Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mostly Forgotten Goalies Who Were Cool

The position of goaltender is obviously the most unique in hockey. Not surprisingly, the most unique players have often been and still often are, goalies. As much as I love the sport, it's sadly true that I find the personalities of most pro hockey players painfully boring. But if there's a guy on the team who's favourite music is NOT country or bland rock, who is not necessarily into the outdoors, hunting, fishing and that kind of crap and who did NOT just marry the first girl who came around to instantly start a family, it's most likely the goalie. No, goalies aren't often the typical jock - usually they're the intellectuals of the game. They earn university degrees, taste wine, play chess. There are always exceptions to this, but we're talking about the rule here.

Ken Dryden is easily the most recognizable player of this calibre - nevermind he only played like nine years, won six Cups, the Vezina several times, the Calder Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy (which he did BEFORE he won the freaking Calder!!) - he did it all his way. Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows Dryden decided to take a year off from hockey right when he was emerging as a superstar, winning the Canadiens perhaps their most unlikely championship in 1971, to study law at Mcgill university, working as a clerk and making a fraction of what he could make in the NHL. The Habs had a rare seventies playoff miss with him gone then he returned and calmly won them a bunch more Cups. He also lent an intelligent and refreshing perspective to the famous 1972 Summit Series he played in against the Russians.

But Dryden is about as decorated as a player can possibly be - he'll never be overlooked or forgotten. So this is a tribute to those masked men who were not so famous, successful and perhaps memorable in the traditional definitions of the terms. Here's to the forgotten goalies who were cool. Keep in mind I said "cool" - that's my own definition. So maybe you think guys like Rogie Vachon or Mike Liut should be here. Nu uh.

5. Pelle Lindbergh (1980-1985)
Yes, he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender so he can't be THAT forgotten but I wanted to get a guy on here who'd accomplished that feat. And I feel that he is probably the most overlooked goalie to ever win the award, not counting guys from a million years ago. And, unlike Jim Carey - who more or less proved his Vezina year was a fluke - Lindbergh showed no signs he was a one-hit wonder. He just...died. Intoxicated, he drove his car into the side of a school and succumbed to his injuries the next day.

But in his short career he accomplished a lot. First holding his own against the best in the world (except for the Canadians) as an amateur in the 1980 Olympics. Then he tore it up in the AHL (winning league MVP) before being called up to the Flyers. He was just as good there, winning forty games in 84/85 to win the Vezina (first European goalie ever to do so) and winning twelve playoff games in a lengthy run. The next season he was poised to accomplish much the same if not even better until his tragic and untimely death.

I've always sort of thought of him as "the phantom goalie" because of his early death and that simple, white mask he always wore, sort of ghostly in appearance. He's still widely regarded as the best goaltender the country of Sweden ever produced.

4. Al Smith (1966-1981)
Where do I start with this guy? Well, like Lindbergh, he's dead but he died in 2002, well after his playing career was done. And what a career. He started as a Maple Leaf and in 66/67, their last Cup-winning season to date (sob), was one of five goalies to have played for them (one game). Because of an injury, he wound up in the backup role for the last 3 games of the finals. His name is not on the Cup. He wound up playing in the All Star game in '68 in a relief role, stopping 13 of 14 shots. That was it for the glory in his NHL career but lots more happened. He bounced from team to team, no stop being too memorable before joining the infamous WHA in 1972 where he was fairly successful, recording 3 straight 30 win seasons for the New England Whalers.

He returned to the NHL in 1976, playing for the Buffalo Sabres. His best known playing moment came in 1977 when he was scheduled to play a game, then was yanked at the last minute for a callup (Don Edwards). After the national anthem played, Smith stepped off the bench, saluted the team owners and returned to the dressing room. So I guess it wasn't a real "playing moment". He never played another game for Buffalo. He returned to the WHA and won the award for the league's top goaltender in 1978. He was traded to the NHL's Colorado Rockies for cash in 1980, where he finished his career.

But weird stuff kept happening. He worked all sorts of different jobs, selling cars, picking fruit and other stuff. But he wanted to be a writer. He took a job as a cab driver to support this and he worked on a play (about a goaltender attending an art show) and a novel. In 1998, he was awarded $34 000 from the NHLPA as a pension settlement and used it to produce his play, Confessions to Anne Sexton, in Toronto. Seventeen people came to see it in its first and only performance. Smith continued to write, unsuccessfully, up until his death at 56. People said he never had much talent as a writer but the guy never gave up.

3. Darren Pang (1984-1990)
Panger isn't exactly forgotten because he works as an analyst on TSN as well as commentator for the Phoenix Coyotes. But since his career was cut short (no pun intended) by injuries, I'm not too sure how many people really remember him as a player. Standing only 5'5, Pang is one of the smallest players to ever play in the NHL at any position. The running joke was that as a goalie, Pang had an additional spot to cover - the "six-hole" - right above his head. But he had a lot of promise and talent. You'd have to be good at stopping the puck if your body took up so little room in the net and he made it to the highest level - NHL starting goalie.

For his strong play with the Blackhawks, he was named to the NHL Rookie Team in 1988. He also owns a franchise record for assists (and obviously, points) in a season, recording six in 87/88. In reference to this record, he often says it was more because of the players he played with than anything he did but I've seen tape of him and he could handle the puck very well. And like infinitely more famous goalie, Glenn Hall (um, Mr. Goalie), Pang practiced the pregame ritual of puking up his guts.

A knee injury in 1990 ended what could have been a very interesting career. Current Rangers backup goalie, Steve Valiquette, names Pang as his favourite player growing up and wears the unique number 40 in his honour.

2. Gilles Gratton (1972-1977)
Grattoony the Loony. Oh, how I love this guy. The straight facts first: The native of Lasalle, Quebec was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres while playing for the Oshawa Generals in junior. He would get to the NHL and play for both the Rangers and the Blues but before that he played in the WHA for three seasons and that's where people first became aware of his bizarre personality. For one thing, many teammates and coaches suspected he actually hated the game of hockey as he would often fake illnesses and come up with strange excuses to miss a game or practice. At least once, Gratton refused to start a game because he claimed the moon was in the "wrong place in the sky" that night. He also had strange tendencies such as hanging out naked in the dressing room after practices and telling people that his somewhat famous mask design, which was based on the astrological sign, Leo, was actually a tiger. Opposing players have also been known to mention they'd heard him growling while tending net during games.

And that's not even the best stuff! No, what's really great is Gratton's well-known and outspoken belief in past lives. He claimed that he'd had many and he could remember most of them, some stretching far back in history. One nickname he had was The Count - when asked to explain that, Gratton said it comes from a past life of his wherein he was a Spanish count...a Spanish count who would often have commoners lined up and stoned to death. Sometimes he'd beg off from a game, claiming pain caused by an injury he'd sustained from a lance which ran him through in a battle during the Spanish Inquisition (this was not the same life as the Count, by the way). And here's something that caused some to wonder if he really had lived past lives: many teammates claim to have seen him play classical piano masterfully despite never haven taken a lesson in his life, at least not this one. Gratton often stated that he became a goalie as pennance for sins committed in his past lives, figuring being subjected to frozen pieces of rubber being blasted at him at 90 miles an hour on a nightly basis was fitting for someone who'd stoned people.

And he really did have some talent - he was an All Star in junior and posted respectable numbers in the WHA. His NHL numbers were less impressive but no one ever said he was lousy. He finished his hockey career after one season in the AHL at the tender age of twenty-four. There are no substantial reports concerning where he went after that. It's been rumoured he was a photographer in Europe. I tell ya, only a goalie could have been that weird.

1. Daren Puppa (1985-1999)
I guess this one might be a bit of a disappointment as a number one but what can I say? I like the guy. Another really talented goalie whose career was ended by injury, Puppa didn't go the Major Junior route that is traditional for most Canadians, instead playing two years of university hockey in the States (the NCAA). His pro career began in the AHL, playing for the Sabres' affiliate after they drafted him in '83. After bouncing between the AHL and NHL clubs for a few seasons, he was called up to be the Sabres' starting goalie for the 88/89 season. His numbers during that time weren't amazing but he proved himself as a capable NHL puckstopper. In 89/90, he was runner up to Patrick Roy for the Vezina after winning 31 starts.

Then in the 92/93 season, he was included in a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was almost a throw-in in the deal, really. With the emergence of rookie Felix Potvin as an elite goalie, the Leafs could afford to trade veteran Grant Fuhr and get a lot in return. This was the trade that brought them fifty goal man Dave Andreychuck who they immediately paired with Doug Gilmour. Puppa was now a backup. He started 8 games and won 6 of them but never saw any action during the Leafs' somewhat magical playoff run that year. It was all Potvin.

Some new teams came into the league that year so in 1993 there was an expansion draft and Puppa was picked up by the brand new Tampa Bay Lightning. Here's where he really established himself. As the starter for some very weak teams (how would you like to have Chris Gratton as your leading scorer?) he kept them respectable, while playing a very entertaining style in goal that reminds me of, of all people, Felix Potvin. He wore the very unique number 93 (obviously not with the Leafs though) and I think it fit his somewhat flashy style. In 95/96, posting a 2.46 goals against average in 57 games, he was the Lightning player most responsible for their first ever appearance in the playoffs, where they lost to the Flyers.

Unfortunately, chronic back problems would limit Puppa to only 50 games over the next four seasons and he was eventually forced to retire in 1999. He wasn't a wacko as far as I know, and I guess his accomplishments weren't amazing, but I've always thought he was cool. I've never been into hockey cards but I have his rookie card and it's one of my very favourites.


Shane said...

Despite being legally retarded when it comes to hockey, I've always thought goalies are the most interesting among the players. And I based that on simply nothing, just a gut instinct, and from what I just read in this list, I guess it's true.

This was really interesting stuff and the facts about Gilles Gratton blow me away. This guy needs a movie about him.

Also, best f'in goalie mask, ever.

Cole D'Arc said...

A coolest goalie mask list is in the works, but i'd like to do a different one first before jumping back into hockey.

RyHo said...

Yeah, Gilles Gratton was definitely a highlight of that one, haha. That was awesome. Now that'd be a great movie. Gilles Gratton lives his day-to-day penance on the ice, but at night battles demons and saves the maidens fair!

As always your knowledge of this sport scares me.

Anonymous said...

Puppa started wearing Number 93 in Tampa because that was the year he became a starting goalie again, I remember reading that in the paper or somewhere a long time ago.