Canadian hockey player
Because of a trophy given out by the National Hockey League (NHL) to the best goalie in the league in his honor, the name of Georges Vezina remains alive to this day. Many consider Vezina—who played for 15 seasons (1910-25) all for the Montreal Canadiens—the NHL's first great goaltender. Playing in 328 straight games, Vezina was an innovative goalie who mastered and defined the early stand-up style of play. Nicknamed the "Chicoutimi Cucumber" for his hometown and calm coolness during games, Vezina's career was cut short by several seasons when he developed tuberculosis. Though he played for at least two seasons while in the early stages of the disease—holding the league's lowest goals against average and backstopping the Canadiens to one of the two Stanley Cups they would win with him in goal—Vezina played his last game at the beginning of the 1925-26 season, dying several months later. As Stan Fischler wrote in The All-New Hockey's 100: A Personal Ranking of the Best Players in Hockey History, "Georges Vezina … was a nonpareil athlete whose ability was matched only by his infinite sportsmanship."
Vezina was born on January 21, 1887 in Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada, a small town located on the Saguenay River. He was the son of Jacques Vezina and his wife, who were both employed as bakers. Vezina played hockey from his youth when the game was still in its infancy. He might have played on his town's first hockey team ever. The game probably had been brought to Chicoutimi by some employees of Price Bros. who had attended McGill University in Montreal. Price Bros. was a local company who built a rink in town, which Vezina's father later bought.
While playing the goalie position for amateur teams in his youth, Vezina wore boots instead of skates, a common practice of goalies in this time period. When Vezina was 18 years old, he learned to skate and wore skates while playing after that. By 1909, he was the goalie for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, an amateur team that played in the Montreal Senior League. Vezina was only 5'6" and weighed, at most, 185 lbs., and was described as thin and frail-looking for much of his career, but his focused demeanor in goal was about to take him to professional ranks.
In 1910, Vezina played in two exhibition games in Chicoutimi which would lead to his professional career. In preparation for upcoming Allan Cup play, the Sagueneens played against a touring Grand'Mère Senior club early in the year. Vezina garnered recognition because he got a shutout. He had the same result a short time later when he and the Chicoutimi team played against the newly formed Montreal Canadiens, a professional team of the first year National Hockey Association, in a barnstorming game in February 1910. Vezina backstopped his team to a 2-0 win. At this time, shutouts were very uncommon in part because goalies were forced to stand in goal for the whole game and were not allowed to drop to their knees to block shots. Vezina's stick-handling skills were already in evidence and his play impressed the opposition.
After the game, the goalie for the Montreal team, Joseph Cattarinich, recommended Vezina to the team's owner, George Kennedy. Vezina agreed to play for the Canadiens beginning in the 1910-11 season for $800. He actually never signed a contract, but had a handshake agreement with the Canadiens manager. Vezina was known for such indiscriminate ways involving his money. He often loaned money to friends, which was never repaid. After agreeing to play with the Canadiens, he maintained a tannery business in his hometown. Vezina was also married in this time period.
Joined the Montreal Canadiens
Vezina joined the Montreal Canadiens in the fall of 1910, and he would spend his entire professional career with the team. The Canadiens were part of the National Hockey Association (NHA) until 1917, when the league folded. They then joined the NHL in 1917. Before the 1926-27 season, the Stanley Cup was played for by the team that won the NHA/NHL, against whichever team won the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) and/or the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL). After Vezina made his debut with the Canadiens on December 31, 1910, he played in 328 straight games, plus an additional 39 playoffs, for 15 seasons until he was forced to leave the game because of illness. During the course of his career, the Canadiens won two NHA league championships, three NHL league championships, and two Stanley Cups.
Vezina's debut with the Canadiens was inauspicious: he lost his first game. Though the Canadiens were not a great team for his first few seasons, in the 1910-11 season, Vezina's goals against average led the five-team NHA. He repeated the feat in the 1911-12 season, when there were only four teams in the league, and Montreal was at the bottom of the standings. Vezina scored his first shutout during the 1912-13 season.
By this time, Vezina had acquired his nickname, "Chicoutimi Cucumber." On the ice, he was known for his gentlemanly play, and his steadiness in goal. Though Vezina did not get excited, he was still very competitive. Because goalies were forced to stand in goal until at least 1919—when the rules were changed because of Clint Benedict, who began dropping to his knees and sitting on the ice to make saves—Vezina's accomplishments in terms of low goals against average even more remarkable. Some believed Vezina was better with his stick than his glove. This was emphasized by his ability to clear the puck, which resulted in few rebounds. Off the ice, Vezina also had an even reputation, not indulging in smoke or drink. He also did not speak much English.
Won First Stanley Cup
It was not until the 1915-16 season that the Montreal Canadiens became a really competitive team, with good offensive players on board like Newsy Lalonde, to match the defensive prowess given by Vezina. This led to Montreal's playing for its first Stanley Cup, after winning the NHA championship, against the Portland Rosebuds of the PCHA. The series went to a decisive fifth game in Portland, which Montreal won 2-1. Vezina held off a number of Portland rushes until the Canadiens scored the game winner. In honor of winning the Stanley Cup, Vezina named his newborn son Marcil Stanley. This son was one of two children of Vezina and his wife's that survived to adulthood of the 22 born to them.
|1887||Born January 21 in Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada|
|c. 1905||Learns to skate after playing goalie position in boots since his youth|
|1910||Signed by the Montreal Canadiens after playing well in an exhibition game against the professional team|
|c. 1910||Marries wife with whom he would have 22 children (only two would survive to adulthood)|
|1910||Makes debut with the Montreal Canadiens, December 31|
|1910-12||Vezina's goals against average leads the NHA|
|1912-13||Backstops his way to first shutout of his career|
|1917-18||Becomes first goalie to post shutout in NHL|
|1923-25||Leads NHL in goals against average|
|1925||Plays in last game on November 25, collapsing on the ice|
|1926||Dies of tuberculosis on March 24|
|2000||Pair of his goalie pads (perhaps the only ones in existence) are cut up and attached to certain collectable trading cards, outraging hockey historians|
The following season, Vezina and the Montreal Canadiens again won the NHA championship, but lost to the Seattle Metropolitans of the PCHA in the Stanley Cup series. By the time the first season of the NHL's existence, 1917-18, Vezina was known as one of the best goalies in the new league, and he had the privilege of being the first goalie to earn a shutout in the league.
In 1919, Vezina again backstopped the Canadiens to victory in the NHL championships, but did not get a chance to finish playing for the Stanley Cup. Because of the on-going influenza epidemic in the city of Seattle, the last game in the series against the Seattle Metropolitans was cancelled. A number of men on both teams were ill, and a few, including Vezina's teammate Joe Hall, later died. Montreal lost the first game 7-0, but tied series before it was called. Within a few years Vezina was making a career-high salary of $7200 per season.
Played Through Injury, Illness
By the early 1920s, Vezina showed how tough of a player he really was when he played after suffering a serious injury, then a deadly disease. During one game in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1922-23 season, Vezina's head was cut open and he suffered a broken nose when an opponent slammed into him. Vezina continued to play in every game, and played well. He won a game against Ottawa a short time later, stopping 79 of 80 shots. By this time, Vezina already had the beginnings of tuberculosis, yet he played for several more seasons and led the league in goals against average during both the 1923-24 and 1924-25 campaigns.
During the 1923-24 season, Vezina only allowed 48 goals in 24 regular season games for a goals against average of 2.00. Montreal placed second to Ottawa and defeated them in the 1924 playoffs with victories of 1-0 and 4-2 to win the league championship. The Canadiens went on to compete for the Stanley Cup by playing against both the WCHL and PCHA teams, Calgary and Vancouver. Vezina led the team to victory against both teams, winning four total games and allowing only four goals.
In the 1924-25 season, as tuberculosis continued to grow stronger in Vezina, he still posted the NHL's best goals against average of 1.90. The Canadiens finished third to Hamilton and Toronto, but Montreal made the playoffs to compete for the Stanley Cup by winning the first round against Toronto (with Vezina allowing only two goals in two playoff games), the team lost to Vancouver by losing three of four games.
By the time of training camp before the 1925-26 season, tuberculosis was catching up to Vezina. He had problems such as fatigue during the camp. Still, he remained the starting goalie on opening night, as he had for 13 previous seasons. Vezina was expected to be a draw for the new American teams in the NHL (Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh) as his reputation in goal preceded him. However, he only made it to opening night.
Career, Life End Because of Tuberculosis
During the season opener against Pittsburgh in his home ice, Mt. Royal Arena, on November 28, 1925, he played in the first period despite a 102-105 degree temperature, fatigue, and serious chest pains. Vezina did not allow one goal. During the intermission, Vezina had an arterial hemorrhage, bled from the mouth, and lost consciousness. The goalie insisted on playing the second period, but collapsed on the ice, bleeding from the mouth, and was carried off. He never played in goal again.
As per his request, Vezina was taken to his home in Chicoutimi, where he was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. While he was dying, the Canadiens did not do well. They were removed from playoff contention a week before his death. Vezina managed to visit his team one last time, shortly before his death. He came to dressing room at the time he would normally come for games. His skates and pads were set out for him, but Vezina only took the sweater (jersey) he wore in the last playoffs, and went home.
|Montreal: Montreal Canadiens.|
On March 24, 1926, when he was only 39 years old, Vezina died of tuberculosis. A huge funeral was given for him in Chicoutimi. A year after his death, the Canadiens bought a trophy for the fledgling NHL to be awarded to goaltenders in Vezina's honor. Hockey historians believe that if he had not developed this disease, Vezina could have played for several more seasons. Instead, his legacy as one of the innovators of the goalie position and one of the original stars of the National Hockey League rests on his 15 seasons with Montreal in which he won two Stanley Cups and other league championships. He led the league in goals against average several times, even while ill with tuberculosis. Vezina allowed only 1267 goals in his combined 328 regular season and 39 play off games. As Dan Diamond and Joseph Romain wrote in Hockey Hall of Fame: The Official History of the Game and Its Greatest Stars, "Vezina was the nearest thing to the perfect athlete …. He was a strong competitor on the ice, and always [a] gentleman."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1916||Led the Montreal Canadians to their first Stanley Cup; also won the NHA championship|
|1917||With the Canadiens, won the NHA championship; lost the Stanley Cup to the Seattle Metropolitans|
|1919||With the Canadiens, won the NHL championship|
|1924||Led the Montreal Canadians to his second and last Stanley Cup; also won the NHL championship|
|1925||Won the NHL championship with the Canadiens|
|1945||Named to the Hockey Hall of Fame as one of its 12 charter members|
The Vezina Trophy
The Vezina Trophy was named in honor of Georges Vezina. After his tragic death from tuberculosis, the owners of the Montreal Canadians (Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau, and Joe Cattarinich) donated a trophy to the National Hockey League during the 1926-27 season. The Vezina was originally given to the goaltender who played the most games for his team and allowed the fewest number of goals during the regular season. The first goalie to win it was George Hainsworth, who succeeded Vezina between the pipes for the Canadians. Beginning in the 1964-65 season until the 1981-82 season, the Vezina was given to all the active goalies on the team with the lowest goals against average, as many teams used two goalies after the NHL expanded. After the 1981-82 season, the trophy was given to the best goalie in the league. Jacques Plante won the most Vezinas with seven, followed by Bill Durnan and Dominik Hasek with six each. The modern day winner also received $10,000, with the runners up receiving $6000 and $4000.
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Sketch by A. Petruso