Those of us who were around for the 1980s (hockey-wise) will remember that it was a pretty dark period for the blue and white. Oh, there were some nice moments. I seem to recall that we won a couple of playoff series (three–out-five first-round series, in those days) but I’m trying to remember if we actually ever won a single best-of-seven playoff round at any point that decade. Maybe one?
In any event, it was tough sledding, for the most part. The early ’80 were particularly difficult, despite some talented young players like Miro Frycer making things exciting sometimes. Those were very poor teams, though we had plenty of talent, and some offensive firepower with forwards such as Frycer and Peter Ihnacak (left), Ricky Vaive, Bill Derlago and John Anderson. Later came Wendel Clark, and along with Gary Leeman, Russ Courtnall, Al Iafrate and all-in guys like Brad “Motor City Smitty” Smith and a few others like him, the Leafs were often entertaining—if not always successful.
Against that backdrop, one of the goaltenders who made many of the Leaf games a little less miserable than they otherwise would have been was a particular favourite of mine through a good chunk of the ‘80s.
His name was Allan Bester.
His name was Allan Bester.
Bester was a “local” kid, in Toronto terms, in that he was born in Hamilton, Ontario. He played his junior hockey in nearby Brantford. He represented Canada at the World Junior championships before it became the huge event it is now. He was drafted and developed by the Leafs, but unfortunately played here at a particularly dysfunctional time in Leaf history—or at least that’s how it felt for a lot of us as Maple Leaf supporters. It was the last decade of the Harold Ballard era, and it often seemed as though “Pal Hal” was getting a little zanier with each passing year, which didn’t seem to help the on-ice product.
Bester was a smallish goalie, and that's probably an understatement. By today’s standards he was absolutely tiny at 5 feet, 7 inches and maybe (on a good day) 155 pounds. I’m not sure a goaltender his size would even make it today. When it comes to goaltenders these days, the emphasis now is on size. (I realize there have always been “tall” goaltenders, like ex-Leaf Cesare Maniago—seen above in early ‘60s game action with the blue and white in one of my favourite old-time hockey photos—and a bit later, John Davidson and Ken Dryden, among others…)
Bester was very much a modern-era goalie, a bit ahead of the curve, in that he liked to take away the bottom of the net. Goaltending was moving away from the old Johnny Bower "stand-up" style, and Bester was a very talented little netminder with his own way of playing. He had a lightning-quick glove hand and was very acrobatic when he had to be. (To provide some historical context, I’m not suggesting Bester was a trend-setter in terms of his playing style. Goalies like Glenn Hall, Eddie Giacomin, Tony Esposito and several others had long utilized a “bent-leg” style, if I can call it that.)
Bester generally played second fiddle to another (and much bigger) young Leaf draft choice, Ken Wregget. I was always- as I have said here in this space in the past - a “Bester guy” when it came to choosing between the two young, talented Leaf goaltenders. But the prevailing management wisdom of the time seemed to prefer Wregget, a more conventional goaltender.
Bester played with the Leafs as a 19 year-old (not necessarily a good idea by the brass at the time, but that’s the way they did things around here…still do, sometimes). He had been drafted by the Leafs 49th overall in the summer of 1983. He was finally the “number-one” guy in net by the late ‘80s, playing more than half the game for the Leafs in 1988-’89 and 1989-’90.
His bottom line ”stats” were overly impressive by modern-day standards, but we have to put his numbers into context given the high-scoring era in which he played. That his lifetime GAA was 4.01 is not too shabby—given the team he played behind, the number of shots he routinely faced (he saw an awful lot of rubber in those days…) and some of the great teams he competed against. It was a much more wide-open, offensive era compared with what we’ve been seeing in the NHL since the mid-1990s, with the neutral zone trap and other defensive “systems” that limit scoring opportunities. (Not to mention the impact of the huge goaltending equipment utilized nowadays…)
At 5 feet 7 inches, Bester was dwarfed in a big man’s game. But he was a mighty good goalie many nights for some not very mighty Maple Leaf squads. He was traded to Detroit in the early '90s, though he played primarily in the AHL in the Red Wing system. Bester had a nice little run with Dallas as an emergency recall goalie in the mid-'90s before finishing his career in the East Coast League.
Matteo Codispoti (We Want a Cup) and I chatted with Allan a few days ago for our “Leaf Matters” podcast. It was a fun conversation. Allan now works in the hospitality industry in Florida (he was a popular player at the tail end of his pro career down in Orlando, and it sounds like he has lived there ever since) and seems to be enjoying his post-hockey life quite a bit. He had some rather interesting things to say about his time with the Leafs, the pressures of playing in Toronto, and new Leaf goaltending coach (and his former Leaf teammate) Rick St. Croix.
For those interested, here is a link to the Leaf Matters (on Twitter
@LeafMatters) podcast (Episode 6):
I hope you enjoy our interview!