The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.
Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.
Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.
Bill Barilko still hadn’t disappeared on April 21, 1951, and there was no mourning for his memory, yet, just as there were no songs about him and (for a few more hours at least) no famous photographs of him falling to ice as he scored the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs their seventh Stanley Cup.
They were close-fought, those Finals, that year: “five consecutive sudden-death overtime heart buster” is how The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond wrote it. This last one, the Leafs’ Tod Sloan tied the score at twos with 32 seconds remaining in the third period, goaltender Al Rollins on the bench.
Barilko’s goal came at 2.53 of overtime. You can hear Foster Hewitt’s frantic call at CBC’s Digital Archives, here. James Marsh, founding editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia, attended the game as a seven-year-old, deciding early on, before the goal, that Barilko was going to be his favourite player — I’d read about that, if I were you, here.
As for the songs, I’ll leave you to spin, repeatedly, The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” at your leisure — but have a listen, too, to “The Bill Barilko Song” by (NDP MP) Charlie Angus and The Grievous Angels. You’ll find it here.
As for the photographs, the best-known is the Turofsky, snapped (most likely by Nat rather than Lou) from behind, with the puck already in the net though Barilko is still falling. “It’s a flawless image, of course,” Andrew Podnieks writes in Portraits of the Game (1997), his fond celebration of the Turofskys’ rich hockey archive, though I have to say I prefer the view from the front, as caught by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns from the opposite side. (At first glance, I thought that must be one or other of the Turofskys in the corner, but of course it can’t be, the sightline isn’t right.) I like the handsome hopeful look on Barilko’s face that I’m glad to see in the Burns. In the Turofsky, as Podnieks notes, none of the spectators has realized yet that it’s a goal. They’re still in a time before the Leafs have won.
Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil knows, though, I think, even though he’s got his eyes closed.
This is another Burns, below, I’m assuming. It shows the moment of Barilko’s arising from the ice, just before he’s mobbed by teammates.
Danny Lewicki was a 19-year-old rookie for the Leafs that year. He recalls the aftermath in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks to the NHL: A Hockey Life:
The roar of the crowd was deafening. I have never heard, nor probably will ever hear such pandemonium. What an unbelievable series! …
The next hour was a blur. We skated around the ice in glee. We posed for pictures. I hugged so many people and shook so many hands that I was sore. But I felt no pain. We went into the dressing room to change into civies [sic] and the Stanley Cup was carried by Ted Kennedy into the Maple Leafs’ dressing room. They brought the Cup in and then they just whisked it out. I didn’t even get the chance to touch it.
Kevin Shea later collected Gerry McNeil’s unhappy view of things for Barilko: Without A Trace (2004). “It’s been my claim to fame,” the old goalie said before his death in 2004. “I still get a lot of mail from that goal — people asking me to autograph their picture of the Barilko goal.”
It wasn’t a hard shot, he said.
“I just simply missed it. You have a sense on most goals of the puck coming and you get ready, but on this one, I don’t know what happened. I had to look at pictures after. It surprised me — I don’t know how the puck got in. At the time, I didn’t even know who shot it — I never knew who scored most of the goals that were scored against me. But there was Barilko. He was right at the face-off circle.”
“It was just a shocker. It was an awful disappointment.”
Is it possible to mention Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil, who was born in Quebec City on this day in 1926, and not allude to the goal that Bill Barilko scored on him to win the Leafs the 1951 Stanley Cup? Maybe, but I don’t know that anyone has really tried too hard. McNeil did win a Cup for himself, in 1953. At the Canadiens’ website, they call him stingiest and 5-foot-7. “Too small,” they say, “to cover much of the net if he remained in his crease, McNeil compensated with geometry and reflexes.”
Kids liked to draw him. I wish I could tell you the name of the artist whose work this is, above, but I can only guess at the signature. Colin Caslow? Corbo Cartat? Whoever he was, the kid, his scrapbook from the later 1940s came to me, which is how I know that the players he didn’t sketch for his cover include Teeder Kennedy and Max Bentley, Harry Watson, Turk Broda, Bill Ezinicki. I can’t tell you why. What was it about Ray Timgren, just 20 in 1948, rawly rookie-ing his way into a team on a run of winning three Stanley Cups in a row?
He looks troubled. It could be that he wasn’t at all, what happened might have been that when Corbo was drawing him, lying on his front on the rug by the fireplace, biting his tongue in concentration, doing his best with his pencils to render a Timgren that was as Timgrenesque as possible — well, expressions on faces are hard to draw, and sometimes no matter how carefully you work a guy with no worries skating around pushing a puck with nothing in particular on his mind ends up looking like someone who’s been told that children are disappointed in him for a whole bunch of different reasons, as a result of which their mothers have been writing to Conn Smythe to complain.
Turofskys liked to take his photo. That is, as a Leaf during the years that brothers Lou and Nat Turofsky were busy pointing their cameras at the team, he’s well represented in The Hockey Hall’s Digital Archives. There’s a good one of him and his teammates admiring radios at the Barilko Bros. Appliance Store, Bashin’ Bill’s there himself, and Turk Broda and Fleming Mackell, too.
Overall, in photos, Timgren looks smallish, sunny, not-troubled. If you had to guess, you’d say his intentions were good. On the ice he cruises in front of the Boston net, or fights for a place by Montreal’s Gerry McNeil. His number was 22. In the photo where he’s holding a telephone to Tim Horton’s ear, his hair does have the shine of treasure. There’s one where he’s laughing about Joe Klukay’s haircut; in another he’s pretending to tape a stick for a fascinated audience.
At Sid Smith’s wedding he poses happily with the groom and Howie Meeker and several miscellaneous buddies. There’s one where he’s drinking pop from a bottle in the dressing room and Broda and Bentley and Cal Gardner are there with him, you can see their street-clothes hanging on hooks in the background, possibly they’ve just won a Stanley Cup, could be, but I think it’s fair to say, without prejudice, that Timgren’s is the fourth-best smile in the bunch.
Posed in a classic tripod stance for his Beehive photo, he looks as serious as you’re going to see him, as though having his photo taken for the St. Lawrence Starch Company is the most serious business in Southern Ontario. A few more clicks, though, and he brightens right up.
I wonder if this is the photo that young Corbo was looking at when he did his drawing. I think probably it is. The expression is thoughtful with a hint of optimism — he looks like he knows where he’s going with that puck. Other than the ice, I prefer the folkloric style of Corbo’s drawing to the shadowy realism of the photo. The maple-sugar ice is hard is pretty great, though.
The potted Timgren biography that’s posted at the Hall of Fame’s catalogue of players wouldn’t on its own send you rushing out to draw him for the cover of your scrapbook. Reliable is one of the adjectives he inspires there, along with solid and defensive and (his offensive talent) decent.
Later, I guess, when he was a public school vice-principal in Toronto, he liked to say, “Do it now!” According to Wikipedia, anyway.
Flashy comes up, adjectivally, when you’re reading in old newspapers about Timgren in his day. Sometimes, too, you see the phrases top line performer all the way and left-wing shotmaker and known more for his back-checking than scoring.
He won two Stanley Cups with the Leafs. In 1949-50, his best scoring year, he had 25 points playing on a line with Joe Klukay and Max Bentley, The Three Feathers Line was its nickname, because they none of them weighed more than 155 pounds, except for Klukay, who did. The following season, when the fall came, Danny Lewicki filled in for Bentley, who was back home in Delisle, Saskatchewan, harvesting his wheat crop for most of training camp.
In 1949, the year Timgren got his start in the NHL, the sportswriters voted Pentti Lund from the New York Rangers as the league’s top rookie. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe couldn’t believe it; he said he wouldn’t trade Timgren for 17 Lunds. True to his word, he never did, though in 1954 he did send him to Chicago for a single Jack Price. Timgren went back to the Leafs, later, but not for long. He was out of the league at 26.
(Parkie courtesy of hockeymedia at flickr.com)
He was 36 that June when he decided he needed a break from defending a hockey net. He’d seen enough pucks go by him, felt too many of the ones that didn’t. His face was scarred, his body bruised. He was tired of the travel. He told his team’s general manager that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
No, not Boston goaltender Tim Thomas, though he did decide much the same thing in the last few days. This was Jacques Plante, in 1965, a New York Ranger by that point. Here’s The New York Times, the day after Plante gave Rangers’ GM Emile Francis the news:
Throughout his career, Plante has suffered real and imagined injuries. He had asthma attacks, many of them in Toronto (he insisted he was allergic to the city) that he freely admitted were psychosomatic. Last season, he was hobbled with leg injuries. He recently underwent surgery on his right knee in New York.
Said a Rangers spokesman: “Jacques is a funny guy. He could turn around and change his mind. Emile hopes he does.” Continue reading