This is part of a continuing series of articles spotlighting the men that have played for the Montreal Canadiens and been afforded the ultimate honor; membership in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“The first thing that pops into my mind is that he always wore a toque, a small, knitted hat with no brim in Montreal colors – bleu, blanc, et rouge. I also remember him as the coolest man I ever saw, absolutely imperturbable … He stood upright in the net and scarcely ever left his feet; he simply played all his shots in a standing position. 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.” – Frank Boucher
The footage is grainy and in a fuzzy black and white, like an old home movie of your grandparents. Watching it, you struggle to focus on what you’re seeing but unfortunately, the passage of time has not been kind to this old film. But if you look closely, you’ll quickly find yourself watching a priceless hockey artifact.
Shot over eighty years ago on a bright, sunny, January day in Verdun, one can see a hockey team enjoying an intersquad game as they finish their practice for the day. But this is no ordinary hockey team, because even with the years of decline, there is one thing that captures our attention when we watch the film; it is undenialable, it is unmistakable, it is the CH logo of the Montreal Canadiens stamped on the players chests.
Watching the game from the camera’s vantage point, we are positioned behind a goaltender wearing the number eleven. We can hardly make out the opposing goaltender, we can see the outline of his position, we see him resting on his stick after making a stand up save, but he seems so far away and distant, like a ghost.
That goalie is Georges Vezina and what you’re watching is the only known film footage of the Montreal Canadiens first true legend. A player that in the ensuing years has become more myth than man, as the people who saw him play have faded into history, to the point where there is no one left to talk about his greatness.
When looking back at the life and career of Georges Vezina, one is confronted by the legend. For many of us the name Vezina is synonymous with goaltending excellence. But, what about the man himself? Who was this man? What made him so successful? What was he like, both on and off the ice?
We read about Vezina in books and have the memories of those who played for and against him, but it somehow still doesn’t feel as if it’s enough. We desperately want to know more but with Vezina, much of who he was has been lost to the sands of time. What you’re left with is the mystique and the mystery of the Canadiens first true legendary player. But behind this legend lurked an intensely private and deeply thoughtful man who had to endure a life of unspeakable tragedy along with his triumphs on the ice.
Georges Vezina was a true gentleman of the game, and a man whose devotion to the Montreal Canadiens could only be broken by his sad, untimely death. A man whose legend lives on in the trophy that bears his name.
Georges Vezina was born in Chicoutimi, Quebec in January of 1887. Like many of the Canadiens legends who later followed in his footsteps, Vezina grew up in a small French speaking community that sits on the edge of the Sagueney River. Details of his early life are very sketchy. One of the few details to emerge is that Vezina was thought to have played on the town’s first hockey team.
Playing goal may have been a necessity for Vezina; he didn’t learn to skate until his late teens; and played goal while wearing his boots. As a youth, legend has it that Vezina sharpened his skills by having friends throw rubber balls at him.
The position of goaltender was much different back in the early days of the game compared to what we see today. When Vezina first began playing for the Canadiens, goalies were not allowed to go down to stop the puck, and were required to stand up to make the save.
On a February day in 1910 the fortunes of Vezina and the Canadiens finally intersected, when Montreal came to Chicoutimi to play an exhibition game. Unlike many of today’s exhibition games, the Canadiens played with their full assortment of stars; future hall of famer’s like Didier Pitre, Jack Laviolette, and Newsy Lalonde.
Standing in the Chicoutimi net wearing a red toque, Vezina didn’t allow a single goal to the star studded Canadiens as his brother Pete scored the winning marker for Chicoutimi.
What the Montreal brass saw that day were the qualities that would become most associated with Vezina during his long career with the Canadiens.
In Vezina, the Canadiens saw a goalie who almost appeared bored in the net; such was the level of his composure between the pipes. Vezina’s trademark was his stoicism and almost glacial calm that radiated a certain dignity. While standing in the net he would use his goal stick to stop the puck, and yet as the same time not give up juicy rebounds. This outer calmness and sense of nonchalance led to the nickname; “The Chicoutimi Cucumber.”
The Canadiens didn’t hesitate to sign Vezina to a contract for the 1910-11 National Hockey Association season. With a handshake agreement that paid him $800 for the year, Vezina debuted with Montreal on December 31st, 1910.
It didn’t take long for Vezina to establish himself as the league’s dominant goaltender, leading the league in goals against average of 3.90. And while that average seems high by today’s standards one must keep in mind that hockey back then was dominated by offense. Back in those days a shutout was almost as rare as a no hitter in baseball. During the entire 1910-11 National Hockey Association season there was only one recorded shutout.
Vezina’s rookie season would be the first of three times that he led his league in goals against average. Despite all of his success with the Canadiens and all of the accolades thrown his way, Vezina remained somewhat of a mystery to his teammates and to all those around him.
Part of this was by design. Known by many as the “Silent Habitant”, Vezina carefully chose his words and only spoke in his native French language. A devout Catholic, he was married at 20 and sired 22 children. He never wavered in his faith, even when only two of his children survived to adulthood. Vezina mostly kept to himself with the Canadiens and very rarely complained. He didn’t share details of his life with many on the Canadiens, preferring to go about his job in a cool, calm efficient manner. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a fierce competitor; he was. He burned with an inner competitive fire and a pride that saw him tend the Canadiens goal for 328 consecutive games.
Vezina viewed hockey as a pursuit to further the cause of sportsmanship, to set an example for all those who watched, a cause he believed in deeply and passionately.
Undoubtedly, the twin highlights of Vezina’s career with the Canadiens were the Stanley Cup championships in 1916 and 1924.
In the 1916 playoffs, he allowed only three goals in five games as the Canadiens defeated the Portland Rosebuds to win the Stanley Cup. On the day after winning the 1916 Cup, the Canadiens went to Vezina’s hometown of Chicoutimi to play an exhibition game. This return home was of special significance to Vezina on more than a professional level. The night before, while Vezina and the Canadiens were winning their first Stanley Cup, one of Vezina’s two sons who would reach adulthood was born. In honor of the event, Vezina named his son Marcil Stanley.
Eight years later, with the Canadiens now playing in the National Hockey League, they swept the Calgary Tigers to win their second Stanley Cup with Vezina clinching the Cup by pitching a shutout.
Even with the rule change in 1922 that allowed goaltenders to go down to stop the puck, Vezina became even more dominant as he became the prototype standup goaltender for all who followed. Wearing the number one on his back, Vezina led the NHL in goals against average in 1924 and 1925.
More changes were on the horizon as the Canadiens were forced to abandon the Mount Royal Arena to open their 1924 season as the artificial ice system wasn’t working. Instead, the Canadiens opened their season and played the very first hockey game at the brand new Montreal Forum on November 29th, 1924. With Vezina tending the nets, the Canadiens wearing their globe jerseys, signifying their status as world’s champions, opened the Forum with a 7-1 win over the Toronto St. Pats.
Vezina went on to enjoy his best season in 1924-25 at the age of 37. In the Canadiens thirty games he gave up only 56 goals, for a goals against average of 1.87, with five shutouts, all career bests.
In the fall of 1925, coming off of his best season, it was clear that something was wrong with Vezina physically. He had lost weight, and appeared to be running a constant fever, but Vezina never complained, and went out to take his spot in the Canadiens goal as he had for the previous fifteen years.
On November 25th, the Canadiens opened their season at the Mount Royal Arena against the Pittsburgh Pirates before a crowd of 6,000. Unknown to those in the crowd was the extent of Vezina’s poor condition. After giving up one goal, Vezina left the ice at the end of the first period bleeding from the mouth, and collapsed in the Canadiens dressing room during the first intermission.
Despite the pleas of his teammates, Vezina suffering from extreme chest pains went out to start the second period. He collapsed again and was led from the ice on a stretcher.
Georges Vezina would never go back in goal again.
The news from the doctors wasn’t good. Vezina was diagnosed with an advanced case of tuberculosis; his lungs were in such poor shape that he was given no chance of survival. His illustrious career was over, and he had a short time left to live.
In late March more than four months after he played his last game for the Canadiens, Vezina came into the Montreal dressing room before a game and sat down in his usual corner. It was an emotional moment for all those in that dressing room. The effects of his sickness had made Vezina a mere shell of his former self, as tuberculosis had ravaged his body.
Standing in the dressing room, Canadiens owner Leo Dandurand recalled how, “He glanced at Vezina as he sat there, and saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He was looking at his old pads and skates that (trainer) Eddie Dufour had arranged in Georges corner, thinking he would don them that night.”
But there would be no grand comeback for Vezina. Instead he asked Dandurand for one favor; he wanted the sweater that he had worn for the Canadiens last Stanley Cup victory. After procuring the sweater Georges Vezina took his leave, never to return. He passed away on March 26th, 1926.
Soon after his death the Canadiens ownership donated a trophy in Vezina’s name to honor the NHL’s top goaltender. Today, the Vezina trophy has become the symbol of goaltender excellence. In 1945, Vezina was part of the first induction class into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After his death, Canadiens owner Leo Dandurand shared an essay that Vezina had written him a few years before his death. Translated from French to English, it reveals a man who despite his limited education background was very philosophical and a man who was much more than just a puck stopper for the Montreal Canadiens. It shows us that above all Georges Vezina saw himself as a sportsman.
“If fair play is the rule in the NHL, there will be no cause for worry. Speaking of fair play reminds me of the words of the noted English novelist John Galsworthy, who despairing of what he termed “the present precious European mess,” declared that he found only one flag that was flying high and true, and that was the flag of sport.
Athletes and sportsmen rejoice in this … Around this outstanding British inheritance of two words – fair play – revolves Canada’s powerful and precious asset, sport. It serves unfailingly, more than anything else, to impress Canadian youth with the importance of fair play. With those two words always in mind we are assured of what every thoughtful Canadian is striving for, and that is unity.
That sport, more than anything else, can bring this about was never brought home to me more forcibly than last year on our training trip to Grimsby, Ontario. I, a French-Canadian … being unable to speak English and living amongst men of a different creed and racial background, made many fast friends in Ontario, friends whom I never would have known if I had not been connected with the sport of hockey.
Quebec and its English-speaking sister provinces cannot have too many sports flags flying, because those flags always teach respect for rules and adversaries. Men who are able to live above the fog in public duty and private thinking are sportsmen inevitably. They are usually leaders also, not merely following the current but directing it.” – Georges Vezina
parts of this article were taken from the book, “The Flying Frenchmen”, by Stan Fischler