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Pang pays homage to Les Binkley

by John McGourty / NHL.com

Pens' goalie Les Binkley played for five seasons in the AHL before being brought up in the 1967-68 NHL expansion.
Peter Mueller, the bright young Phoenix Coyotes rookie, picked up a puck in neutral ice and burst into the San Jose Sharks' offensive zone during a regular season game. Having suffered a couple lopsided losses earlier in the season to their Pacific Division rivals, the Coyotes were nursing a 4-3 lead when Mueller cranked up his slap shot.

Then something odd happened. Mueller double-clutched, hesitated and then fired the slap shot. If he was 50 feet out when he first went to shoot, Mueller closed maybe 30 feet before firing hard into Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov's pads. The great San Jose goalie looked like he was going to be knocked over, his spine arched backward, shoulders and head leaning defensively to the left.

Nabokov was sufficiently stunned and off-balance that Shane Doan, Mueller's captain, picked up the rebound and fired it into the San Jose net for the insurance goal in a 5-3 victory.

"That looked like an old Les Binkley save," cracked Coyotes color analyst Darren Pang, a very good NHL goalie in his own right.

"Yes, it did," said Pang's broadcast partner, Dave Strader. The reference got to Strader – you could hear him chuckling as he continued to describe the game.

But it also brought back memories of Binkley, a fine goalie who had a long minor-league career before getting his first NHL chance with the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins in 1967-68.

Binkley is remembered in the NHL for stopping a lot of rubber and coming back for more the next night. He was in the older mold of standup goalies and he was a very determined competitor.

It might fairly be argued that Binkley was the seventh-best goalie in the world prior to the NHL expansion from the Original Six teams. Then, as now, backup goaltenders were not necessarily better than AHL starters. Binkley had been the starting goaltender for the AHL Cleveland Barons for five seasons when the Penguins bought his contract in 1966, the year before expansion, and sent him to play a season for the San Diego Gulls in the Western Hockey League. They "warehoused" him, in modern terms.

The Penguins took goalies Joe Daley and Roy Edwards in the 1967 Expansion Draft, but Binkley played 54 games for Pittsburgh that first season. He never had a winning record, as the Penguins won only 120 of 382 games during his five years, but he was 11-11-10 in his fourth season.

"He beat us, 1-0, one night in Boston when we had 63 shots and they had 10," recalls former Bruins goaltender Eddie Johnston, now the Penguins' senior advisor for hockey operations. "The only goal came on a centering pass from the corner that hit a stick or a skate and banked in off Gerry Cheevers' skate. After the game, I went over to their dressing room and handed him a six pack –shoulda been a 12-pack – and said, 'Here, you'll need these.'

"Les was a very good goaltender and he had an even better disposition, which he needed in that job. Later on, he came back and worked for Pittsburgh as a scout, mostly in Ontario Juniors, and we had some outstanding drafts. He was very valuable. I used to kid former GM Craig Patrick that his scouts included me, Les, Gilles Meloche and Charlie Hodge, all old goalies."

Turns out Pang has a long-time association with Binkley.

"I use that expression a lot to describe that kind of save," Pang said. "Johnny Bower was in that mold, too. They'd give you that two-pad slide and lean one way to keep their face away from the puck a bit. That was the style of goaltenders until Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito. Those old guys were told to stay standing up.

"Les helped me in juniors," Pang continued. "Larry Mavety, now the GM of the Kingston Frontenacs, was my coach with the Belleville Bulls. He brought in Les because he thought I went down too much. Les stood in front of me and pushed pucks at both posts. He told me not to go down, but to extend my legs to the post. He couldn't have been pushing them any slower but I couldn't stop them. I was a butterfly goalie, but Les showed me how to do it. But I found I couldn't do it successfully and they traded me to the Ottawa 67s the next year. That was the year Wayne Gretzky bought into our team in Belleville. Years later, he got me back, here in Phoenix.

"You know, I'm pretty sure Les was Greg Millen's goalie coach when Greg was with Pittsburgh. Millen played like Les, lots of kick saves, classic Les Binkley stuff, and they were both left-handed."

Bower preceded Binkley to the AHL Cleveland Barons, but even in Toronto, Bower kept an eye on how things were going in Cleveland. He remembered Binkley took an unorthodox approach to getting into the American Hockey League after six years in the lower International and Eastern leagues.

"Les took a job as the trainer of the team," Bower recalled. "We had a French kid who didn't do too well and lost the job. Les held it for several years. That was the only way he could get a job in the AHL, but he was better than a lot of the AHL goalies and he proved it. He won the goaltender award and rookie of the year in Cleveland. Les was a standup goaltender who challenged shooters and he had his good angles."

"I was playing in Toledo, 125 miles from Cleveland, and their goalie got hurt," Binkley recalled. "Claude Dufour was flying in from Toronto, but Jim Hendry, the Cleveland owner, called and asked if he could use me that game. I went in and played pretty well. They asked me during the summer to be the spare goalie and the trainer's job went with it. I didn't know anything about training but Jim sent me a book. I had the quickest scissors in the league!

"Gil Mayer was the starter, but he got hurt and I played really well. I gave up only eight goals in 11 games. We lost in the playoffs to Springfield and Eddie Shore. I won AHL rookie of the year the next year, only the second goalie. Terry Sawchuk was the first."

A native of Owen Sound, Ontario, Binkley played his junior hockey in Galt, which was affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"A great NHL goalie, Harry Lumley, lived around the corner. They named the arena after him," Binkley said. "I wore contact lenses when nobody in hockey wore them back then. I went to Chicago's farm team and they wouldn't give me a chance because of the contacts. Lots of players have worn them since, even Mario Lemieux."

With expansion looming, Binkley hoped to play in the NHL but feared his age (33 in 1967) would work against him. It didn't and he had a great year while being warehoused.

"I was bought by Pittsburgh and sent to San Diego to play for GM Max McNab, a great guy,” Binkley said. “I had a wonderful year and every Christmas after that I would get a nice note from Max and pictures of old San Diego. I got a chance to play in the NHL, even though I was older. It sure was a joy to play there after all those years in the minors."

"Les was very dedicated and he really liked to win," recalled Bryan Hextall, the Penguins' leading scorer in 1970-71. "He was a good leader in his own way. He led by performance. That night in Boston was one of the best games I ever saw a goalie play. Just amazing, but he could do that. He could shut down teams and you couldn't put a pea past him.

"He was very low-key in the dressing room, never said much and just went about doing his job. He worked really hard in practice. Off the ice, he was always the same, his mood never changed. He had a big grin and was a lot of fun at parties. He was an all-around good guy and a nice person to be around."

"They said I was almost sane," joked Binkley. "I looked like a near-breasted birdwatcher, not a goalie. We had a lot of laughs through the years and my NHL career was great while it lasted. You saw the movie Slap Shot? I played three years in that Eastern League. Our rink in Baltimore blew up! We moved to Charlotte, four to a car. Guess who was in my car? John Muckler and John Brophy. Our closest rival was Johnstown, 560 miles away. It was even further to Clinton, NY. I swear the state troopers had our schedule."

Binkley was enticed to sign with the WHA Ottawa Nationals in 1972.

"I was at the end of my career (38) and they doubled my salary," Binkley said. "We got a new owner the second year and moved to Toronto one night after it got dark. The owner told us he wanted to see us on the Maple Leaf Gardens ice the next day. We packed up UHauls and moved. We played a couple of years in Toronto and then moved to Birmingham. I didn't go. My knees were shot. They took out my kneecap the following spring."

Binkley had a strong friendship with John Ferguson Sr., who was general manager of the New York Rangers. Ferguson had a young goalie that he thought could benefit from working with Binkley.

"John was a great friend and he brought me in to work with
Les was a heck of a great guy and really helped me. My problem was more mental than anything else. Les has a really good disposition, a good one for playing this game. A lot of goaltenders have talent, it's learning to get focused properly. It's not all good times and sometimes the bad creeps in and you have to be able to deal with it. The guys who succeed are the ones who can shake it off. Les was good at talking about those things. - John Davidson
, now the president of the St. Louis Blues," Binkley said. "Fergie eventually got fired but he surfaced in Winnipeg and I scouted for them until he got fired there. Then Tony Esposito hired me in Pittsburgh. I retired in 2000 when I turned 65. My wonky knees had had enough of cold rinks. I put in 50 years in this game!"

"Les was a heck of a great guy and really helped me," Davidson said. "My problem was more mental than anything else. Les has a really good disposition, a good one for playing this game. A lot of goaltenders have talent, it's learning to get focused properly. It's not all good times and sometimes the bad creeps in and you have to be able to deal with it. The guys who succeed are the ones who can shake it off. Les was good at talking about those things."

Mavety remembered a Binkley quirk. After games when the players went out for a beer, Binkley knew if he said he was leaving that others would twist his arm to have another ... and another.

"I use to call him the Phantom," Mavety said. "We'd be out and Les would say he had to go to the bathroom. 'I'll be right back,' he'd tell you and he'd be gone. He'd take off for home."

"Maybe I just had a small capacity," Binkley laughed. "I couldn't hold as much as the others. I never took my coat off."

Mavety said Binkley was briefly famous outside of hockey.

"We were with the WHA Toronto Toros and Wide World Of Sports had Evel Knievel take four shots against Les, with money going to charity. Our owner, John Bassett, was going to give Les money for every shot he stopped. Don't know if he ever did."




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