Born in LaSalle, Quebec, on a Monday of this date in 1952, the ever-entertaining Gilles Gratton is 69 today. While his pro goaling career lasted just six years in the 1970s, the man they called Gratoony the Loony made sure they were memorable ones. He started in the WHA, spending the 1972-73 season with the long-lost Ottawa Nationals, then moved west when the franchise shifted to Toronto to reform as the Toros. In 1975, he arrived in the NHL, where he suited up for a season with the St. Louis Blues and then another with New York’s Rangers.
When the great Roy MacGregor caught up with him in 1975 with a profile for The Canadian Magazine, the 22-year-old goaltender had signed a five-year, C$645,000 contract with the Toros that came with a bonus: a canary yellow Porsche 911-S Targa. “Nobody should be paid as much as I get,” Gratton told him. “In real work terms, I’m worth nothing. I’m not helping anyone, not making anything. What am I doing for the world? I’m stopping rubber — what’s that doing for evolution?”
That’s not all. “The difference between me and a hockey player is this,” Gratton continued: “when summer ends, a hockey player gets itchy, I feel like killing myself. If I never played hockey again, it wouldn’t matter. A real hockey player would be broken. Me, I’m liberated.”
Last night’s win over the Colorado Avalanche was the 89th of Marc-Andre Fleury’s playoff puck-deterring career, which means that he’s now fourth on the list of game-winners all-time among NHL goaltenders. Fleury’s Vegas Golden Knights beat the Avalanche 6-3 to take their second-round series four games to two, if you hadn’t heard; he stopped 30 shots on the night. Next up, of course, are the Canadiens, who’ll be on the ice in Nevada to start the Vegas-Montreal semi-final on Monday night.
(Top image, from Frédéric Daigle’s 2019 biography for young readers from Les Éditions de l’Homme; infographic, via the NHL)
Mainstay of the Maroons, they called him, Horatius at the Bridge, the Sphinx of the Nets. Also? The Ottawa Fireman. That was a nickname, the last one, but it was also a straightforward description, because throughout Alec Connell’s 12-year Hall-of-Fame career as an NHL goaltender, he remained a dutiful employee of the fire department in the nation’s capital.
His renown was such that when, on a Saturday of this date in 1958, Connell died, the news was front-page-centre in the Ottawa Citizen, his hometown paper. He was 58.
Twenty-nine he served with the Ottawa Fire Department, starting in 1921. He was working as secretary to Chief Robert Burnett in the fall of 1924 when he was signed by the mighty Senators, Stanley Cup champions in three of the previous five seasons, to replace Clint Benedict. Connell’s sporting exploits were well-known in the city: “one of Ottawa’s best all-round athletes,” the Montreal Gazette advised.
“He is a little man as fast as a flash and as cool-headed almost as the great Georges Vézina of the Canadiens.” He was, moreover, “a fine, clean-cut youth.”
“Connell neither smokes nor drinks, and is in every way a credit to sport.”
He would play eight seasons, all told, with the Senators, often wearing what was described as a floppy hat, his face set with a serious expression that contemporary reports tended to classify as deadpan. He backstopped Ottawa to the 1927 Stanley Cup, and he was the Montreal Maroons’ goaltender in 1935 when they won the Cup. He had turns, too, with the Detroit Falcons and New York Americans before he gave up his pads for good in 1937.
On that subject, the pads, while Jake Forbes of the old Hamilton Tigers was the first NHL goaltender to transition from the old, narrow cricket-style pads to the new-fangled wider horsehide-and-kapok versions pioneered by Hamilton harnessmaker Pop Kenesky in the 1920s, Alec Connell was the second. These are Keneskys pictured in the image above, showing Connell in all his felted glory in 1931, when he was with Detroit; the pads are, in all probability, the originals that Connell commissioned from the legendary Pop Kenesky in 1927.
Some other Connell claims to hockey fame:
• He’s one of six goaltenders in NHL history to have captained his team, which in his case was Ottawa for the 1932-33 season. (Not counting Roberto Luongo here, whom the Vancouver Canucks recognized as their leader from 2008-10, despite the league’s latter-day rules that don’t allow captains in the crease.)
• Alec Connell still holds the record for the longest shutout streak in NHL history, 460 minutes and 49 seconds. That dates back to the 1927-28 season, when he strung together six consecutive clean sheets before Duke Keats of the Black Hawks solved him in a game in Chicago. Connell racked up 15 shutouts in 44 regular-season games that season — impressive, though not enough to win him the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, which went to George Hainsworth of the Canadiens that year.
Images of Tony Esposito’s hands as he readies them for a night’s work in February of 1981 at Chicago’s Stadium. By the time Esposito turned 38 on this date in April of that year, the Blackhawks were already into their off-season, having been eliminated from the playoffs by the Calgary Flames in a three-game first-round sweep.
A birthday today for Tony Esposito, born in Sault Ste. Marie on a Friday of this date in 1943: he’s 78 now, and thereby the younger of the family’s two Hall of Famers. Tony launched his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens, starting his first game in Boston in 1968 against brother Phil … who promptly scored both Bruin goals in a 2-2 tie. Claimed by the Chicago Black Hawks, Tony O won the Calder Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie in 1970. He played 15 seasons with Chicago, winning the Vézina Trophy three times along the way. “Tony Esposito used everything he had,” the Boston Globe’s Fran Rosa wrote in 1974 on an April night when the Hawks overcame the Bruins in the playoffs, “his stick, his pads, his body, his skates, even his head once, and of course, his glove. Oh my, that glove. It grew bigger and bigger as the game progressed.”
Net Presence: Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this date in 1945, goaltending great Bernie Parent is 76 today. He held the Philadelphia fort when the Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and ’75, carrying off the Vézina Trophy in those seasons, too, and collecting successive Conn Smythes as playoff MVP. In 1977, he and Flyer teammate Rick MacLeish made the case, below, why the time was right for getting yourself fitted into a Flyerjak® just as soon as you possibly could.
Tiger King: The bald-pated custodian is a phrase sometimes associated with Hal Winkler when he used to play, back in the 1920s. Born in Gretna, Manitoba, on a Tuesday of this date in 1894, he was tender of nets for the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos when they lost out to the Ottawa Senators in the 1923 Stanley Cup finals. By the time he took this pose, above, it would have been 1925 or so, when he was with the WCHL/WHL Calgary Tigers. He got to the NHL in 1926, when he joined the New York Rangers at 32. With Lorne Chabot proving himself in the New York nets, Winkler was sold to the Boston Bruins that winter. He played only a season-and-a-half for the Bruins before Tiny Thompson took over, but Winkler was so much admired in Boston that the team made sure to include his name on the Stanley Cup they won in 1929, after a season in which Winkler appeared in not a single NHL game. With a few more minor-league campaigns notched on his pads, he retired in 1931, whereupon he returned to Manitoba to run a mink ranch. (Image: Oregon Historical Society. Oregon Journal Negative Collection, Lot 1368; Box 371; 0371N275. Used with permission.)
Towering Tiny: An artist’s rendition of Boston’s mighty Tiny Thompson from 1930.
Score it 0-0: the game that particular February 24 on a Sunday night in 1935 ended up without a puck getting by either goaltender through three regular periods and a ten-minute overtime. New York’s Madison Square Garden was the scene, with 26-year-old Dave Kerr tending the nets for the hometown Rangers against Tiny Thompson and the Boston Bruins in front of a crowd of 16,000 or so. The ice, by one account, was wretched.
“For Rangers,” the Boston Globe disclosed the next day, “Kerr was the whole works.” He stopped 43 pucks, recording the 15th shutout of his five-year career. His closest call? Harold Parrott from Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle said it came on a “rifle shot” from Boston’s Babe Siebert, “which nearly tore the goaler’s little finger off and hit the goal post with that dull ping which signifies failure.” Thompson deterred 39 New York shots — or maybe 34. The NHL didn’t keep official counts in those early years, and the Globe and the New York Times begged to differ in their accounting of Thompson’s work. To the latter’s eye, his hardest test came in the second period on a “ripping long shot” from New York’s Murray Murdoch.
For Thompson, who was 31 and playing in his eighth NHL season, the night marked a milestone of distinguished denial: this was the 50th regular-season shutout of his career. He was the seventh goaltender in league history to make it to that mark, following in the venerable skates of (not in order) George Hainsworth, Clint Benedict, Roy Worters, Lorne Chabot, Alec Connell, and John Ross Roach.
Luggage On The Left Coast: Gary Smith guarded Vancouver nets from 1973 through 1976.
Born in Ottawa on a Friday of this date in 1944, goaltender Gary Smith is 77 today. The nicknames he acquired during his career don’t really need a whole lot of explication, but here goes: Suitcase referenced his travels around the NHL, WHA, and minor leagues, wherein he played for 13 teams in 16 seasons during the 1960s and ’70s; Axe underscored his propensity for swinging sticks at passing opponents. His father, Des Smith, played defence starting in the late 1930s for four NHL teams, including Boston; brother Brian was a left winger for Los Angeles and Minnesota in the latter ’60s. Gary shared a Vézina Trophy with Tony Esposito for their work in the Chicago Black Hawks’ crease in 1972, and Smith backstopped the WHA Winnipeg Jets to the 1979 Avco Cup.
The following year was Smith’s last in hockey; it happened to be Winnipeg’s first in the NHL. Defenceman Barry Melrose was a teammate that season, and it’s to him we go for this news of Smith’s in-game rituals.
“He wore 13 pairs of socks in his goalie skates,” Melrose recollected in 2009, “because he hated pucks hitting his feet. He also wore long underwear and after every period, he took off all his gar and had a cold shower. Can you imagine the laundry the trainers had to do? It was 50-some socks per game plus four sets of underwear. The Axe was a weird dude.”
Meet Me in Chicoutimi: Canadiens pose at the Aréna with (in white) local players on the afternoon of March 7, 1915. Dark-sweatered Montrealers are (front row, from left) Louis Berlinguette, Didier Pitre, and Harry Scott and (back row, from left) Jack Laviolette with Ernie Dubeau (I think) next to him, Nick Bawlf fourth from lef, and Georges Vézina sixth from left, in the tuque. It’s likely that Vézina’s older brother Pierre would have played in this game, and judging from other photographs, I’m guessing that he’s the tall one at the back, third from the left. Or maybe front row, farthest to the right? A defenceman, he played briefly for Montreal in the NHA, suiting up for a single game in 1911-12.
A birthday today for Georges Vézina, who was born in Chicoutimi on a Friday of this date in 1887. That means he would have been 28 in March of 1915 when this photograph was taken on the ice at the Aréna one Sunday afternoon in his Saguenay hometown, when his Canadiens came to town for an exhibition game against the local Banque National team. While I haven’t found a record of the score that day in ’15, what I can report is that Montreal’s season had finished with a thud a few days earlier, when they’d finished dead last in the standings of the six-team NHA.
It’s not that the team lacked talent: alongside Vézina, playing in his fifth professional season, the 1914-15 Canadiens iced a few other future Hall-of-Famers that year in Jack Laviolette, Didier Pitre, and Newsy Lalonde, as well as the solid talents of Bert Corbeau and Louis Berlinguette. A year later, with much the same line-up, Canadiens did win their first Stanley Cup, but in 1915 they just couldn’t get it together.
Finishing top of the NHA that year were the Ottawa Senators and Montreal’s other team, the Wanderers, and those two teams duly played for the league championship.
Ottawa won the two-game series, earning the right to play the PCHA-champion Vancouver Millionaires for the Stanley Cup. That was at the end of March; Vancouver prevailed, winning three successive games.
Progrès du Saguenay ad ahead of Montreal’s exhibition in Chicoutimi in March of 1915.
Montreal’s teams, meanwhile, went to New York, where they played in a friendly tournament at the St. Nicholas Rink at 69 West 66th Street. Wanderers lined up the Cleghorn brothers that year, Odie and Sprague, along with Harry Hyland and Goldie Prodger. They took the first game 7-6 over Vézina and his teammates, and won again the following night, 8-3.
Maybe “friendly” isn’t quite the right word, given the reports from New York.
“It was a hard game from start to finish in the way of body checking,” The New York Times wrote of the first encounter. “The players of each team crashed into each other with utter disregard of consequences and several times players were sent sprawling on the ice and time was taken so they might recover.”
Jack Laviolette impressed: a dispatch from the sidelines of the second game described him skimming “over the ice with such speed that in his jersey of flaming scarlet he resembled a fire brand.”
Vézina, too, earned praise, despite the eight goals that went by him that night. He was deemed to have done “some excellent work at stopping the rush of the Wanderers” even though “at times they came at him so fast and furious it was impossible for him to see the puck at all.”
The victorious Wanderers went on to meet their NHA rivals from Quebec in the next stage of the tournament. The Bulldogs featured Joe Malone in their forward line and Paddy Moran in goal, but the Wanderers overwhelmed them all the same, winning by scores of 12-6 and 15-12 to claim their reward: a purse of $2,500.