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Binkley excited for Murray, Penguins

Former Pittsburgh goalie hopeful franchise can win fourth Stanley Cup championship

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Les Binkley, the first No. 1 goaltender in Pittsburgh Penguins history, has watched 22-year-old Matt Murray bring his team - and, yes, Binkley's team - to within one victory of the Stanley Cup.

There's something about Murray that has really caught the eye of Binkley, who on Monday celebrated his 82nd birthday at home in Hanover, Ontario, by watching the Penguins win Game 4 against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center:

"His number!" Binkley said with a laugh over the phone.

Of course, that would be No. 30, a classic goaltender's jersey and the only one Binkley wore during his 203-game NHL career, every one played for the Penguins.

If much of hockey has been surprised by the superb play of ice-water-veined Murray, Binkley had an inkling good things were coming from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

"Bink," as he's widely known, had an inside source in Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford, their friendship going back to the early 1970s when they made up the Penguins' goaltending tandem and were roommates on the road.

"Jimmy had told me before they brought Murray up (four games in December and nine more in March and April) that he was in the wings," Binkley said. "Jimmy was definitely going to bring him up, he just didn't know when.

"Funny thing about Jimmy, eh? At Christmastime, fans and media in Pittsburgh pretty much wanted his head. Now, he could be general manager of the year."

Penguins blood has coursed through Binkley since the beginning, the native of Owen Sound, Ontario, on the roster from day one. Look up "pay your dues" in the dictionary and there's a photo of "Bink," who wore 15 different jerseys from his junior debut in 1949 through his retirement from pro hockey in 1976.

And what a journey, one that famously included being scored upon twice by future motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel in a WHA penalty-shot promotion at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

To his credit, Binkley stopped two Knievel tries in the four-shot caper and, in a later promotion, denied a hot-shot 12-year-old whose eyes grew wide at the five-hole the goalie deliberately left open before slamming it shut.

"And I don't think to this day that Wayne Gretzky can believe he didn't score on that one," Binkley said.

In 1971 with the Penguins, he surrendered the 544th career goal by Chicago Blackhawks sniper Bobby Hull, which then briefly tied "The Golden Jet" with retired Montreal Canadiens icon Maurice Richard for second place on the NHL's list.

Three years earlier, Binkley had yielded the milestone 700th goal of Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe.

But the goalie's list of highlights more than balances his ledger:

He earned a remarkable six shutouts in 54 games for the 1967-68 expansion Penguins; he had a goals-against average of 3.12 through his 196 regular-season games, often playing in front of a screen-door defense; he shut out the Canadiens 4-0 on home ice on March 3, 1971, his last of 11 career shutouts, with 23 of Montreal's 33 shots that night coming off the sticks of future Hall of Fame members; and in 2003, he was inducted into the Penguins Hall of Fame.

In his 1969-70 playoff run, Binkley went 5-2 with a 2.10 GAA and a then-tremendous save percentage of .924 before a chronically, surgery-bound knee left him unable to play.

He was one of the first players in hockey to wear contact lenses, which he says buried him in the minors for 12 years before he got a shot at the big time. There are a few photos of him in his later seasons in Pittsburgh wearing a fiberglass mask with eye-black beneath the sockets.

"It wasn't a gag," he said. "That actually cut the glare of the TV lights."

During his time in the minors, Binkley was invited to join Cleveland of the AHL as its practice goalie and trainer, taking correspondence courses to learn how to stitch a player.

Players complained that their slumps were because of Binkley's poor skate-sharpening, so he'd put a match to the blades to warm them, without ever showing them to the grinding stone, then laugh at the praise he'd get when the player would score a few.

It seemed his time had finally come with NHL expansion. But shortly before the 1967-68 season, the Penguins, nervous that Binkley had arrived without a game of NHL experience, traded for veteran goalie Hank Bassen.

But Binkley soon took the reins and played a major role for Pittsburgh. At age 33, he was paid $12,500 for his rookie season, a $500 bonus offered if he won the Vezina Trophy, which back then was awarded to the team that allowed the fewest goals.

"On an expansion team?" he said with a laugh. "You'd be out of the running by Christmas."

The World Hockey Association came calling in 1972 and Binkley jumped to the Ottawa Nationals for $60,000, twice as much as what he was making in Pittsburgh. The Nationals relocated to become the Toronto Toros, for whom he saw spotty action for 2½ seasons before ending his career in 1975-76 with the Buffalo Norsemen of the North American League.

He and his wife, Eleanor, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in September, with their son, Randy, daughter, Leslie, and four grandchildren.

Binkley was last in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago for an autograph show, seeing his old friend Eddie Johnston while he was here.

Binkley expects to be in front of his TV through the end of the Stanley Cup Final, which he hopes will culminate with the Penguins hoisting the Stanley Cup.

"They have a good enough team to win it, but it's questionable," Binkley said before Game 4, unwilling to jinx the Penguins by saying the Cup is theirs. "It could go either way, whoever gets the breaks. Or scores the lucky goal."

Because in the mind of any self-respecting goaltender, there is no such thing as a good goal.

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