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Mike Brown, Allan Stanley, Bill Gadsby: Shot-blocking is a long-standing hockey tradition

Teams that do a good job of blocking shots has been much discussed of late, as more and more NHL clubs, and more and more players, sacrifice to do the dirty work that helps win games.

For some guys who are borderline NHL players, this “skill”, if I can call it that, may be the thing that helps keep them in the league.  It has become that important.

The Leafs do their share of shot-blocking, though it seems (I haven’t seen the stats, but I know fellow bloggers keep track of these things, and the league keeps stats on this too, of course) the Leafs have had more of their attempts blocked than the other way around this season.

You need the same kind of determination to block shots that it takes to go to the front of the net on offense.  Those are tough jobs and few forwards are willing to take on the task on a regular basis.

In Toronto, Mike Brown is a willing shot-blocker, and there are other guys who will do it on occasion.  But it’s so emphasized around the league, perhaps now more than ever before, and it makes a difference in the win/loss column.  (The shot-blocking I'm talking about is different from what Don Cherry hates and talks about all the time—when defensemen get their sticks on a shot at the last second and the puck changes direction on the goaltenders.)

I fondly remember Shayne Corson’s efforts for the Leafs in the playoffs a few years ago.  He was absolutely giving everything he had to block shots late in the game to help the Leafs win, and playing through obvious pain.  Lanny McDonald, though a first-line player and an elite goal-scorer, would also block shots on occasion back in the ‘70s during his Toronto years.

As best I can remember, though, forwards being the ones to block shots is more a modern-day phenomenon.  (Guys like Bobby Pulford, with the Maple Leafs in the ‘50s and ‘60s, would do it.  But generally they did so by skating straight into the shooter at the point on the power play, as opposed to the way forwards often do it today, when they go sprawling all over the place, fifteen or twenty feet in front of the shooter. As an aside, who was the young Montreal forward a few years ago who was seriously injured in this way?)  That said, many old-style defensive defensemen have been taking on this thankless shot-blocking task for as long as I can remember— and were likely doing so well before I started following hockey in the late 1950s. (As a teenager in the late '60s, I remember buying a pair of "defensemen" hockey gloves. I say "defensemen", because they little flexibility but did have extra thick protection for the back of the hand.  It was, in part, to allow defenders to block shots and still protect themselves.)

The first classic shot-blocker that I was aware of was former Leaf and Red Wing defenseman Bob Goldham.  My Dad, the rabid Montreal fan who you have all heard about, used to tell me often about Goldham and his shot-blocking ability.  He would tell me his hockey stories as we were watching games on TV together.  It was great, though we cheered for different sides.  Goldie, as Goldham was called, retired right around the time I was born, but I felt like I knew how he had played—because of my Dad.

By the time I was able to follow the game on my own, I was a Leaf fan and grew up watching the classic pairings well-known in Leaf lore:  Baun and Brewer, Horton and Stanley.  They all could block shots, but my recollection is that Stanley was the best at it, followed by Baun.  (Baun of course was also the team’s top open-ice body-checker, despite his smallish stature.  He was awfully tough.)

Stanley (pictured at right in very early 1960s action against Montreal's Jean Beliveau) was not the swiftest afoot, but he played angles very well and picked his time to get in the way of shots.  Unlike today's forwards who throw themselves in harm’s way, launching their bodies and laying full out in front of shots from the point, a defenseman like Stanley in the old days was more just getting in the way.  He might, for example, drop down on one knee (or both knees) and swallow the shot up.  Later, Boston's Bobby Orr was tremendous at that.

Now, in those days, other than maybe a dozen guys, there weren’t a lot of big shooters.  So defensemen got in the way, and they rarely risked serious injury.  The play would often stop because the puck ended up stuck in their equipment somewhere.  (Now, I should note that the equipment the defensemen wore in those days was a far cry from the armor these guys wear today.)

Kent Douglas, who played off and on with the Leafs in the ‘60s, was a good shot-blocker too.  In Detroit, Bill Gadsby (see the great old photo at the top of the story, with Gadsby, Camille Henry of the Rangers and Terry Sawchuk in goal) was one of the best at it when I was a kid in the early and mid-1960s.  My Dad, who hated the Red Wings, used to complain that Gadsby blocked more shots than did the Red Wing goaltenders—Terry Sawchuk, Hank Bassen and later, Roger Crozier.

(A quick add-on after I originally posted this piece.  I neglected to mention one of the best shot-blockers of the early expansion era, Al Arbour.  Al had played with the Wings and Hawks before helping Toronto win the Cup in 1962.  He was a mainstay on the blueline of the St. Louis Blues under Scotty Bowman.)

Today’s Leafs, especially given their sometimes alarming inability to finish on offense, need, as a result, to be even tougher to score against.  One of the ways that this somewhat under-talented team will have to level the playing field is by blocking more shots.  

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