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Great goalies of my youth: Hall, Plante, Sawchuk, Giacomin and Esposito

Those who visit this site fairly regularly may recall that my earliest hockey memories date back to the late 1950s. It was a wonderful time to be a hockey fan. With only six teams, it didn’t take long for a kid with a passion for the sport to get to know about virtually all the players on every team.

It’s a much bigger task nowadays, for sure.

Back then, when it comes to goalies, you absolutely knew every netminder inside out. You knew their playing style, their stats, and everything you could possibly “know” in the pre-mass media/internet age.

Before 1967-’68, with only six NHL teams—and goalies being expected to play a lot—some teams, like Chicago, didn’t even have a full-time back-up goalie because Glenn Hall played every game, every year until the mid-‘60s.

As the ‘60s moved along though, things evolved. More goalies started wearing masks, and the Maple Leafs introduced the concept of carrying two goalies full-time—notably when Terry Sawchuk joined Johnny Bower in the Leaf nets. No goaltender played all the games anymore and there were suddenly many more NHL “regulars” in goal, what with every team carrying two and then as a result of expansion in 1967.

We all know the great modern-day keepers—Martin Brodeur likely at the top of the list (Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller will have to be consistently good for a lot longer to make my list). We’ve also had Patrick Roy as an all-time great, and before him, Grant Fuhr of those talented ‘80s Edmonton teams and Billy Smith, who backstopped the New York Islander dynasty.

For me, I love to harken back to when I was a kid in the 60s and early ‘70s and think about some of the great goaltenders of that era. There were a number of high-end guys, to be sure. I’ve written in the past about Leaf stalwart Johnny Bower and other Leaf notables such as Eddie Chadwick and Don Simmons. Today I’ll focus on oustanding non-Maple Leafs goalies of that much earlier era.

Here are my memories of a few:

When I think of who represented what it meant to be an NHL goalie in my childhood, Jacques Plante is probably the first name to come to mind. Not simply because he was the first to wear the “goalie mask” (see Plante in action with Montreal at right), but just everything about him. He had what I call a “peek-a-boo” style. In his later years (including his stint with the Leafs in the very early ‘70s) he was known as the classic “stand-up” angles goalie and the guy who taught future Hall-of-Famer Bernie Parent goaltending technique. But when I first saw Plante, he would get down on one knee to peak through his defensemen’s legs to try and pick up shots from the point. He was flamboyant, stylish. He was one of the first guys to roam a bit away from his crease. He would set up pucks for his defensemen behind the net. He’s the guy I think of most, I guess, when I think Vezina Trophy, which was given in those days to the goalie who had the best goals-against average. Amazingly, he played until his mid-40s (with Boston) and then played a year in the WHA. A true legend.

That all said, my “favorite” goalie as a kid was Glenn Hall. He invented that style of coming out and then backing into the crease. While he stayed on his feet longer than today’s “cover the bottom of the net” technique guys, he was very unorthodox in his day. (Roger Crozier of the Red Wings, and later the Buffalo Sabres, was in many ways similar to Hall. I’ll write about Crozier, a lefty, another day.) Hall had that bent-leg, “V”-shaped style. He was so quick. (In the photo at the top of this story, Hall is shown in action at the Forum in the very late 1950s, with Henri Richard, #16, on his doorstep.)  I’ve never forgotten a save Hall made against Dickie Duff at the Forum in the 1965 Cup finals. Duff shot a one-timer (off a great cross-ice pass) right along the ice. He couldn’t have been more then 10 feet away from the side of the goal. It looked like a sure goal. Hall saved it with his glove, actually trapping the puck before it entered the net- like a cat pouncing on a string that you’re pulling away. A remarkable, athletic goalie, who didn’t wear a mask until late in his career with the expansion St. Louis Blues

Terry Sawchuk was a guy I was familiar with because I was raised just across from Detroit and he was the Red Wing goalie when they were Cup-contenders in the early 1960s (he had already led them to a number of Cups in the early 1950s). The Wings should have won the Cup in ’64, but the Leafs eked by them in the finals in 7 games, whereupon Sawchuk was traded to the Leafs. By that time, he was a bit broken down physically, but still had a remarkable will to win. That was probably most in evidence in the spring of 1967, when he teamed with Bower to lead the Leafs to upset wins over Chicago and Montreal in the playoffs. Sawchuk had at least three games were he was blown up in those playoffs, but he would always come back with a sterling performance his next time out. Sawchuk was the second guy, after Plante, to don the mask.

Eddie Giacomin really didn’t become a force for the Rangers until the very late ‘60s, but by the early ‘70s he was one of the top three goalies in hockey. He had a long, unusual road to the NHL, but worked hard to get there. He was quick, had sort of a hybrid style (not quite like Bower, not quite like Hall) and was absolutely the best in the business, in his day, at handling and clearing the puck. It used to drive me nuts how often the Leafs, on the power play, would shoot the puck in against the Rangers in those days and Giacomin would just calmly stop it and shoot it either off the boards and out or right down the ice. He was one of the most popular Rangers of all time and deservedly so. He was one of those guys who, like Bower, worked as hard in practice as he did in games and hated giving up goals. If it weren’t for the loaded Boston Bruins, Giacomin and the Rangers would have won the Cup in 1972. One of my favorite Giacomin memories is when he led the Rangers to a playoff win over the Canadiens in the early ‘70s (1972, was it, or '74?). They had struggled with Montreal in the playoffs in the late 60s, and it was a kind of redemption for Giacomin.

Tony Esposito ([ictired at right) was a fabulous goalie, a lefty, who started his career with the Habs. He went to Chicago because Montreal was loaded in net in those days (the late 1960s) with Gump Worsley, Rogatien Vachon and an incoming Ken Dryden, who few people knew about. Espo was a hockey warrior, who liked to play every night in an era when that kind of attitude was dying out. I’ve never forgiven him for giving up Jacques Lemaire’s goal from center ice in Game 7 of the Cup finals against Montreal (The Hawks were up 2-0 at the time and poised to put the hated—for me—Habs away) but I loved the guy, even though he played for one of Toronto’s toughest rivals. A classic goalie, and by all accounts, a classy guy.

Those were my favorites. There were other all-time greats, of course, like Worsley in the 50s/’60s (and even into the early ‘70s), then Dryden with Montreal and of course Bernie Parent. But the above were, for me, the goalies I remember most fondly.

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