Well, it's almost that time of year again, the time for the New York Rangers to begin their annual collapse. But, wait, something is wrong. The Rangers do not seem to be collapsing. Right now they're holding fast in a neck-and-neck race with Boston in the front of the East Division, and for 24 hours last week they were even in the lead. What's wrong with these Rangers? Two goalies, that's what's wrong.
Of course, the Rangers, like every other NHL team, have had two goalies for the last four years and they both suited up for every game according to the rule book. But up to this year the other goalie has been just that: the other goalie. The goalie has been lean, hawklike Eddie Giacomin, who looks like Savonarola and, also like that passionate Italian, has ended up each season a martyr to his own excessive zeal. Aging second-stringers like Don Simmons and the late Terry Sawchuck, who had been one of the best, were there merely to help Giacomin during practice sessions or to stand in the goal about once a month against the Penguins or the Kings. Giacomin, the best goalie in hockey, wanted to play in every game, and his boss, Emile Francis, a former goalie himself, was quite content to have him do so.
The result was that along about mid-February or early March, Giacomin began to look like a man who had been lost on Mount Kilimanjaro for most of the winter. Obviously fatigued both physically and mentally from the strain of playing so often, he would start to fight the puck instead of stopping it naturally. His judgment and his reflexes both suffered, and the effect was that he let in some bad—and costly—goals.
Last season, for instance, New York won only four of its last 18 games, dropping from first place in the East Division to fourth. This was good enough to get the Rangers into the playoffs, but there Giacomin's weariness was even more evident, as indeed it has been over the last four years. In that time the Rangers have won only four of their 20 Stanley Cup games as Giacomin's goals-against average, always under 2.62 during the regular season, rose to between 3.00 and 4.13.
Rather than blame Giacomin for this annual collapse, most hockey people have pointed their fickle fingers at Francis for stubbornly insisting that one goalie can play an entire NHL schedule. The 1964 rule requiring two goalies was not an idle whim of the lawgivers. When expansion introduced the jet plane and coast-to-coast travel to hockey, the two-goalie system became a physical necessity. Every divisional champion and all the Stanley Cup winners over the last three years have rotated two and, in the case of the St. Louis Blues, even three goaltenders during the season.
After studying such evidence last spring Francis finally concluded that he was wrong, that one goalie could not carry a team to the Stanley Cup. So—enter Gilles Villemure, an alternate, not other goalie. Already in this season Villemure has played 16 games for the Rangers—only two less than all the Rangers' other goaltenders played during the last four years. He has a record of 12 wins, one loss and three tied games plus a league-leading 1.75 goals-against average. Giacomin, meanwhile, has played 23 games and has a 14-6-3 record with a 2.20 goals-against average.
"I know Gilles' record is better than mine on paper," Giacomin said of his new colleague last week, "but we're not competing against one another. I think we'd both be insecure if we tried to compete against one another. What we're trying to do is play our best and beat the other guys. The statistics don't mean anything unless you win the hockey-games. I've learned that." Ed still has one sound and valuable statistic in his favor: he is leading Gilles 4-2 in the $100 bonus stakes that Francis offers each goalie for a shutout.
Thanks mostly to this new duplicate effort in the goal, the Rangers, who are not an explosive scoring team, have been winning hockey games and show no signs of stopping. "It should be tight between us and the Bruins all the rest of the year," says Francis. "Boston scores a lot, but we don't give up many goals. In the long run I'll take the team with the better record on defense."
Giacomin, who catches the puck with his left hand, and Villemure, who catches it with his right ("We're an ambidextrous team," Ed says), both play somewhat the same stand-up style in goal. However, their similarity ends there.
"You can hear Giacomin all over the ice," says Brad Park, the Rangers' young defenseman. "He's always yelling at us, telling us where the puck is and who is chasing us." Villemure says what needs to be said but does it quietly. "He'll never have a voice like Eddie's," says Park. "Who has?"
As his voice might indicate, Giacomin is also more aggressive than Villemure. If a puck is loose around the goal, Villemure will try to fall on it and get a face-off. Not Giacomin. He likes to control the puck with his stick, make clearing passes to his teammates and even take an occasional shot at an empty net at the other end of the rink. "Someday I'm going to become the first NHL goalie to score a goal," he says.
Over the last four seasons, while 31-year-old Ed Giacomin was stopping goals and building a league-wide reputation in the Ranger nets, Villemure, 30, was waiting patiently in the minor leagues for his chance. For many years he was considered the best goaltender outside the NHL, and many critics of Francis contended that he should have brought Gilles up to New York long before. "But," says Villemure, "Emile didn't think I was ready and, to be honest, I wasn't until this year. I really was a lot better off playing every game and handling 40 shots a night in Buffalo."
The results of Villemure's apprenticeship are plainly evident. Gilles moves adroitly around the net, plays the angles with near perfection and rarely finds himself out of position. "I learned how to play goal in Buffalo," he says. "It is not just a matter of stopping the first shot. You must be in position to stop the second and third shots, too."
It was last May when Francis told Villemure that he would play for the Rangers this year. "I thought he meant that I would be around to help Eddie in practice and play the occasional game," Gilles says. "I never thought I'd be playing as much as I have so far." Giacomin didn't think so, either. He still detests sitting on the bench as often as he has this season. "It gets boring," he says. "I try to holler like I do when I'm in the goal, but some nights I just can't make myself. And I'm usually mad at myself or somebody else because I'm not the one out there playing. It's an adjustment, sure, but what Emile's doing now is right."
Regardless of whether he is scheduled to play or merely to watch, Giacomin, who, like all goalies, is very superstitious, always takes the first warmup in the pre-game skate. "Frank Paice [the Rangers' trainer] gives me a puck, and I'm always the first one on the ice," Ed says. "I start the players skating counterclockwise, then yell, 'The other way,' and we all go clockwise." Giacomin drops the puck from his glove, and Bob Nevin, the Ranger captain, controls it first. "None of the other players know that Nevvy and I have this thing about the puck," Giacomin says. "I've seen Nevvy lift other players' sticks just so he can control the puck before anyone else."
Rod Seiling, a Ranger defenseman, always takes the first practice shot at Giacomin. "Rod doesn't know it, but 90% of the time he tries to shoot the puck through my pads." If Giacomin is scheduled to play the game, then he warms up for about eight minutes. If Villemure is to start, then Eddie will leave the cage after about four minutes. "It will always be this way as long as I'm with the Rangers," he says.
Besides sitting on the bench more often, there is one other great change in Giacomin this year. Along with virtually every other goalie in the league, Ed now wears a mask. "It's something I've thought about for a long time," he says. "I know that everyone says I'm wearing a mask because of what happened to Jacques Plante in the playoffs last year, but that's not true. I always wore a mask in training camp and in practice, but I never found a mask that would protect my eyes without loss of vision, particularly when I had to look for the puck around my feet."
Ernie Higgins of Norwood, Mass. spent several hours with Giacomin before the start of this season studying the problem and making molds of the goaltender's face. The mask Higgins made for Giacomin provides him with both maximum vision and maximum protection. "I still have one problem," he says. "I perspire a lot, and the sweat runs into my eyes. I may have to get a sweat band like the one Wilt Chamberlain uses on the basketball court."
Oddly enough, the only person who has objected to Ed's mask so far is his proud wife, Marg. "She doesn't like it," says Ed. "She claims that it's too hard to tell who's playing in the goal when all the goalies are wearing masks."
Well, Marg, look at it this way. If he's got a 1 on his back, that's Ed. If it's a 30, that's Gilles.