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Robertson's patience paid off with Stanley Cup championship

Longtime minor league goalie stepped in to help Red Wings win 1937 Final

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," will share his knowledge, humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

Today, he tells the story of Earl Robertson, a longtime minor league goalie who stepped into the 1937 Stanley Cup Final and helped the Detroit Red Wings repeat as champions.

 

Earl Robertson could have been excused for thinking his luck had run out.

It was 1936 and Toronto Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe had taken the train to Detroit in search of a goalie. The scouting reports he had received on Robertson were good, especially when it came to experience.

After leaving his tiny prairie town of Bengough, Saskatchewan, as a teenager, Robertson had spent a decade honing his game in places such as Regina, Vancouver, Victoria, Tacoma, Oakland, Hollywood and Edmonton. Now he was stopping pucks for Windsor of the International Hockey League, where he played capably enough to think he might be signed by an NHL team.

Smythe checked him out and was impressed enough to write a $6,500 check in order to bring Robertson to Toronto as a replacement for 40-year-old George Hainsworth, a future Hockey Hall of Famer. Robertson had reason to believe that, finally, he had it made.

But before finalizing the signing, Smythe decided to check out another prospect who had been touted to him: Turk Broda, a 21-year-old goalie who was excelling with the IHL's Detroit Olympics. One look at Broda convinced Smythe to tear up the check to Robertson and make out a new one, for $8,000, to bring Broda to the NHL instead.

Robertson accepted the bad news and eventually wound up as a Red Wings farmhand on the International-American Hockey League's Pittsburgh Hornets for the 1936-37 season. For all the 26-year-old knew, he'd remain in the minors forever.

But in the spring of 1937, the defending champion Red Wings disposed of the Montreal Canadiens in five games of the Stanley Cup Semifinals. However, the series win wasn't without cost: Goalie Normie Smith, the hero of Detroit's 1936 run to the Cup, injured his elbow in the triple-overtime series-clinching win in Game 5 of the Semifinals -- and general manager Jack Adams was worried.

The Cup Final against the New York Rangers was due to begin on April 6 at Madison Square Garden. What if Smith's injury kept him out of the lineup as it had in Game 4 against Montreal, when Robertson was called on to make his NHL debut?

"We may need you with the big club," Adams told Robertson. "Meet us in New York."

Adams gambled by starting Smith in the opener. It turned out to be a mistake; the Rangers blitzed him for three unanswered goals in the first period before Smith got the hook. Robertson took over and allowed two goals but still impressed Adams with his poise in what turned out to be a 5-1 loss.

The Game 1 defeat was bad enough, but worse was that doctors advised Adams that Smith was through for the series. For better or worse, Robertson had to be the man of the hour for Detroit.

"Not many goalies can make the claim they made their big-league debut in an NHL Final and went on to win the Stanley Cup," Ty Di Lello wrote in "Goalies of All-Time" published by The Hockey News.

Robertson started for Detroit in Game 2 at Olympia Stadium on April 8 and rewarded Adams' faith in him by helping the Red Wings tie the series with 4-2 victory. He was even better in Game 3, but Dave Kerr of the Rangers was perfect, winning 1-0 to put New York within one victory of winning the best-of-5 Cup Final

However, the Rangers didn't get another puck past Robertson, who made a third-period goal by Marty Barry stand up for a series-tying 1-0 victory in Game 4. That set up a winner-take-all showdown in Detroit on April 15.

To say that Robertson was brilliant in Game 5 would be an understatement. Not only did he shut out the Rangers 3-0 to give Detroit its second straight championship, he did it despite having to face the first penalty shot awarded in a Cup Final game. New York's Alex Shibicky was unable to beat Robertson, who finished with his second straight shutout and helped the Red Wings become the first U.S.-based team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive years.

"They could take me out and shoot me now. I'd die happy!" Robertson blurted out to the reporters in the jubilant Red Wings dressing room. However, Robertson wasn't so happy when he learned that he would not get any Stanley Cup bonus money because he was viewed as a "replacement." He felt better after Red Wings owner James Norris heard about it and handed Robertson a check for $600.

Barry, who scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 5, was prophetic when he told Robertson, "They can't keep you in the minors anymore." Barry was correct, but probably not the way he had in mind: Instead of keeping his surprise Stanley Cup hero, Adams re-signed Smith for the 1937-38 season and traded Robertson to the New York Americans for John Doran and cash.

Once again, Robertson brushed off the slight; he went 19-18 with 11 ties and a 2.22 goals-against average, then helped the Americans defeat their archrivals, the New York Rangers, in the first round of the playoffs.

Robertson twice finished in the top five for the Hart Trophy during his five seasons with the Americans and was named an NHL Second-Team All-Star in 1938-39. After the 1941-42 season, he joined the Canadian Armed Forces.

Ironically, 1942 was the same year that Broda, Robertson's one-time competition for the starting job in Toronto, won the Stanley Cup for the first time -- five years after Robertson had done it for the Red Wings.

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