The Almost Unbearable Greatness of Hockey's Unsung Hero
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some goalies didn’t care to hide behind a mask.
By Eugene S. Robinson
There’s a certain dissonance when you watch film from the 1960s. Not just the older film stock and unfathomable fashion choices, but in the case of older sports videos with hockey goalie nonpareil Eddie Giacomin, there’s something else you can’t put your finger on. Until you can. In a sport where the puck can sometimes reach speeds of almost 109 miles per hour — the current speed holder being the estimable Zdeno Chára of the Boston Bruins — Giacomin is not wearing a mask.
“I do think you see the puck better without a mask,” Giacomin told the Hockey News in 1970. And if seeing is believing, the seasons leading up to 1970 — when Giacomin led the National Hockey League with 37 wins in 1968 and 1969, along with being a Second Team All-Star — should be enough to make you a believer. If hockey’s not your thing, this might be a reach, but the fact that Giacomin, a 5-foot-11 Canadian, chose hockey over baseball and football, where he had left a mark, is noteworthy when you consider it was years before anyone in hockey even wanted him in hockey.
“Why are you giving him some kind of special bonus, anyway?” The phone line from New York crackles to life with the voice of 85-year-old Stan Fischler, “the Hockey Maven,” suffering fools none too gladly. Fischler knows more about hockey than lots of us know about lots of other things, having won two New York Emmy Awards for his reporting and commentary on hockey for MSG Networks. “Giacomin was a good goalie. Not a GREAT goalie.”
In Fischler’s mind, the difference between good and great was simple: cups. Stanley Cups, to be exact. And while Giacomin is a bona fide Hall of Famer, hockey’s biggest prize eluded him. No Stanley Cup? No claim to greatness, offers Fischler. But this didn’t stop Emile Francis, a semi-visionary general manager (“but a horrible goalie,” according to the irrepressible Fischler), from running Giacomin up the flagpole to see if he was worth being saluted.
Giacomin was one hell of a competitor, was pretty acrobatic and he could stop a puck.
Stan Fischler, hockey expert and commentator
Giacomin, later known as “Fast Eddie” on account of his penchant for beating the forwards to the puck, gamed up to make up for what he may have lacked in pure talent. Not only via slick acrobatic stuff on the ice, but also with that real kind of gritty shit that gets you into the Hall of Fame.
“You ever have your hand skated over with hockey skates? You know what that feels like?” asks longtime journeyman forward and former coach Kevin Conahan. The question was rhetorical since, according to Conahan, it feels like getting sliced with a sword … and to keep playing afterward? Most are not doing it, but Giacomin did in the 1971-72 Stanley Cup playoffs. In a game that saw his team beating the Chicago Blackhawks. Yeah, that kind of gritty shit.
“Look, back then, goalies were arguably tougher than the MMA pros of today,” says Gregory Kosanovich, a 15-year beer leaguer who had been lucky enough to skate with guys who played junior and minors, and some former San Jose Sharks. “They played without masks and were frequently scarred badly in the face to the point of permanent disfigurement and even blindness.”
A take seconded by Fischler, who supports the notion that goaltenders today can’t hold either a candle or a stick to those of Giacomin’s ilk. “Without a mask it’s a different game — different angles and how you have to approach the net,” Fischler says. With today’s goalies stretching the tape at 6 feet 5 inches sometimes, and at least 210 pounds, according to Fischler, artistry is gone. “Fear played a big factor back then,” Fischler says. “How you moved, the kind of guts you had facing down anything coming his way, everything. Giacomin was one hell of a competitor, was pretty acrobatic and he could stop a puck,” he admits.
Like it owed him money. Fast and hard.
The year after Giacomin led the league in wins, he got eight shutouts and the Vezina Trophy for best goaltending. Leading all of us unrepentant Giacomin lovers to fall back not only on the long shadow he cast on the league in the early ’70s but also the fact that sometimes good goalies are carried by great teams, and a Stanley Cup is not an automatic indicator of goalie greatness.
Beyond that, on the back of a bad Rangers team in 1975, Giacomin was waived to the Detroit Red Wings, and when he came back to New York to play against his old team, he got a standing ovation. And what’s more, New Yorkers cheered for Eddie throughout the game, even booing their own team when they could and screaming his name over and over again: Eddie. Eddie. Eddie!
The evening’s outcome? Red Wings 6, Rangers 4.