Ed Giacomin, who made it to the Hall of Fame, never should have turned pro in the first place.
When the Washington Presidents of the Eastern League needed a goalie, they had requested Ed’s older brother, Rollie Giacomin. Problem was, Rollie had a good job in Sudbury, Ont., so without telling Presidents boss John ‘Peanuts’ O’Flaherty, Rollie sent his kid brother instead. O’Flaherty liked what he saw of Ed in the audition but didn’t like the idea that he’d been taken for a sucker. The result was a curious compromise: thePresidents lost three straight with the first-string goalie after which Ed got his shot and won the next four games.
By that time, several pro scouts had heard of – and seen – the wrong Giacomin, and one of them eventually moved ‘Easy Ed’ up to the Providence Reds of the AHL. By April 1965, New York Rangers GM Emile Francis zeroed in on a deal: Giacomin would come to the Blueshirts from the Reds.
Reds owner Lou Pieri demanded ‘The Cat’ send him “four handsome players because my lady fans would be pleased.” Francis obliged with four dapper Rangers, including Marcel Paille, who was the club’s starting goalie. Defending the deal, Francis pointed out three other clubs were after Giacomin and that he beat out Detroit’s offer of $70,000 cash by getting to Pieri first.
And what a bargain. As Giacomin told historian George Grimm, “I was getting the lowest possible NHL salary, $9,500, but I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was play in the NHL, and I felt lucky to be a Ranger.”
Giacomin did improve the Rangers, though not immediately. He loved meandering from his net, Jacques Plante-style, to corral the puck. Veteran goaltenders such as Hall of Famer Johnny Bower marvelled at Giacomin’s aggressiveness. “I’ve seen plenty of goalies in my day,” Bower said, “but there aren’t many who can move the puck out of their zone the way that kid does.”
Giacomin was aggressive in his crease and not averse to engaging in a goalie fight, as he once did during a playoff game at Madison Square Garden when he pulled Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Bernie Parent’s mask off and teammate Vic Hadfield threw it into the crowd. The mask wasn’t seen again for years.
Although he never played for a Stanley Cup winner, Giacomin emerged as one of the most popular Rangers of all-time. He had a blue-collar way about him, and Blueshirts fans seemed to bond with him more than any other Rangers player of that era.
Additionally, he delivered thrills galore, especially on the night of April 13, 1972, at the Montreal Forum. Telling this story to reporter George Vass, Giacomin called a third-period save against Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich one of his all-time best. When the final horn sounded, with his Rangers triumphant 3-2, Giacomin did what few goalies ever did before, or since. “I just flung myself down on the ice on my back and kicked my legs in the air,” he said. “I was so happy that I had to do something to show how good I felt. I had to roll around, kicking and yelling. It was my most memorable playoff game.”
But it wasn’t at home and it wasn’t the same as being hailed at the Garden. That would happen after he was dealt to the Red Wings. Unfortunately, the prelude to that memorable event wasn’t one of Giacomin’s happiest moments.
Prior to a game in Montreal, Francis told his goalie to immediately come to his home for a chat. “What about the game with the Canadiens?” Giacomin wondered.
Francis wasted no time with the answer: “You’re not going to Montreal.”
After driving to Francis’ home, Giacomin got the details about what he had feared. He was told he’d been put on waivers and that the Red Wings had claimed him. “They didn’t even get a player for me,” Giacomin lamented. “I was shocked and hurt. I had done everything I could to help the Rangers for 11 years. I would have preferred to retire if they didn’t want me, to go out gracefully as a Ranger. Instead they let me go on waivers to Detroit.”
Hesitant to move to the Motor City, Giacomin decided to take the Wings’ offer. Then on Nov. 2, 1975, two days after he’d changed teams, he returned to MSG as Detroit’s goalie, against his former club. The sellout crowd was rooting for the visitors. During warmups and even throughout the national anthem, the fans kept chanting, “EDDIE! EDDIE! EDDIE!”
“What made it memorable for me was the fans’ reaction,” Giacomin said. “It was amazing, unbelievable. I couldn’t even hear the national anthem. I was shaking so much, I thought I might faint. There were tears in my eyes. I felt like blessing those people.”
He blessed the Red Wings with a 6-4 victory, which had yet another bizarre sidebar. Some of the Rangers’ players apologized to Giacomin for scoring on him. In Grimm’s book We Did Everything but Win, Brad Park made a candid revelation: “We actually threw the game,” Park said. “There’s no doubt about it. It was the only game I’ve ever thrown in my life, but that was the amount of respect we had for Eddie.”
I was witness to a chilling footnote to that unreal event. On the following Tuesday night, I was doing a SportsChannel telecast of a New York Islanders home game and invited Francis to drive over from Long Beach to come on the air between the first and second periods. In those days, I conducted my interviews at a camera location in a corner, halfway up the Nassau Coliseum stairs, in full view of the crowd. Francis was my choice because the Garden episode still was fresh in the minds of every New York fan. What I didn’t realize at the time was the grudge held against him for what he had done to Giacomin. Also, I forgot to take into consideration that, in those days, half the Nassau Coliseum crowd consisted of Rangers fans.
Totally unexpected was the fact Francis’ appearance caused the arrival of a cadre of Nassau County riot police, all because of the fans’ reaction to seeing him at the arena.
Moments before the interview, Francis showed up, and I greeted him in the booth. Suddenly, I noticed fans were leaving their seats and walking in the direction of our interview. By the time I introduced Francis, an angry crowd had gathered just below us and began cursing Francis with an assortment of expletives. Fearless, as always, Francis answered all my questions. But by now, the aisle below was thick with potential assailants.
Fortunately, Nassau Coliseum security personnel had realized the Rangers GM was in danger, summoned the police and, as Francis bravely walked down the steps toward the mass of fans, a half-dozen cops formed a flying wedge, safely escorting him to the exit and his car in the parking lot.
As for Giacomin, he offered the best postscript of all on his career and his enshrinement in hockey’s pantheon: “I firmly believe that because of what the New York fans did for me that night I came to the Garden playing for Detroit, I made the Hall of Fame.”
Born: June 6, 1939, Sudbury, Ont.
NHL Career: 1965-77
Teams: NYR, Det
Stats: 290-209-96, 2.82 GAA, .902 SP, 54 SO
All-Star: 5 (First-2, Second-3)
Trophies: 1 (Vezina-1)
DID YOU KNOW?
There was a keen competitor for Giacomin’s job: Cesare Maniago, a young, tall drink of water who outshone Giacomin throughout his rookie-year pre-season workouts and exhibition games. Yet when the season began, Rangers coach-GM Emile Francis started Giacomin. When Maniago finally got a start against Boston, he stopped a Johnny McKenzie shot with his chin. After getting stitches, Maniago refused to return to the game due to his sore chin. Giacomin finished the contest and just about finished Maniago as a Ranger. Francis, who as a goalie had suffered multiple broken noses, torn ligaments in both knees and separated shoulders, figured Maniago wasn’t tough enough to be goalie on his team. Giacomin was.