Skip to Main Content
NHL Insider

Unknown helped Detroit make history 79 years ago

Unlikely hero Earl Robertson stepped in to lead Red Wings to victory in 1937 Stanley Cup Final

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL - Earl Robertson will never be confused with legendary goaltender Terry Sawchuk, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings, or with Dominik Hasek, another Hockey Hall of Fame member who won the Stanley Cup twice with the Red Wings.

Robertson didn't have the pedigree of Chris Osgood, the Detroit goalie whose name was engraved on hockey's ultimate team trophy three times.

But no Red Wings goalie ever played a more important or more unlikely role for his team than did Robertson in the 1937 Stanley Cup Final. On April 15, 1937, the 26-year-old's magnificent work carried Detroit to its second consecutive NHL championship that season, marking the first time a U.S.-based team had won the League title in two consecutive seasons.

"The Stanley Cup now rests in an American city for the seventh time in its 45-year history and for the fourth time in the last five years," a Montreal newspaper reported the morning after the Red Wings' successful defense.

With the Red Wings for so brief a time that virtually all NHL photos of him show him in later action with the New York Americans, Robertson shut out the Rangers in the final two games after having surrendered one goal in a 1-0 Game 3 loss.

Pressed into emergency service in relief of injured Vezina Trophy winner Normie Smith, Robertson not only survived the pressure of the Final, but he thrived in his first NHL action.

That Game 3 performance set the stage for his dramatic, back-to-back airtight efforts in Games 4 and 5, the Red Wings clinching the Stanley Cup 79 years ago on Friday. In Robertson's mind, this grand stage surely was a million miles from the nine economy-sized, minor-pro rinks where he'd toiled since the late 1920s.

The American Division champion Red Wings were the NHL's best team through the 48-game 1936-37 regular season, with 59 points, five more than the Canadian Division champion Montreal Canadiens.

With Smith in goal, Detroit eliminated the Canadiens 3-2 in a best-of-5 semifinal, needing triple-overtime in Game 5 in Montreal to earn the right to play the Rangers for the Stanley Cup. The Rangers had swept the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Maroons to earn their berth in the Final.

New York stormed out of the gate on home ice in Game 1, popping three first-period goals past Smith, who clearly was struggling with a right elbow injury he had sustained in the series against the Canadiens.

So Red Wings coach Jack Adams went to substitute goalie Robertson to start the second period. The Rangers beat him late to go up 4-0, the teams then trading third-period goals in New York's 5-1 victory.

But Adams had liked Robertson enough that he decided to take the gamble of starting the minor-leaguer in the crucial second game of the best-of-5 series.

At least the Red Wings would be on friendly ice. To the chagrin of the Rangers and their fans, New York was given the boot from Madison Square Garden in favor of the circus, a big annual moneymaker for the arena around which all else was scheduled (the rigging for the high-wire and trapeze acts was already overhead during Game 1). The remainder of the series would be played at the Detroit Olympia.

The Red Wings responded with a 4-2 victory in Game 2, with New York's Alex Shibicky and Ott Heller sustaining concussions in the visitors' loss.

"We beat 'em with two rookies and a kid goaltender," Adams crowed afterward, the inexperienced Howie Mackie and John Sherf having joined Robertson in the Red Wings lineup. "We're back in stride and on our way now. Let those Rangers come. We've got their number."

To which the Rangers promptly responded in Game 3 with a 1-0 victory where Shibicky and Heller saw action. Playing with a broken jaw, Neil Colville would score the only goal of the night early in the second period, with Rangers goalie Davey Kerr earning his fourth shutout in seven playoff games that season.

With his team one game from elimination, Adams again turned to Robertson, who had been magnificent in the Game 3 defeat.

And the native of Bengough, Saskatchewan, didn't let his boss down, turning aside every New York shot in a 1-0 Game 4 victory.

"Robbie, you're wonderful. You're going to stay in there for the next game! Nice going … I'm mighty proud of you!" Adams blustered.

Robertson just drank it all in, stunned that, after a decade of knocking around the minors, he was one win from having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

"They could take me out and shoot me now," he told reporters. "I'd die happy."

The Red Wings successfully defended their Stanley Cup championship with a 3-0 victory in Game 5. Lady Byng Trophy winner Marty Barry scored twice, with Robertson again perfect in Detroit's net.

The goalie crowned his surreal postseason run when he stopped Shibicky on a Game 5 penalty shot, the first awarded in a Stanley Cup Playoff game, to preserve his shutout.

It had been a stunning season for the Red Wings, who had lost a handful of stars to fractured bones as the schedule wore on. Captain Doug Young and his replacement, Orville Roulston, were sidelined with broken legs before All-Star winger Larry Aurie went down with a broken ankle, which, in the view of one newspaper columnist, was "expected to be a final shattering blow to the team's chances and morale."

And that was before Smith, the dependable veteran goalie, was shelved in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final with his elbow injury, giving way to an untried farmhand.

In the pandemonium of victory, Adams rushed into his team's dressing room, which according to one report was "transformed into a madhouse of berserk humanity," and promptly fainted.

Had there been a Conn Smythe Trophy that season for the most valuable player in the postseason - the award was still 28 years from its creation - Robertson would have won it easily.

Barry, the scoring hero of Game 5, sought out his goalie, who implausibly had stopped the Rangers with two consecutive shutouts.

"You were great, kid … sensational," Barry told Robertson. "They can't keep you in the minors now."

No, the Red Wings couldn't. They wouldn't keep him at all, actually, holding on to Smith while trading Robertson to the New York Americans for Red Doran and cash.

At least Robertson got to play as the Americans' No. 1 goalie, winning 51 games, missing just a couple and earning 15 shutouts from 1937-40.

But in the lowly Americans' system was Chuck Rayner, a future Hall of Fame member, so he and Robertson shared the load in 1940-41 and 1941-42, both men shuttling to and from the minors.

The Americans would fold in the summer of 1942, having played their final season in Brooklyn. That sent Robertson into NHL retirement and one season of senior hockey in Edmonton, while Rayner went on to great fame with the Rangers after serving three wartime years in the military.

The Red Wings would win their third Stanley Cup six years after Robertson, who died in 1979 at age 68, had starred in the Final victory.

Johnny Mowers was in goal for that 1942-43 triumph, with eight more Detroit championships to come. All of them probably are better known than the Winged Wheel's remarkable victory of 79 years ago.

In 1937, the Red Wings ruled the NHL with a triumph built on the back of Earl Robertson, a minor league goaltender who showed major league talent when his team needed it most.

View More