When Leaf fans think back to the glory years of the early '60s, if you say “goalie”, the first name that comes to mind, and rightfully so, is that of Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bower.
Bower was a great goalie in his time, though he didn’t make it on a full-time basis to the NHL until he was well into his 30’s, much like Tim Thomas of the defending Stanley Cup-champion Bruins in more recent times.
But while he played the majority of the time in those days, Bower didn’t in fact handle the goaltending chores for the blue and white completely alone.
For that matter, when looking back and discussing the “good old days”, there is sometimes the common belief that, during the days of the six-team NHL, there were jobs for only six goalies.
That was indeed largely the case. But there is a broader story.
The thing is, not every NHL goalie in those “Original Six” days in the 1960s, for example, played every night. (There was one exception, and I’ll talk about him in a moment you can see him in action, above) Until Terry Sawchuk came to the Leafs before the 1964-’65 season, “back-up” goalies were generally not even on the bench, from what I can remember. There wasn’t even a back-up goalie in the building at all times. (The story has been told many times, and I assume it to be true, that, back in the ‘50s, Detroit Red Wing trainer Lefty Wilson, a sometimes practice goalie, would on occasion go into a game and play for the other team, if it was an emergency, because no other goalie was available. Readers from the Detroit area may be able to verify this…)
Too, if there was a young junior goalie in the crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens, for example, he might end up playing for the Leafs, or the visiting team, if one of the goalies was injured during the game. It was just a different time, a different era. Clubs weren't going to pay an NHL game salary to have a guy sitting around.
All this said, while there was, in the six-team league, generally one goalie on the payroll, somewhere along the way “back-ups” inevitably played an important role throughout the course of the NHL season. Injuries could take a toll, though Glenn Hall, as I alluded to above, (see the great old late 1950s photo above of Hall in action against Henri Richard at the Forum in Montreal) played more than 500 games in a row for Chicago at one point, an NHL record that we can safely say will really and truly never be broken. (Later in his career with the Hawks, even Hall began sharing time with then up and coming young Denis DeJordy.)
In Montreal, Jacques Plante was “the man” as the Habs won 5 consecutive Cups though through the late 1950s. But when Plante was injured, Charlie Hodge played as the primary back-up and got in a fair bit of action some years. Plante suffered from asthma and was a quirky, moody, highly-strung guy. Montreal coach Toe Blake came to feel he couldn’t depend on “Jake the Snake”, as Plante was sometimes called, and that is largely why Plante was dealt to the New York Rangers in a stunning trade in the summer of 1963.
In Toronto, the aforementioned Johnny Bower came to Leafs for the 1958-‘59 season, and split time with Eddie Chadwick that year, who had played every game the previous season for the Leafs. (Eddie was the last Leaf goalie to do so.)
When Chadwick was traded to Boston in the early 60’s, Don Simmons became the primary ‘back-up’. In later years, Bruce Gamble provided support when Bower and Sawchuk were injured, as the aging veterans sometimes were.
In New York, Gump Worsley was the dominant figure in goal, but I recall Marcel Paille getting a number of games in. (Interesting side note: 1960 U.S. Olympic goaltending hero Jack McCartan signed with and played a few games with the Rangers right after the Olympics. He played the rest of his career in the minor leagues, then in the WHA—much the same way 1980 Olympic hero Jim Craig immediately signed with and played a few games with Boston, but did not have a lengthy NHL career.)
For its part, Boston went through a number of different goaltending options. Harry Lumley, the former Leaf, was a fine goalie who retired after the 1958-’59 season, I believe it was. Subsequently, Don Simmons, Don Head, Bob Perrault and Bruce Gamble all had opportunities to lay claim to the top job until Eddie Johnston earned that distinction in the 1963-’64 season and played, as I recall, all 70 games one year. Johnston later shared the job with another young goalie that had been groomed in the Leaf system, Gerry Cheevers.
The Red Wings relied on Sawchuk until he was traded to Toronto prior to the 1964-’65 season. But he rarely played all 70 games before that. Hank Bassen and later Roger Crozier each played a fair bit with the Wings. (Bob Champoux is another name that I remember as a kid in the early ‘60s because I lived in Detroit and followed the Wings pretty closely back then. But I just checked his history and he evidently only played in one playoff game for the Wings, in 1963-’64. I’m guessing it was as injury relief for Sawchuk.)
Of course, it’s not like it is today, when some teams may utilize three or four goalies throughout the course of a given NHL season. That means one hundred or so goalies may play NHL games in a given season compared with maybe half a dozen to a dozen (at most) in the late 1950s/early 1960s era that I’m talking about.
So, yes, more goalies guys are getting the opportunity to play in the NHL now than ever before. It’s still the most important position in hockey.
And it still takes more than one guy to handle the job. It always has.