from obscurity to the glare of the calcium: getting to know moe, the emergency goaltender whose last nhl appearance came 26 years after his first

Hats Off To Moe: Morrie (or Maury?) Roberts looks for the puck in one of his 1933 NHL starts, when he guarded the New York Americans’ goal in a 7-3 loss to Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. That’s Red Dutton on the left in New York stars and stripes, with an unidentified teammate on the ice nearby; number 4 is Allan Murray. For the Leafs, that’s Charlie Conacher (9) facing Busher Jackson with Buzz Boll (17) waiting by the net.

A glorious episode for the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night — unless, possibly, was it was the most embarrassing loss in the entire history of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Either way, Carolina’s 6-3 win over the faltering Leafs at Scotiabank Arena was a memorable night for 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver) David Ayres, who stepped in to make eight saves and earn the win after the Hurricanes lost netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.

Ayres’ achievement was roundly celebrated, and rightly so. In the giddy aftermath, some of the history surrounding emergency goaltenders in the NHL was trundled out, in TV studios and on social media. The league’s PR account was quick to proclaim Ayres’ debut as the most elderly in all the (regular-season) annals … before posting an update a few minutes later, recognizing Lester Patrick aged playoff appearance … before deleting the Patrick amendment.

On the embarrassment side of the ledger, there was mention, too, that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team in NHL history to lose to an EBUG — an emergency back-up goaltender.

Not so. Neither is Ayres the first emergency goaltender to win an NHL game, as has been reported.

While the acronym didn’t exist nine decades ago, the tendency for goaltenders to fall to injury goes back (of course) to the earliest days of the NHL. In those early years, of course, teams carried but a single goaltender. So when your mainstay took a puck to the face, say, as Lorne Chabot did in the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, while facing the Montreal Maroons the Stanley Cup Finals, quick decisions were called for.

In that case, when Chabot couldn’t continue, it was the aforementioned Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach and GM, who stepped into the breach. He’d previously subbed in on the Rangers’ defence, but this was his goaling debut in the NHL. He won it, 2-1, which meant that the Maroons lost.

But before that, Montreal lamented Maroons had already lost, previously, in the regular season, to an emergency goaltender.

And as compelling as David Ayres’ story may be, Moe Roberts’ may be more remarkable still.

Actually, I don’t know about that — just seeing now that in addition to being a Zamboni driver whose last competitive service was (per The Hockey News) “an eight-game stint with Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League where he allowed 58 goals with a .777 save percentage and a 0-8 record.” And, also, he’s a kidney transplant survivor.

Roberts’ is a pretty good chronicle all the same, starting with his 1925 journey (as rendered in the Boston Post) “from obscurity to the glare of the calcium in the short space of 28 minutes.”

Identified, generally, at the time we’re talking here as Maurice, he seems actually to have been born Morris— so maybe we’ll just go with Moe, the diminutive he’d go by later in life. One of the first Jewish players to skate in the NHL, he was about to turn 20 in December of 1925, a son of Waterbury, Connecticut, who’d attended high school in the Boston suburb of Somerville, played goal for the hockey team, the Highlanders. He’d worn the pads, too, during the 1924-25 season for the Boston Athletic Association, backing up Frenchy Lacroix, who’d later find himself stepping into the Montreal Canadiens net vacated by Georges Vézina.

NHL teams mostly carried just a single goaltender in those years, of course, though spares and back-ups did start to become more common toward the end of the decade. Wilf Cude would eventually be designated league back-up, available to any team that needed an emergency replacement, but that was still several years in the future, and wouldn’t really have helped in the Boston Arena this night in any case. Whether Roberts was on hand at the rink on Tuesday, December 8, or had to be summoned in a hurry — I don’t know. He seems to have been unaffiliated at this point — one contemporary account styles him as the Boston A.A.’s former “substitute and inactive goalie.”

Either way, the NHL’s two newest teams were playing that night, early on in their second campaign. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Maroons’ winger Babe Siebert collided with the Bruins’ goaltender, Charlie Stewart, who was also a dentist and so, inevitably, nicknamed Doc. Here’s the Boston Globe’s view of the matter:

Dr. Stewart in stopping a shot by Seibert [sic], was bumped by the latter as he raced in for the rebound. The two players went down in a pile. Dr. Stewart was unable to get up. After a long delay it was discovered that he had been so badly injured he would be out for the rest of the game and possibly for some time. Young Roberts was found and did yeoman work.

Montreal’s Gazette diagnosed Stewart’s trouble: “Doc Stewart was led off the ice with his left leg hanging limp. Later it became known that he had a bad cut, requiring several stitches ….”

Roberts got “a big hand” as he warmed up, the Gazette reported, “with all the Bruins firing testing shots at him.” The first hostile shot he faced was a long one from the stick of Maroons’ centre Reg Noble, and the stop “met with loud acclaim.”

There’s no record of how many shots Roberts faced in his period-and-a-bit of relief work — the Gazette has him “under bombardment” in the third — just that he deterred them all. Winger Jimmy Herberts scored for the Bruins, making Roberts a winner in his emergency debut.

His luck didn’t last. With Stewart unable to play, Roberts started Boston’s next game, three days later, in Pittsburgh, when the local Pirates overwhelmed him by a score of 5-3.

With Doc Stewart declaring himself ready to go for Boston’s next game, Roberts’ NHL career might have ended there and then. On the contrary, it still had a distance to go — across three more decades.

Moe Roberts eventually caught on with teams in the minor Can-Am Hockey League, guarding goals for Eagles in New Haven and Arrows in Philadelphia through the rest of the 1920s and into the ’30s. Towards the end of the 1931-32 NHL season, when the New York Americans were visiting Montreal, when regular goaltender Roy Worters fell ill, the Amerks borrowed the Maroons’ spare netminder, Dave Kerr, for their meeting with (and 6-1 loss to) the Canadiens.

Worters still wasn’t available two days later when the Amerks met their New York rivals, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden, so they called up 26-year-old Roberts from New Haven. Maury and also Morrie the papers were calling him by now, and he was brilliant, stepping into Worters’ skates. From the Brooklyn Times Union:

He filled them capably at all times, sensationally at some, bringing down volleys of applause from the assemblage during the play and receiving ovations when he came on the ice for the second and third periods.

The Americans won the game 5-1.

While Roberts didn’t see any more NHL action that season, he did return to the Americans’ net the following year, starting five games in relief after Roy Worters broke his hand, and recording his third career win.

That still wasn’t quite the end of Roberts’ NHL story. Flip forward to 1951. Five years had passed since Roberts had played in a competitive game, in the EAHL, and he was working, now, as an assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie for the Chicago Black Hawks.

When the Detroit Red Wings came to town that November, Harry Lumley took the Chicago net to face Terry Sawchuk down at the far end. Neither man had been born when Roberts played in that first NHL game of his in 1925. Now, 26 years later, he was about to take shots in his ninth (and finally final) big-league game.

Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe had put pucks past Lumley by the end of the second period; the score was 5-2 for the Red Wings. Suffering from a bruised left knee, the Black Hawks’ goaltender stayed put in the third, ceding his net to Moe Roberts. Chicago continued to lose right up until the end — but Roberts stopped every shot he faced.

More Moe: A fanciful ’52-53 Parkie for Moe Roberts in Chicago gear, created by (and courtesy of) collector Kingsley Walsh.

At 45, Roberts was making history, then and there, as the oldest player ever to have suited up for an NHL game, exceeding Lester Patrick’s record of having played for the New York Rangers in a famous 1928 playoff game in 1928. Roberts, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, remains the oldest man to have played goal in NHL history, ahead of Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley, though a couple of skaters have surpassed him since 1951: Chris Chelios played at 48 and Gordie Howe at 52.

training camp 1928: quoits and trout, jerks and pranks

Physical Jerks: The Leafs in Port Elgin, Ontartio, in October of 1928. That's Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR in command at the fore. First row, left to right: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Middle: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Gerry Lowrey, Art Smith. Back: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Alex Gray, Danny Cox.

Physical Jerks: The Leafs in Port Elgin, Ontartio, in October of 1928. That’s Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR in command at the fore. First row, left to right: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Middle: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Gerry Lowrey, Art Smith. Back: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Alex Gray, Danny Cox. (Photo: Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame)

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, on Saturday, September 27, 2014, on page S2.

In the famous photograph, the Leafs jig.

We can laugh, easy for us, but this is serious business, as it always is for Toronto’s hockey team this time of year, the season for the earnest, eternal calisthenics of trying to figure out how to get back into the playoffs. If that requires legendary Leafs with names like Day and Bailey to caper in full hockey garb when their skates and sticks are back home, a couple of hours away — who are we, really, to scorn that?

The year was 1928, and for the Leafs then it was the old story that’s still so familiar: in the spring, they’d missed the post-season again. In the year since Conn Smythe had become one of the team’s owners as well as manager and coach, they’d switched names (St. Patricks to Maple Leafs) and colours (green for blue). On the ice, injuries dogged the team’s season and despite a spirited March, the Leafs didn’t qualify to play for the Stanley Cup in April.

Smythe spent the summer retooling. That and running his sand and gravel business. On the non-aggregate side, he sent Butch Keeling to the New York Rangers for $10,000 and winger Alex Gray. To the defence he added Jack Arbour’s seasoned weight. He recruited junior stars Shorty Horne (a “clever and tricky” stickhandler) and tall Andy Blair, who reminded some of a young Hooley Smith.

Young Joe Primeau (“flashy centre ice man”) was tabbed for full-time duty. And just before the Leafs started jigging, Smythe traded goaltender John Ross Roach to the New York Americans, who sent back Lorne Chabot.

Returning veterans included Ace Bailey, Bill Carson, and the former University of Toronto pharmacy student who’d foregone a career as a druggist to captain the Leafs, Hap Day.

There was worry that August that he’d have to retire: in February, an errant skate had nearly severed his Achilles tendon. A heavy loss it would have been: Day was a dominant defenceman, and durable — Frank Selke said that because he didn’t smoke or drink or touch tea, coffee, or chocolate, he could play 60 minutes a game. He toiled hard over the summer, in the office at C. Smythe Limited by day, skating every evening at Ravina rink. By September, he was ready to go. Continue reading