Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Georges Vezina
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One on One with Georges Vezina

7 NOV 2008
Georges Vezina first laced up the skates and played with a local Chicoutimi club when he was sixteen. Little did he know that one day he would help the Montreal Canadiens to their first ever Stanley Cup championship. (HHOF Archives)
On December 31, the opening night of the 1910-11 season, the Montreal Canadiens introduced a new face to their line-up: netminder Georges Vezina. Twenty-three years of age, 'le Chevrueil' (the Deer) was shy and homesick as he joined les Canadiens of the National Hockey Association (NHA).

The path to the Montreal Canadiens was a curious one for the bashful goaltender. Georges Joseph Gonzague Vezina was born January 21, 1887, the youngest of eight children born to a Chicoutimi baker and his wife (Georges and Clara). Although he knew the game of hockey well from playing on the streets of his hometown, his talent wasn't transferred to the ice until he was sixteen, when he first wore skates and played for a local men's team.

On February 17, 1910, the Chicoutimi arena was packed to the rafters for an exhibition contest between the local team and the Montreal Canadiens. Astonishingly, the Chicoutimi team dumped the Canadiens 11-5, prompting an offer for Georges and his brother Pierre, a forward, to try out with the Canadiens. Pierre was cut , but Georges signed a contract that would see him join the NHA squad at a price of $800 per season, replacing the retired Joe Cattarinich.

Vezina proved to be a prudent choice. He had the fewest goals against in the NHA in 1910-11, 1911-12, 1913-14 and 1916-17. Georges earned new nicknames — 'the Chicoutimi Cucumber' for his cool demeanour and 'l'Habitant silencieux' — the quiet Hab. Manager Leo Dandurand often spoke on behalf of his quiet goaltender, creating outlandish stories that journalists quickly committed to ink. "He is a real French-Canadian," Dandurand winked. "He speaks no English and has twenty-two children, including three sets of triplets, and they were all born in the space of nine years." The story, although perpetuated for decades, was far from the truth. Vezina spoke broken English, and in fact, would father just two children.

Georges Vezina and his brother Pierre competed together on the Chicoutimi Hockey Club however only Georges was offered a contract with the Montreal Canadiens in 1910. (HHOF Archives)
The Montreal Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history in 1916, edging the Pacific Coast Hockey Association's Portland Rosebud's 2-1 in Game Five to take the best-of-five series three games to two.

In a series of meetings held between November 22 and 26, 1917, the National Hockey Association's team owners met and formed a new league — the National Hockey League (NHL). Again, Vezina was an outstanding final line of defence for the bleu, blanc, rouge. He led the Canadiens to a first-place finish in 1917-18, and had the fewest goals against once again. Georges is credited with other NHL firsts, too. In leading Montreal to a 9-0 victory over Toronto on February 18, 1918, he became the first NHL goalie to record a shutout. Just over a month later, on December 28 of that year, he recorded the first assist by an NHL netminder.

During the 1923-24 season, Vezina allowed just 48 goals in 24 games to again enjoy the best goals-against average in the league. He then backstopped the Canadiens to series victories over Ottawa and the PCHA's Vancouver Maroons, which led to a Stanley Cup final between Montreal and the Calgary Tigers. The Canadiens dumped Calgary 6-1 in the first game, played at the Mount Royal Arena in Montreal, but the second game was moved to the Ottawa Auditorium when the Montreal ice was ruled too poor to use. In Game Two of the best-of-three series, played on March 25, 1924, Vezina and the Canadiens shut out the Tigers 3-0 to lay claim to the Stanley Cup.

The first goaltender to ever record an NHL shutout, Vezina was nicknamed the "Chicoutimi Cucumber" because of his calm and cool demenour. (HHOF Archives)
At training camp in November 1925, Vezina performed well but was noticeably gaunt, and through the pre-season, lost 35 pounds. Georges played in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates on November 28, but did so with thumbs swollen like balloons and a temperature of 102 (some reported temperatures as high as 105). After a scoreless first period, Vezina left the ice bleeding from the mouth. He collapsed in the dressing room, returned for the start of the second period, then collapsed again and had to leave the game. "In the arena, all was silent as the limp form of the greatest of goalies was carried slowly from the ice," wrote one journalist. He stripped off his pads and Alphonse Lacroix, a U.S. Olympic goaltender, finished the game.

The next day, Vezina's doctor diagnosed the netminder with tuberculosis, and explained that he was gravely ill and needed to go home to Chicoutimi. On December 3, 1925, Georges visited the Canadiens' dressing room for a final time, insisting on saying goodbye to his teammates. "I glanced at him as he sat there and saw tears rolling down his cheeks," reported Leo Dandurand. "He was looking at his old pads and skates that (trainer) Eddie Dufour had arranged in Georges's corner. Then, he asked one little favour — the sweater he had worn in the last world series."

That night, Marie Vezina bundled up her husband and took him back to Chicoutimi, where he died on March 27, 1926. He was just thirty-nine years old. More than 1,500 were shoehorned into the cathedral in Chicoutimi for his funeral.

Vezina's NHA and NHL regular-season totals added up to 328 games played, 15 career shutouts and a goals-against average of 3.49. After his passing, his name was immortalized through a trophy presented annually to the top netminder in the NHL.
(HHOF Archives)
Prior to the 1926-26 season, team owners Joseph Cattarinich, Leo Dandurand and Leo Letourneau donated a trophy to the NHL in memory of their heroic netminder. The Vezina Trophy was to be presented annually to the goaltender on the team which was least scored upon through the NHL season. That season, George Hainsworth, Vezina's successor with the Canadiens, was the first recipient of the Vezina Trophy. In 1981-82, the definition tied to the trophy changed. That season, the William Jennings Trophy was introduced to the goaltending team with the lowest goals-against average and the Vezina Trophy subsequently was awarded to the netminder judged to be the best at his position in the opinion of the league's general managers.

Frank Boucher, a New York Rangers star during Vezina's era, recalled Georges in 'A Breed Apart' by Douglas Hunter. "Vezina was a pale, narrow-featured fellow, almost frail-looking, yet remarkably good with his stick. He'd pick off more shots with it than he did with his glove. He stood upright in the net and scarcely ever left his feet; he simply played all his shots in a standing position. He always wore a toque -- a small, knitted hat with no brim in Montreal colours -- bleu, blanc et rouge. I also remember him as the coolest man I ever saw, absolutely imperturbable."

In the realm of extraordinary goaltenders through the NHL's long history, it is difficult to judge where Georges Vezina would rank. Hockey was a different game during Vezina's era - goaltenders were forbiddeen to drop to the ice to stop shots. Nevertheless, it is fair to make the claim that he is among the greatest the game has ever known. He played 328 consecutive regular season games, all with the Canadiens, earning a record of 173 wins, 148 losses and 6 ties. In playoff action, Georges participated in 35 games, winning 22, tying one and losing 12. In 1945, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (one of the hallowed institution's inaugural inductees). In 1998, The Hockey News ranked Georges Vezina number 75 on their list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players. But more simply, his glory will be perpetuated through the trophy bearing his name, awarded for goaltending excellence.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.