Never mind the NHL’s ongoing historical confusion: the consensus remains that it was Boston coach Art Ross who was first to pull the proverbial goalie in an NHL game. Ever the innovator, Ross was, of course, trying to outman the opposition and tie up a game his team was losing. Tiny Thompson was the ’tender in question on that inaugural essay; leaping to the ice in his stead was Red Beattie. This was in 1931, in a Stanley Cup semi-final, and for the Bruins, a vain effort: Montreal held their lead and won the game, 1-0.
Now that we’ve got that all cleared up (again), a few further findings from the last several weeks to expand the pulled-goalies file.
• Windsor Star columnist and hockey biographer and historian Bob Duff has reset the chronology on the first empty-net goal to have been scored on a team with its goalie gone. Previously, Clint Smith of the Chicago Black Hawks was the man widely acknowledged first to have hit a vacant net, on November 11, 1943, in a 6-4 victory over Ross’ Bruins. That’s what the Fame-Hall of Hockey reports in their Smith biography, and it’s in several authoritative books, too, like Kings of the Ice: A History of World Hockey (2002) by Andrew Podnieks, Dmitri Ryzkov, et al. The Hall alludes to a change in league rules at that time, allowing goalie-yanking, but that’s not right: there was never any legislation like that before or after Tiny Thompson’s 1931 departure. Kings of the Ice is mistaken, too, when it says that the practice was seldom used until the 1950s.
In fact, coaches whose teams were in need of a late goal didn’t seem to hesitate to try it all through the 1930s, especially if their names were Ross and/or Lester Patrick. Which, when you think about it, makes 12 years look like a long, long time for all those professional hockey players to be not scoring when they had all those unguarded net to shoot at.
That’s why Bob Duff’s finding makes much better sense. As he pointed out to members of the Society for International Hockey Research this past week, it’s time we adjusted the date of the NHL’s first empty-net goal to January 12, 1932. New York Rangers were in Boston that night, so some of the protagonists remained from the Montreal game nine months earlier. It’s worth noting that after three periods, tied 3-3, the teams played on into unsudden, non-lethal overtime — i.e. the teams played a full ten-minute period with all the goals counted. It wasn’t long before Ranger right winger Cecil Dillon took a pass from Murray Murdoch and beat the Bruins’ Tiny Thompson. A little later, when Ross called Thompson to the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Dillon — but let the AP reporter tell how it was, as he did, in the next day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Cecil pulled the rubber out of a pack near his goal, and after beating every Bruin, belted home the final score with no opposition.
Sorry, Clint Smith.
• As it turns out, Cecil Dillon found a way to emphasize his 1932 empty-net achievement. By coincidence — I guess it could also have been fated — either way, exactly a year later, he did it again. This time around, January 12, 1933, the Rangers hosted the Bruins at Madison Square Garden. With the Bruins down by a goal with two minutes left in the third period, Art Ross once again summoned Tiny Thompson to the bench. A Ranger shot hit the Boston post, followed closely by a Ranger defenceman, Ott Heller, who then had to be carried off with a suspected leg injury. The Daily Boston Globe:
From the next face-off Dillon let fly from the middle of the center zone and scored a bull’s-eye on the vacant net. It came with 26 seconds to go.
• The first empty-net goal scored in a rink where Ross, Thompson and the rest of the Bruins were not present seems to have been one that Aurele Joliat put away nine days after that inaugural Dillon effort in 1932. Toronto’s Leafs were in Montreal for this one, trailing the Canadiens 1-2 when Lorne Chabot departed the crease. The AP report in Boston’s Globe:
Toronto, always dangerous, was confident that it could score with six forwards, but Joliat hook-checked the puck away from Red Horner and scored the last goal and Howie Morenz almost repeated before the bell.
• In case anyone’s asking: the first goalie to be pulled at Maple Leaf Gardens was Montreal’s Wilf Cude by coach Sylvio Mantha on February 20, 1936. No goal ensued: Toronto won the game 2-1. Andy Lytle from the hometown Daily Star termed it a “showmanship stunt.”
• Six forwards: that does seem to have been the norm in those days. Today a coach might be content to leave his defenceman in place while adding a further forward but in the 1930s, more often than not, teams appear to have been going for offensive broke.
Which was why Bullet Joe Simpson, for one, didn’t like it. Famous in his own playing days, he was the coach of the New York Americans by the time Cecil Dillon scored his anniversary empty-netter in early 1933. “I don’t believe taking your goalie off is a good thing,” he confided. It was “freak hockey and unsound;” Boston, he felt, deserved what it got. He wasn’t done, either:
Six men are too many to have around the enemy nets. They are sure to get in one another’s way, because there isn’t room enough for them to deploy. And if they should shoot a goal, it’s apt to be called back for interference — somebody between the man with the puck and the goalie.
• What about the other end of the ice? Surprising how little has been written about the success stories. The reason you pull your goalie, if you’re Art Ross or anyone else, is to use that extra manpower to score that all-important tying goal. So who was the first to do that? The NHL.com’s paltry historical miscellany has nothing on that, and nor does the Hockey Hall of Fame, or any of the stand-by reference books. At least, if they do, not anywhere that I’ve been able to fathom.
It did take a long time for that first goal to go in, as it turns out. Years and years. In today’s NHL, pulling the goalie has developed into a strategy that yields a good return. It’s worth doing; it often works. That’s what the modern numbers tell us, along with the charts on the websites where they’re crunched and glossed, and the studies who’ve made it their business to study the stats.
I don’t know how often, exactly, goalies were leaving their nets in hope and desperation in the 1930s because I haven’t done the sifting you’d have to do to figure that all the way out. I can say, anecdotally, that Tiny Thompson was a fairly frequent fleer, in Boston and then later when Jack Adams was calling him to the bench in Detroit. Dave Kerr of the Rangers was another regular, as Lester Patrick’s goaltender with the Rangers. Alec Connell was yanked, in Ottawa. In Montreal, I haven’t myself seen an instance of Flat Walsh leaving the Maroon net, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. George Hainsworth, of the Canadiens, definitely did. Given Bullet Joe Simpson’s feelings, it’s possible that he left Shrimp Worters where he was throughout the Shrimp’s Americans career.
So: lots of goalies leaving many nets. And yet the first time the tactic paid off seems to have been in … 1937, five-and-a-half seasons after Art Ross first gave it a go. The newspapers noted the achievement, if only in passing: there was no great huzzah.
It seems only fitting that Ross was the one who finally got it right. Tiny Thompson was still in (and out of) the Bruins’ net. Also of note: five players who were on the ice that first time in 1931 (Boston was shorthanded at the time), four were in the 1937 game wearing Boston colours — Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, and Dit Clapper — while the fifth, Art Chapman, was playing for the visiting New York Americans.
He scored the game’s opening goal in the second period. By the time that was over, the Americans had built up a 4-0 advantage. Boston didn’t look good, as even the hometown Daily Boston Globe was forced to concede:
Lorne Chabot could have held the New York citadel inviolate with an eclair in either hand.
The Amerks were leading 5-1 and 6-4 in the third before Clapper made it 6-5 on a pass from Weiland.
Twenty-five seconds remained when Ross called in Thompson. (The Associated Press says 30. Not sure how much I trust the AP account, though, given that it also contains this sentence: “It was probably one of the most weird games in the Boston’s hockey history.”) Boston defenceman Flash Hollett followed his goaltender to the bench to let a forward go on and so (just like in 1931) the Bruins only had five players on the ice and no numerical advantage when Hooley Smith scored the goal that tied the game and made the history that eventually got mislaid.
The teams played a ten-minute overtime without any more goals. Neither goaltender, said the Globe, had to make a difficult save. Right until the end, both of them stayed in their nets.
• So that’s that. Except for — well, no, not quite.
About an hour after I’d tracked down the 1937 Hooley Smith goal, complete with contemporary confirmation that it was unprecedented, I came across a 1933 game in which Eddie Shore scored a goal to tie up the Chicago Black Hawks while (do you even have to ask?) Tiny Thompson was on the bench. So that would be the first time a goalie pulled resulted in a goal scored, no?
Yes. I think so. It’s not an entirely straightforward case, though. Continue reading