Ah, the “Original Six.” To some people, it was the greatest of National Hockey League eras. It spanned 25 seasons from 1942-43 to 1966-67, before the first series of expansion in 1967-68. They called it “Original Six” because there were, basically, 6 teams in the NHL then. Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Black Hawks, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins.
For most of those years, a goaltender had to be one of the six best at his position. Why? Because each team dressed only one goalie. And they went into action barefaced too. If a goalie was cut for stitches, the fans and players would have to sit around and twiddle their thumbs until the needle work was done by some butcher in the dressing room. And most netminders were stand-ups, not the floppers we see today. Imagine that. In the 1960s, we did see some masks worn after Montreal’s Jacques Plante donned one for good in late 1959. Boston’s Don Simmons and Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk soon followed suit. Before the 6-team NHL ended, each team was allowed to dress 2 goalies. So, they did progress.
Who were some of the better netminders in that era, the ones who stood out? I enjoyed putting this piece together because I was a goalie myself at one time. And I have the bent fingers and bad knees to prove it.
Originally signed by Toronto as an amateur then released following a knee injury, Montreal Canadiens Bill Durnan played only 7 years in the NHL. But he packed a wallop in that short space of time by winning the Vezina Trophy on 6 of those occasions and was a First Team All-Star 6 times, too. Back then, the Vezina trophy was for the lowest goals-against-average, not the goalie MVP award it is today. In his last season, Durnan recorded 4 straight shutouts. His 309 minutes of shutout work stood as a record for 55 years. Lifetime, he had 34 shutouts, a 2.36 GAA in regular season play and an even stingier 2.07 in post-season. A major part of 2 Stanley Cup winners, he finally succumbed to the pressure of his craft part-way through the 1950 playoffs and was replaced by Gerry McNeil. For some strange reason, the Montreal Forum fans booed Durnan constantly throughout his record-setting career.
Durnan was ambidextrous. Now that’s something you don’t see today. He didn’t wear a blocker. Instead, he had 2 well-padded catching gloves. He could use his stick or catch the puck equally well with either hand. He would change back and forth throughout the game depending on who was shooting and from what angle.
Durnan entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964.
The Leafs Walter “Turk” Broda was in a class by himself. A true money goalie. Born in Brandon, Manitoba to a Ukrainian family, Broda received the nickname of “Turkey Egg” in his childhood for the many freckles he had. By adulthood, it was shortened to just “Turk.” Detroit Red Wings had his rights first but sold them to the Leafs for $7,500 in 1936. Broda was a pudgy, fun-loving, good-natured individual who seemed quite relaxed between the pipes. Relaxed enough to fell asleep before the occasional game, much to the chagrin of his coaches.
He also loved to eat. A lot. His weight was always an issue with owner Conn Smythe. Broda made headlines going into the 1949-50 season when Smythe ordered Broda to lose weight or he would lose his job. Serious with his threat, Smythe brought up 2 goalies from the minors who were ready to go in on short notice. It may have been more of a publicity stunt than anything else, but it put the Leafs on the city’s front pages, something Conn Smythe always relished. Broda had fun with the so-called threat by jogging up and down Yonge Street to the delight of well-wishing fans who cheered him on. He eventually lost 10 pounds to keep his job, then finished the season with a 2.48 GAA and a league-leading 9 shutouts and 3 more in the playoffs in a losing cause to the Red Wings in a 7-game first round.
Broda won 2 Vezina trophies in his career (one time beating out Bill Durnan), but some people felt he should have won more. His regular season GAA was 2.53 lifetime. Every so often he would let in a bad goal, a “floater.” Only in the regular season, though. In the playoffs, something inside him kicked into high gear. He was a different man. He excelled to the point where his lifetime GAA dropped HALF a goal to 1.98. In 101 playoff games, he shutout the opposition 13 times. He also helped his team win 5 Stanley Cups, including 3 in a row in the late 1940s. Another Hall of Famer. And perhaps the greatest clutch goalie ever to play the game.
Around the same time as Durnan and Broda, Saskatchewan-born Chuck Rayner was minding the nets for the lowly New York Rangers. Rayner was ahead of his day. An excellent skater, he was an expert at handling the puck outside his net, thus helping out his lackluster defense. He also tried awfully hard--on several occasions--to be the first goalie to score a goal. He came very close 19 February 1950 in a game that the Leafs had pulled Turk Broda. Rayner took off with the puck and fired it at the net, only to miss by inches.
Blessed with sharp reflexes, Rayner was known for his acrobatic saves. If not for him, the Rangers would never have made the playoffs in 1950, the same year he won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, the first goalie to do so in 20 years. In 69 games, he collected 8 shutouts and a 2.62 GAA. The Rangers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in April, where Rayner was beaten in double OT by Detroit’s Pete Babando in the 7th game. With Rayner’s help, the Rangers nearly upset the Wings who finished 21 points ahead of them in the regular season.
Rayner’s career GAA is a not-that-great 3.05, but that’s due to the team he played on. The Rangers only made the playoffs twice in the 8 seasons he played in New York. In 18 playoff games, however, he did manage to keep his GAA a low 2.43. He actually did score a goal playing competitive hockey, but it was done while playing for a Canadian Army team during World War II in Victoria, BC.
Rayner’s Hall of Fame NHL career came to an end when he lost his Ranger job in the midst of 1952-53 to another Hall of Famer, Gump Worsley.
Lorne “Gump” Worsley took the Ranger job away from Rayner in high fashion by being named NHL Rookie of the Year in 1953. Worsley was an odd sort at 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds. Given the nickname of “Gump” by his friends after comic-strip character Andy Gump, Worsley was a real character in his own right with a great sense of humor. He had to be good-natured because the poor guy put up with guarding the Rangers net for a solid 10 years, sometimes facing as much as 40 shots a game. The team made the playoffs only 4 times in that stretch. In those days of barefaced hockey, he would often say, “my face is my mask.” When someone accused him of having a beer belly, his calm reaction was, “I only drink Johnnie Walker Red.” Once asked by a reporter which team gave him the most trouble, he replied, “the Rangers.” Worsley ran a restaurant in his hometown Montreal during the off-season. On the menu was the “Ranger Special,” which was a chicken salad.
It wasn’t until the Rangers traded him to Montreal in 1963 (a trade involving Jacques Plante going to New York) that he was finally appreciated for his talents. He went on to help the Habs win 4 Stanley Cups that stretched into the expansion era. Worsley finally called it quits at age 44 in 1974, while playing for the Minnesota North Stars where he finally put on a mask to protect his scarred face. Weird things must have been happening in New York in the early 1950s because as Chuck Rayner gave up his job to Worsley, Worsley then gave up his job to another rookie by the name of Johnny Bower, another future Hall of Famer, too.
From Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Johnny Bower came to the Rangers camp in the fall of 1953. Of Ukrainian descent (like Broda), his real name was John Kiszkan. Years before, he had changed his last name to Bower to make it easier for sportswriters. Almost 30, he had made quite the reputation in the American Hockey League with the Cleveland Barons as a goalie with no style who flopped around a lot. He was caught in the middle…too good for the AHL, but not good enough for the NHL. This time--1953--he made it and he played all 70 games for New York, whereby sending Worsley to the WHL Vancouver Canucks for the season. Worsley was probably SOL anyway because he asked for a $500 salary increase once he was named Rookie of the Year. The 1953-54 Rangers didn’t make the playoffs with Bower in net, but his GAA was 2.60 with 6 shutouts. Although it was the best GAA for a Ranger goalie in 12 years, it was still the 5th best in the league. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the next season, Worsley got his job back in New York after being voted the WHL’s MVP in Vancouver.
Bower then spent 3 more seasons in the AHL, where he was the league’s MVP all 3 years. At 33, Bower was picked by the Toronto Maple Leafs on 3 June 1958 in the Inter-League Draft. At first, Bower, content to stay in the minors, didn’t want to go back to the NHL. But coach-GM Punch Imlach talked him into at least giving it a try. This time around, Bower made it for good. A huge part of 4 Stanley Cups in Toronto in the 1960s, he played brilliantly in clutch situations using a stand-up style. Known for his lightning-quick pokechecks on opposing players, he could handle the puck with ease. I remember one game on Hockey Night in Canada when he banked the puck off the boards and missed an open net by a mere foot or so. Bower performed well into his 40s. When he left the AHL behind for good in 1958, he was the winningest goaltender in the league’s history with 359 victories. He still holds the record.
For three years in the mid-1960s, Winnipeg-born Terry Sawchuk was a teammate of Bower in Toronto. When Sawchuk played for Detroit the decade before, he was already considered by some hockey people as the greatest goalie ever. And with good reason. In each one of his first 5 full seasons (1950-51 to 1954-55) his GAA was below 2.00, including his first year when he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. Nicknamed “Ukey” for his Ukrainian heritage--what’s with all these Ukrainian goalies--he recorded a remarkable 56 shutouts (plus one more in 7 games during 1949-50). He added 8 more shutouts in the playoffs, good enough to help the Red Wings win 3 Stanley Cups. Then out of the blue, Wings GM Jack Adams traded Sawchuk to the Boston Bruins in the off-season following the Wings 1955 Stanley Cup win, in a multi-player deal that netted the Wings, well, sweet bugger all.
It all came crashing down for Sawchuk after that. He contacted mononucleosis in Boston. He lost weight and turned irritable. Once a robust 5-foot-11, 200-plus-pounder in Detroit he could barely tip the scales at 165 for the rest of his playing days. He quit hockey part-way through the second season as a Bruin. In the off-season, Adams traded away future Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk to get his boy Sawchuk back in a Wings uniform which he remained wearing until the Leafs Punch Imlach drafted him in 1964 to share the duties with Johnny Bower.
With Toronto, he played his best game ever--in my opinion--during Game Five of the first round of the 1967 playoffs when he shutout the mighty Chicago Black Hawks for 2 periods after relieving Bower who had given up 2 goals in the first 20 minutes. That 40 minutes of netminding by Sawchuk is still talked about today.
What made Sawchuk unique was his low “gorilla-style” crouch--to see the puck between bodies--in which his chin was almost touching the top of his pads. And this while still remaining on his feet. Sawchuk finished his career in 1970 with 447 wins (a league record for 30 years) and 103 lifetime shutouts, a figure I didn’t think anyone would ever reach. That is until Martin Brodeur came along to prove me and many others wrong.
Part Two--next week…