Denis Herron was five when his father bought him goalie gear and made him a promise: you’re going to be good. This was 1957, when nobody was wearing a mask, not even Jacques Plante. Herron’s brother and his dad did what you do when you’ve got a padded-up goalie standing before you in the net: they shot pucks at him. “The second day they knocked out my eight front teeth,” Herron later recalled. “I didn’t want to play any more, but my dad said, I just paid all this money for equipment, you can’t stop now. They were just baby teeth, and new ones grew in. But I lost them too playing hockey. Masks came too late to save them.”
Born in Chambly, in Quebec, in 1952 on a Wednesday of this very date, Herron turns 68 today. He made his NHL debut in 1972 at the age of 20 when he turned out for Pittsburgh. He was masked by then, though not all the Penguin goalers were that year: along with Jim Rutherford and Cam Newton, Herron shared the net that year with Andy Brown, the last of the league’s maskless men.
Herron’s mask that year wasn’t the one depicted here, in a rendering by artist Michael Cutler. While he seems to sported several in those early Pennsylvanian years, the one that he seems to have favoured featured … well, possibly was the design he wore high on his forehead meant to suggest the profile of Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena? One New York sportswriter seems to have taken it for “a yarmulke-like cap.”
It was when he was traded to the Kansas City Scouts in 1975 that the maskmaker Greg Harrison painted the chevrons seen above on Herron’s mask. He kept them when, after two seasons, he returned to Pittsburgh. Another trade took him to Montreal, where he kept the Canadiens’ net for three seasons wearing a red-and-blue variation on the chevron’d mask. In 1980-81, he shared a Vézina Trophy with Montreal teammates Michel Larocque and Richard Sevigny. He and Rick Wamsley won a Jennings Trophy the following season for allowing the fewest goals against. Denis Herron played his final four NHL seasons back in Pittsburgh before retiring in 1986.
(Top image from Great Hockey Masks, Michael Cutler’s 1983 collection of hockey-mask art)
Montreal’s dismal season ends on Saturday, when they play in Toronto, just before the playoffs get going, Canadiens-free. As a gloomy season wraps up, the stories in the city’s sports pages are structured around phrases like “a boring — and losing — brand of hockey” and “empty seats at the Bell Centre.” Asked at practice in Brossard what he’d like to tell fans, coach Claude Julien said he’d have to go with “thank you.” The Gazette’s Stu Cowan was on hand for this, and if it sounds like Julien was in fact trying to say “sorry,” no, apparently not — he was just grateful fans didn’t jeer more than they did this season. “There’s no doubt,” he said, “we got booed a couple of times because we weren’t a good hockey club. But I think they’ve actually been pretty patient to come to the games and cheer us on. I think they’ve recognized a solid effort as far as guys working hard and competing hard and realizing that right now we’re not good enough and that’s why we’re not in the playoffs.”
On the brighter side, Carey Price is back in the net, and seems to be healthy. On Tuesday night, he was celebrated for his Montreal longevity: the Canadiens’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets saw him play in his 557th NHL regular-season game. With that, he surpassed Jacques Plante as the man who’s minded Montreal’s nets most since the league got going in 1917.
It’s no small achievement, even if Plante does (as should be noted) remain atop the statistical heap if you factor in playoff games: he played 90 of those for Canadiens, for a total of 646 games played, while Price’s 60 playoff games get him to 617.
Canadiens have looked to 83 men to guard their nets, all told, though a few — like Charlie Sands, Battleship Leduc, and Sprague Cleghorn — were skaters subbing in on a strictly emergency basis.
In terms of successes, Plante and Ken Dryden would have to top the pantheon, having each helped the team to six Stanley Cups. Plante is the winningest of Montreal goaltenders, (314 regular season + 59 in the playoffs = 373), followed by Patrick Roy (289 + 70 = 359) and Dryden (258 + 80 = 338), then Price (286 + 25 = 311). Among bona fide goalies, Price also rates fourth in scoring — his 12 all-time assists have him trailing Roy (32 points, season and playoffs), Dryden (23), and Michel Larocque (17).
Straying from statistics, I might just mention that I happened to be talking to Dryden in Toronto earlier this season. Two of his young grandsons are hockey players, goaltenders both. I asked their Hall-of-Fame, Calder-and-Conn-Smythe-winning, many-Vézina’d grandfather what numbers they wear, assuming there could be just one answer, 29.
I was wrong: for Ken Dryden’s grandsons, Carey Price is the incumbent in their imaginations, and it’s his 31 that both boys show on their sweaters.
(Image by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.davemurrayillustration.com)