Before the current National Hockey League season began, Goalie Jacques Plante, a positive man and a six-time Vezina Trophy winner who has recently fallen on hard times, announced that young Roger Crozier would never make it as a goalie in the big time. But last week—as Plante himself struggled to hang on to his temporary job in the Ranger nets—young Crozier, the first-string goalie of the first-place Red Wings, seemed well on the way to winning a Vezina Trophy of his own. After 14 games of his first regular season, Crozier had the best goal-stopping average of any goalie in the NHL and the most shutouts. His play, along with that of the incomparable Forward Gordie Howe and iron Defenseman Doug Barkley, was the principal reason why Detroit was on top of the heap. In most preseason forecasts, the Wings had been assigned fourth place. "I'm glad we got off to such a good start," was all the still far-from-confident young goalie could say about all this last week. "If we hadn't, everybody would be on my back."
Actually, one look at pale, self-conscious Roger Crozier when he is not in the nets would convince almost anybody that Plante was right. He is small and wispy, filled with doubts about his ability, and he even has an ulcer. He is the despair of coaches who try in vain to cure him of the habit of flopping and falling all over the ice, often in attempts to stop shots that would probably never reach the goal anyway. King Clancy, a one-time defenseman who is now assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, calls Crozier "nothing but a Singer's Midget on the ice." Roger himself, at 22 the youngest as well as the most effective goalie in the league, ponders all these criticisms with care. "I want to find out who my friends are," he says, his eyes seeming almost to brim with tears. "People are sitting around, waiting for the big collapse. They're waiting to say, I told you so.' "
But not everyone is waiting. Sid Abel, the Red Wing coach who got Crozier almost by accident, is thoroughly pleased with his man. "Crozier has the fastest hands of any goalie I've ever seen," says Abel, "and he is the quickest to get back on his feet after a fall." Moreover, says Abel, "Roger has the kind of personality that delights everyone." A superstitious youngster who hates to fly in planes and always starts dressing on the left side to ward off any evil spirits that might be lurking, Crozier recently delighted his teammates after practice in the Montreal Forum by leaping on sturdy Gordie Howe's neck and riding him around the arena like a jockey.
The accident that brought Crozier to the Red Wings was a hothead named Howie Young (SI, Nov. 12, 1962), a defenseman of such spectacular talents and belligerence that he cost the Red Wings far more in penalty time than he ever returned in goals. The Wings were so anxious to get rid of Howie after the season that they were willing to take almost anyone in trade. And when Chicago's Black Hawks offered up rookie Defenseman Ron Ingram with a goalie named Crozier tossed in, the Wings jumped at the deal. Ingram was promptly put in the Red Wing lineup and Crozier, an unsung member of Chicago's most minor minor-league farm team, was shipped off to Detroit's own minor league team in Pittsburgh. It was a positive surprise to the Red Wing brass when Crozier, called up to replace injured Terry Sawchuk in the Detroit nets, turned in a reasonably creditable performance. But then, as everyone knows, a defense always tightens up in front of a substitute goalie, so his success really did not prove much.
After the regular season was over, Crozier was called up again to stand in for Sawchuk in three Stanley Cup games. It was a rough time because he was tending Pittsburgh's nets in the American League's own Calder Cup playoffs and commuting back and forth between Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Quebec to do it. But even frazzled by fatigue and the nervous strain of air travel, he did well enough to convince Coach Abel that he could, if necessary, be the team's regular goalie. It was this reassurance that persuaded the Red Wing officials to leave Sawchuk unprotected in the draft. When Punch Imlach of the Maple Leafs, who has never let a first-class hockey player linger unprotected for long, grabbed Sawchuk as relief man for aged Johnny Bower, the Wings were left with Crozier, like him or not.
Like most professional goalies, Crozier learned his trade early in life. Born in the little Canadian town of Bracebridge, about 100 miles north of Toronto, he was first shoved into the mouth of a hockey goal when he was 6, largely because he was too small to lodge an effective protest, but he grew to like it. A decade later, when he played for St. Catharine's, he was selected the All-Star Goalie for three straight years. When he was 17, he developed his ulcer.
"I used to worry a lot," he explains. "I worried about pucks going past me into the net, and I worried about having a bad night. There was a time when I had to be careful about everything I ate, but things are better now."
Not every goalie has an ulcer, but they all have scars, and Roger is no exception. He has suffered two broken jawbones, had part of a front tooth knocked out by an errant hockey stick and sustained a shattered cheek. That was in his very first major league game when he was hit by a puck rifling off the stick of Frank Mahovlich, one of the fastest shooters in hockey. Crozier got himself patched up in the dressing room and finished the game wearing a mask. Afterward he flew back to Detroit where he found out—in the hospital—that his cheekbone was mashed like chicken fricassee. Roger Crozier is a first-class worrier, but he does not worry much about things like shattered cheekbones. He worries about public opinion, about screened corner shots and about the Montreal Canadiens, who slipped an unbelievable nine goals past him in a single game last season. Last week, the Montrealers beat him to another four goals and tied up the league lead temporarily, but even in defeat edgy Roger put on such a magnificent display of swan dives, lunges, lurches, kicks and one-hand catches in stopping some 25 other Canadien shots that rival Coach Toe Blake went out of his way to offer congratulations. No one, said Toe, could have stopped the four goals that went in, and that made Roger feel better—for the moment anyway.