey on vacant lots, almost always in net. I didn’t mind goal because it gave me the opportunity to play with guys older and bigger than me. In my later grade school years, I played outdoor ice hockey in what was called the Regina City Parks League. Again in goal, and again against players older than me. It always made me feel special playing with the older guys, especially my teammates who protected me and encouraged me.
Up until 13, I played without a mask. At that time, most NHL goalies didn’t wear face gear, so why should I? That was until a puck smacked me square on the left cheek bone just below my eye. I shocked my parents as soon as I got home because my eye had swollen so bad that I could not see out of it at all. Next day, my dad, fearing a broken bone, took me to our family doctor. By then the left side of my face had turned a dark red and had swelled even more. The doctor took one look at me, and said with a grin, “That looks one of the shiners I used to get.” I wonder to this day what he had done to deserve such beatings. After x-rays, I had no breaks, thankfully.
For the next few weeks, the left side of my face up to my eye had turned every color of the rainbow--pretty red, blue, and yellow hues. It took about four days before I could see out of it again. I went back to school after a week and returned to playing a week after that--with a clear plastic mask that my parents purchased at a downtown sporting goods store.
Moving along, I didn’t play competitive hockey in an indoor venue until I was 17 (tell that to a kid today), when I suited up for a tryout with the Regina Silver Foxes of the four-team Saskatchewan South-Central Junior B League in late-fall 1969. It was my last year of high school and I had heard the Foxes needed a second goalie. By then I had a custom-made mask that I had designed myself off a local dentist’s impression of my face: This came about when I bought one of those kits that contained a piece of fibred cloth and a two-part epoxy glue. Within minutes, I had cut out a fiberglass mask for myself.
I remember my first game for the Silver Foxes. It was against the Notre Dame Hounds in Wilcox, a forty minute drive south of Regina. More familiar with smaller venues, I could not believe the size of the Wilcox rink. I heard later that it was the third largest ice surface in the world. I couldn’t believe the size of the Notre Dame players, too. They were huge. And the Hounds used the rink to their advantage by firing the puck off the boards or straight up center, thus sending their speedy wingers streaking down on me in seconds.
In the first period, the Hounds scored five goals to one of ours. The fans chanting, “Sieve, sieve, sieve,” didn’t help, either, but the coach didn’t yank me. By the end of the second period, I was getting the hang of it and we were down only 6-5. We ended up losing 7-6, but the coach and GM thought I did a pretty good job. So, I made the team.
In the same league were the Weyburn Beavers. Their best player was Tiger Williams, by far the dirtiest person I had ever played against and the most-hated in the entire league. In one of the games, he speared one of our players, Glenn Styles, into the boards. Glenn got even the very next game. He and Tiger both dropped the gloves to the right of me near the face-off circle. Glenn hit Tiger so hard and so fast that I can’t remember Tiger even getting a punch in. After the linesman broke it up, Tiger didn’t know what province he was in. Following the game, while leaving the dressing room, there was Tiger--bloody and both eyes shut--being helped onto his own bus by two teammates. Did we feel bad for him? Well…
Tiger went on to play with the Junior A Swift Current Broncos of the WCJHL where he scored lots of goals and spent a lot of time in the penalty box. Three years later, in 1974, he was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round, 31st overall. That same day, following the draft, during a TV interview that I saw on CBC, he was asked how he felt about his new team. Tiger replied that he was ready to work hard and jump right to the Leafs. No minor leagues for him, by golly.
Then the reporter reminded him that he was a tough guy (yeah, as if he didn’t know that already) and asked would he continue in that same mode as a Leaf? To which Tiger replied, “Sure, I’m a tough guy. But back in Saskatchewan a player beat me up so badly that he shut both my eyes.” That was awfully big of Tiger admitting such a thing.
We met the Notre Dame Hounds in the first round of the playoffs that 1969-70 season and upset them in back-to-back games of a best-of-three series. The second game was the most memorable, a contest held at Al Ritchie Arena in Regina. There, I had another bad start, letting in five goals in the first 20 minutes, but by the end of the second period we were tied 7-7.
During the second period, I was the victim of what must be the longest goal ever scored on a goalie inside this continent. It all started when one of the Hounds’ defenseman circled his own net and from somewhere near his left faceoff circle took a slapshot just to get rid of puck. The puck must have soared 12 feet high as it approached center ice. There I was in the other end trying to pick up the flight of this missile against the darkened corner of the brick wall in the far end. I lost the puck for a second then picked it too late as it came out of the shadows.
Meanwhile, I moved out a few feet in front of the crease, hoping for it to drop, then watched in horror as the puck sailed over my right shoulder and into the net behind me. You could hear a pin drop in the place for a few seconds before the visiting Hounds fans belted out a roar while our fans groaned. I had just let in a 200-foot goal!
After sixty minutes, we were tied 9-9. No defense anywhere that night. By league rules, we were set for 10 minutes of overtime. If still tied, then we’d be facing sudden death. We ended up scoring twice and winning 11-9. We outshot the Hounds something like 82-56, from what I can remember. The weirdest game I had ever played in.
The next season, the Silver Foxes moved up to Tier II Junior A, where I played four or five games before heading back to a Junior B team called the Regina Kings, by my own accord. I couldn’t take the bus travel all over the province in Junior A because I was working full-time by then. With the Kings, I recall a game in Moose Jaw against the Canucks. Future NHLers, power forward Clark Gillies and goalie Ed Staniowski were on the club then. I actually stopped Gillies on a breakaway when he tried to deke me.
A few years later, I married and moved to Ontario where I played some pickup hockey before quitting the game for good in my late-30s. And I’m glad I did before any serious injuries resulted. Today, I’m still working at 67, a house painter. I need my knees, along with back, arms, and hands. Thinking back on it now, and after seeing so many high-speed body checks and so forth when I played, I had always found that playing goal was much safer than the other positions.
And, oh, the goalie equipment today…so much better, more protective and lighter than when I played. And the size of those catching gloves!