Monday, 22 June 2009

Georges Vézina: Gardien De But Extraordinaire

We've seen a number of trophies that are awarded to the best player based upon certain criteria. The Hart Trophy is given to the season's best player, the Art Ross Trophy is given to the league's top scorer, and the Norris Trophy is awarded to the season's best defenceman. Today, we look at the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the goaltender judged to be the best at his position as voted on by NHL General Managers. This trophy was named in honour of Georges Vézina, the legendary Montreal Canadiens goaltender, and is the first trophy to have had its definition changed. Originally, it was awarded to the goaltender who had the fewest goals-against during the regular season. However in 1981-82, the NHL opted to award the Vezina Trophy to the league's best goaltender in the regular season. Who was Georges Vézina? Why is this trophy named for him? What's so special about it anyway?

Joseph-Georges-Gonzague Vézina was the youngest of eight children. His parents, Jacques Vézina, a baker originally from St. Nicholas de Larchoelle in France, and Clara Vézina raised their family in Chicoutimi, Quebec. Georges Vézina regularly played street hockey, and didn't actually hit the ice until age 16 when he joined a local team in Chicoutimi.

The problem was that Chicoutimi, at the turn of the 20th century, was a long way from Quebec City and Montreal, so there was no league for the team in which they could participate. The team, instead, traveled across the province of Quebec and played where ever they could. They called themselves the "Saguenéens", or "people from the Saguenay". Chicoutimi is located in the Saguenay region in Quebec. Today, of course, there is a QMJHL team with that same name.

In 1908 and at the age of 21, Vézina married a beautiful Quebecois girl named Marie-Adélaïde-Stella Morin. Two years later, the Saguenéens, with Vézina in net, arrived in Montreal to play the Canadiens of the National Hockey Association. Chicoutimi stifled the Canadiens all night, and Vézina earned the shutout against the professional squad. This prompted Canadiens' goaltender Joseph Cattarinich to speak to Vézina in an effort to convince him to tryout for the Canadiens.

Vézina initially refused the tryout, opting to stick with the the Saguenéens. However, in December 1910, the Saguenéens returned to Montreal for a game against the Canadiens, and both Georges, and his brother Pierre, were convinced by the Canadiens to come to Montreal for the tryout. Georges stood out in the tryout, blocking shots with both his body and his stick. Stick saves were still relatively unheard of, and this impressed the Canadiens' coaching staff. While Pierre's tryout was unsuccessful, Georges was signed to a contract for $800 per season.

Georges made his professional debut in the NHA against the Ottawa Senators on December 31, 1910. He played all sixteen games for the Canadiens that season, posting a record of 8-8 while giving up the fewest goals in the league. The following season saw Vézina's record drop to 8-10, but he again had the league's lowest goals-against.

January 18, 1913 saw Vézina post his first shutout of his professional career as Montreal defeated the Ottawa Senators by a score of 6-0. Vézina had a solid year in 1912-13 as he posted a record of 11-9, leading the Canadiens to a share of first-place overall with the Toronto Blueshirts. The Blueshirts went on to compete for the Stanley Cup that season, however, as they defeated the Canadiens in a two-game, total-goals series. Vézina shutout the Blueshirts in Game One by a 2-0 score, but the Blueshirts ripped six goals past him in Game Two to take the series.

The Canadiens would finish last in the NHA the following season, but the 1915-16 season was Vézina's best in the NHA. He posted a record of 16-7-1, had the lowest goals-against, and the Canadiens finished first overall in the league. This earned them the right to represent the NHA in the Stanley Cup Final against the WCHL Champion Portland Rosebuds. The Canadiens won the series 3-2, and captured the Stanley Cup. During the deciding game, Vézina's second son was born. According to reports, Vézina considered the 1915-16 season as his best.

The 1916-17 saw Vézina lead the NHA in fewest goals-against again, the fourth time in seven years he had done so. The Canadiens advanced to the Stanley Cup Final again, but lost to the Seattle Millionaires in that series. He also had several nicknames given to him by this time: "le Concombre de Chicoutimi" - the "Chicoutimi Cucumber" for his cool demeanour; and "l'Habitant silencieux" - the "Silent Habitant" in reference to his quiet personality.

With the NHA having dissolved and the NHL formed, the Canadiens joined the new league with Vézina as their starting goaltender. On February 18, 1918, Vézina recorded the NHL's first shutout after closing the door in a 9-0 thrashing of the Toronto Arenas. He was credited with the first assist ever by a goalie on December 28, 1918 after Newsy Lalonde picked up a puck on off a Vézina save and scored. His first season in the NHL saw Vézina go 12-9, lead the league with the fewest goals-against with 84, and posted one shutout.

Vézina and the Canadiens would be a part of NHL history the following season as well. The Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators in the NHL Playoffs to advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Pacific Coast Hockey Association Champion Seattle Metropolitans. However, the Spanish flu epidemic had serious effects on the Canadiens when they traveled to Seattle, and the team became infected. Unable to play, the Stanley Cup was not awarded that season due to the spreading of the flu, the first time in history that had happened.

Vézina was a part of the first Montreal Canadiens team to win the Stanley Cup as an NHL club in 1923-24. The Canadiens defeated the Calgary Tigers of the WCHL in their best-of-three series 2-0 with Vézina recording a shutout in the second game.

In the summer of 1925, Vézina signed a contract worth $6000 for the season - huge money for an individual player, but a sign of how important he was to the Canadiens' success. There was serious concern, however, over Vézina's health when he arrived for training camp at the start of the 1925-26 season. While Vézina said nothing about it, he was noticeably thinner and looked ill. By the team's first game of that season against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had lost 35 pounds in six weeks and was running a fever over 100 degrees consistently. However, he skated out to the net for the game against the Pirates, and didn't allow a goal in the first 20 minutes. After vomiting blood during the intermission, Vézina collapsed on the ice in the second period and had to leave the game.

He was diagnosed with tuberculosis the next day, and the team sent him home to recover. The quiet, proud French goaltender wouldn't play another game for the Canadiens. He returned on December 3 to see his teammates one last time. Head coach Léo Dandurand commented that Vézina sat in the corner of the locker room with tears running down his cheeks as he stared at his old pads and skates that Canadiens' trainer Eddie Dufour had left out for him. Vézina didn't take his equipment with him, but he did ask for one thing: the jersey he wore in the 1924-25 Stanley Cup Final. After receiving the jersey, Vézina returned home to Chicoutimi with his wife, Marie, at his side.

Vézina's health continued to deteriorate, and, on March 27, 1926, Vézina died at l'Hôtel-Dieu in Chicoutimi. In his honour, the Canadiens paid his full salary for the year despite him only playing one game - a testament to how important to the team he truly was. Over 1500 people filled a church in Chicoutimi to honour their fallen hero, and the newspapers in Quebec ran stories about his life and accomplishments. In 1945, with the establishment of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Vézina was inducted as one of the first twelve members. In 1965, the city of Chicoutimi renamed their arena as the Centre Georges-Vézina in honour of their goaltending legend.

In an effort to remember his contributions to hockey, Léo Dandurand, Leo Letourneau and Joseph Cattarinich, owners of the Montreal Canadiens at the time, donated a trophy in Georges Vézina's honour to the NHL. The Vezina Trophy was to be awarded to the goaltender who allowed the fewest goals-against during the regular season - something Vézina had done seven times in his career. The first winner of the Vezina Trophy was actually the man who replaced Vézina in the Montreal net, Canadiens' goaltender George Hainsworth.

So that's how the Vezina Trophy became a part of NHL lore. There are some pretty interesing facts about this trophy. After 1981, the NHL awarded the Vezina Trophy to the best goaltender during the regular season, so some of these records may never be broken:

  • Jacques Plante has the most Vezina Trophy wins in his career, winning it seven times. Dominik Hasek and Bill Durnan sit second with six career Vezina Trophy wins. Ken Dryden sits in third-place all-time with five Vezina Trophy wins.
  • The first repeat winner was the man who earned the first Vezina Trophy: George Hainsworth. Hainsworth actually won it three consecutive times from 1926-1929.
  • Francis Charles "Mister Zero" Brimsek, goaltender for the 1938-39 Boston Bruins, was the first non-Canadian goaltender to win the award. Brimsek was born in Eveleth, Minnesota. It would take another 46 seasons before the first non-North American-born goaltender would win the Vezina Trophy. Philadelphia's Pelle Lindbergh was the first European goaltender to win the Vezina Trophy when he did it in 1984-85.
  • There have been twelve years where more than one goaltender has had their name etched on the side of the Vezina Trophy. This is due to teams that employed more than one goaltender during the regular season when the award went to the team with the lowest goals-against during the season. The 1964-65 Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team to have both goalies on the trophy when Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk earned the accolade.
  • In 1973-74, there was a tie between goaltenders from two different teams. Chicago's Tony Esposito and Philadelphia's Bernie Parent earned the Vezina Trophy that season. This is the only time in NHL history that two goaltenders from different teams won the Vezina Trophy.
  • Only once have three goaltenders shared the award in one year. The 1980-81 Montreal Canadiens had Michel Laroque, Denis Herron, and Richard Sevigny share the Vezina Trophy that year.
  • The first player to win the Vezina Trophy after the NHL changed how they award the trophy was New York Islanders' goaltender Billy Smith in 1981-82.
  • The first player to win the Vezina Trophy twice under the new format was Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Patrick Roy. Roy won his first award in 1988-89, and followed it up in 1989-90 to become the first goaltender to win consecutive Vezina Trophies under the new format.
  • Dominik Hasek has won the most consecutive Vezina Trophies under the new format. Hasek won back-to-back-to-back Vezina Trophies with the Sabres from 1996-99.
  • Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Jacques Plante holds the record for most consecutive Vezina Trophy wins in NHL history. Plante won five Vezina Trophies in a row from 1955-1960, breaking former Canadiens' goaltender Bill Durnan's record of four consecutive Vezina Trophies.
  • Montreal, as a team, has had the most Vezina Trophy winners with 27. The Chicago Blackhawks sit second with ten, and the Boston Bruins sit third with eight.
  • Interestingly, Buffalo sits fourth all-time win seven Vezina Trophy winners. Besides, Hasek's six Vezina Trophies, Don Edwards and Bob Sauvé shared the Vezina Trophy in 1979-80.
  • There have been only fourteen franchises who have won a Vezina Trophy in the history of the NHL.
So there is the history of the Vezina Trophy, and a look back on the man who the trophy was named for. While there may have been flashier stars in the early days of the NHL, none played as consistently as Vézina, and the Canadiens flourished because of his efforts.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

Did Vezina have a jerey number?

Anonymous said...

Seattle was not called the Millionaires. That was the Vancouver Millionaires. They were called the Seattle Metropolitans.

Teebz said...

Stick tap to Anon #2. My bad on the name as I was reading info about Seattle and the PCHL, and mixed the two up. Well done, and good catch!

Anon #1 - if he did, it would have been #1.