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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Georges Vezina: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Ironman for Canadiens had goaltending trophy named after him

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

The name Vezina is known to every NHL fan, thanks to the trophy annually awarded to the League's top goaltender. But what about the man for whom the prize is named?

"He is probably the least known member of the Hockey Hall of Fame," Jack Falla wrote in his book "Open Ice," "a man whose career is shrouded by the passage of time, the accidental destruction of archival records and Vezina's habitual silence."

 

Video: Georges Vezina was ironman goalie for the Canadiens

 

Georges Vezina was the first NHL player to have a trophy named for him, and it is a sad memorial. Like his team, the Montreal Canadiens, Vezina's career began before the NHL's formation. From Dec. 31, 1910, when he skated onto the ice at Westmount Arena, until Nov. 28, 1925, when he collapsed in the crease, blood seeping from his mouth, early in the second period at Mount Royal Arena, suffering from the tuberculosis that would take his life four months later, no one else defended the Canadiens goal.

He played 328 consecutive regular-season games and 39 straight postseason games for the Canadiens, a stoic presence who performed in an almost nonchalant manner. As one hockey writer of the day put it, "He has a calmness not of this world."

Author Andy O'Brien, who watched the Canadiens for over seven decades, recalled in his book "Fire-Wagon Hockey" seeing Vezina play against the Toronto St. Pats and their star winger, Walter "Babe" Dye, a frequent 30-goal man who would lead the NHL in that 1924-25 season with 38. "Babe Dye, owner of a shot, the violence of which wasn't duplicated until Bobby Hull came on the scene 33 years later, got a breakaway down the centre alley," O'Brien wrote. "Vezina remained upright as a statue. At about 30 feet out, Dye leaned on one; only Vezina's left arm moved as he picked off the puck with almost disdainful ease."

 

GEORGES VEZINA CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 190 | Wins: 103 | Losses: 81 | Ties: 5 | GAA: 3.28

 

And that was Vezina, the native of Chicoutimi, Quebec, who was unflappable, so cool under fire that newspapers called him the "Chicoutimi Cucumber."

"He was the coolest man I ever saw, absolutely imperturbable," Frank Boucher, the great Rangers captain and Hall of Famer, wrote in his autobiography, "When the Rangers Were Young." "He stood upright in the net and scarcely ever left his feet; he simply played all his shots in a standing position."

He was more than just cool. He was also pretty hot. He followed his seven strong National Hockey Association seasons with more greatness during the NHL's founding years. In his eight NHL seasons, Vezina had the league's best goals-against average three times and the second best three times.

Furthermore, he helped lead the Canadiens to two Stanley Cup championships -- one when they were still part of the NHA -- and took them to the Cup Final three other times.

Numbers aside, it's difficult to distill fact from fiction when examining Vezina's life away from the rink. Some wrote he stood 6 feet tall; he was actually six inches shorter. Leo Dandurand, who became the Canadiens owner in 1921, spun hyperbolic yarns about his goaltender to interest the newspapers, and some of those myths remain in circulation today. For example, Dandurand claimed Vezina spoke no English and had "22 children, including three sets of triplets, and they were all born in the space of nine years." But he had only two children. And he spoke some English -- when he spoke at all.

His taciturn nature allowed the fables to endure and gave birth to another nickname, "l'Habitant silencieux," the Silent Habitant. Boucher remembered him as "a pale, narrow-featured fellow, almost frail-looking." He'd lean on his stick impassively when play was at the other end. In many photos, he betrays the faintest hint of a Mona Lisa "I've got a secret" smile. And Vezina had large eyes, which, combined with his quietude, earned him yet another nickname, "le Chevreuil," or the Deer. Yet he wasn't aloof from his teammates, who respected him greatly, and he gladly joined them in numerous victory celebrations.

His reserve also hid the fact that he was a rather deep thinker, a homespun philosopher who wrote lengthy essays on all manner of subjects. In Bill Roche's "The Hockey Book," an excerpt of one Vezina essay ponders the crucial role sports play in society due to their quality of "fair play," which Vezina identified as a particularly British notion that he admired. Vezina wrote, "Quebec and its English-speaking sister provinces cannot have too many sports flags flying, because those flags always teach respect for rules and adversaries."

Pretty good for someone who left school at age 14.

Practicing what he preached, Vezina had a respect for the rules that impressed referee Cooper Smeaton, who told The Ottawa Tribune, "If there was any argument over a goal around his net, then ask Georges. If it was a goal, Georges would say 'Yes.' If it was not a goal, he would say 'No.' Whatever he said, you knew that It was straight."

When Boucher was a rookie with Ottawa in 1921-22, Vezina was 35 and playing better than ever. "He always wore a toque (a brimless hat) in Montreal colors - bleu, blanc et rouge," Boucher wrote, adding Vezina was "remarkably good with his stick. He'd pick off more shots with it than he did with his glove," probably a good thing since the gloves he wore offered the same slight padding as those worn by skaters.

Skilled at deflecting pucks into the crowd to slow the opposition's momentum, he had an upright style of playing shooters that was a holdover from the game's original rules, which prohibited goalies from deliberately dropping to the ice to stop shots. Some goalies became adept at "accidentally" falling while making saves to avoid punishment, but not Vezina, the enthusiast for rules and fair play. He insisted on playing his position with integrity. The rule changed when the NHL began, but Vezina never changed his style, and his average dropped along with the rest.

The youngest son and fifth of eight children, Vezina was born Jan. 21, 1887, to French immigrants who operated a successful bakery on Chicoutimi's main street. Vezina quit school to work in the bakery, but still spent every free moment of the long winters playing hockey on narrow, snow-covered roads.

Wearing winter boots instead of skates, Vezina and his pals used sticks that fell from trees and blocks of wood for pucks. Their goal posts were pieces of firewood placed upright.

Young Georges became quicker, more agile, better with his stick than the rest. He made the saves and developed into the best goalie in town. At 16 he joined le Club de Hockey Chicoutimi, one of three men's teams that competed annually for la Coupe Saguenay, the city championship. Rare photos of Vezina's 1908 Chicoutimi club with the Saguenay Cup show how good it was, at least that season. The team outfitted Vezina with his first pair of skates, although by some accounts the skates bothered him so much that he'd occasionally discard them and return to the game wearing boots.

In February 1910, a Montreal professional team from the relatively new National Hockey Association, les Canadiens, traveled north to play an exhibition game against the Chicoutimi club before at least 800 locals who packed the city's lone indoor rink. Legend has it that the 23-year-old Vezina shut out the big-city pros, but further research has shown that Chicoutimi led 7-1 at halftime and 11-5 at the end, with Vezina the game's top star.

Before departing for Montreal, Canadiens goalie and coach Joe Cattarinich offered Vezina his job tending goal. Cattarinich was more interested in coaching and managing and recognized that Vezina would be an excellent upgrade. Vezina either rebuffed Cattarinich's initial offer or needed more time to consider it.

Prior to the following season, the Canadiens - recently bought by George Kennedy -- renewed their offer, and this time the 23-year-old Vezina accepted. His older brother Pierre, a teammate in Chicoutimi, traveled with him to Montreal, invited to try out. Pierre didn't make the club, but Georges did, shaking hands with Kennedy to play that season for $800. Vezina would never sign a contract; a gentlemen's agreement was enough.

He led the NHA in GAA in his first two seasons, even though the Canadiens were no better than a .500 club. Taking on Portland for the Stanley Cup in 1916, the Canadiens defeated the Rosebuds in five games. "Much of the Canadiens' first Stanley Cup victory could be attributed to goalkeeper George Vezina," Henry Roxborough wrote in his book "The Stanley Cup Story." The 29-year-old goalie surrendered 13 goals for a 2.60 average, well below a typical number of the time.

The night of the Cup-winning game, Georges' wife, Marie, supposedly gave birth to the couple's second child. "I'm going to name him Stanley," the goalie reportedly told Kennedy. "Marcel Stanley Vezina will be his name." Recent research has shown, however, that the boy was actually born the day after the Canadiens' Cup victory and that his given name was Joseph Louis Marcel Vezina -- but everyone called him "Stanley" nonetheless, perhaps because famous photos later appeared of the baby sitting in the Cup.

Vezina helped the Canadiens reach the Final again in 1917. The NHL was born the next season, and Vezina led all goalies in wins (12) and average (3.93). He also recorded the NHL's first shutout on Feb. 18, 1918.

The next season, he led the Canadiens back to the Cup Final against the Seattle Metropolitans. They had played five games when the series, being played in Seattle and tied 2-2-1, was canceled because of the flu pandemic that struck seven of the Canadiens and Kennedy. On April 5, 1919, four days after the cancellation, Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall died. Kennedy, who never fully recovered, died in 1921.

At age 36 in the 1922-23 season, Vezina cut his average by more than a goal a game from the previous season, to 2.46, leading the Canadiens into the playoffs against the powerful Ottawa Senators. In a two-game, total-goals series so vicious that Dandurand would suspend two of his own players, the Senators prevailed on a late Game 2 goal, firing 65 shots at Vezina (some reports said 79). He stopped all but the one.

In 1923-24, Vezina established an NHL record with a 1.97 GAA and the Canadiens beat the Senators for the NHL championship before recapturing the Cup by defeating the Vancouver Maroons and the Calgary Tigers. In their four Stanley Cup Playoff games out west, Vezina allowed four goals, with a shutout in the Cup-clinching game.

He followed that up the next season, at 38, with an extraordinary average of 1.81.

But Vezina reported to team in the fall of 1925 looking thin and pale. While he brushed off all inquiries about his health, he could not hide his discomfort on opening night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he struggled to play with a high fever. Until he collapsed, true to his restrained nature, he'd alerted no one about his illness.

Following a doctor's diagnosis, Vezina returned to Chicoutimi to live out his final days. He would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945.

In 1927, Canadiens ownership - Dandurand, Cattarinich and Louis Letourneau -- donated the Georges Vezina Memorial Trophy in his honor. In that twinkling galaxy of silver NHL trophies, it is perhaps the most immediately symbolic, an open-walled church of hockey with a miniature goal as its altar. Above that rises a steeple topped off by a puck on its edge, with a beaver perched on the puck. Below, in bas-relief, are crossed goal sticks encircled by a wreath. Further down, affixed to the wooden base, is an engraved picture of Vezina, wearing his toque and his best Mona Lisa smile.

If the donors' intention was to create something that would perpetuate the great goalie's name long after his death on March 27, 1926, they succeeded.

 

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