Monday, December 31, 2012

December 31, 1910: Georges Vezina made his debut with the Montreal Canadiens.

On December 31, 1910, Georges Vezina made his professional debut as goalie of the Montreal Canadiens.  The goaltender would go onto play in 367 consecutive games which included regular season and playoffs.  His career was remarkable, starting out in Chicoutimi, Quebec in Canada, Vezina's parents were local bakers who also owned the local ice rink, which meant from a very young age Georges would find himself on the ice. He played with local teams throughout his youth before being discovered by the Montreal Canadiens.

In February of 1910, an exhibition game brought the Canadiens to his hometown to take on the local team. Vezina performed so well in the exhibition game that the Montreal club tried persuading him to come and play with them. Initially Vezina would turn the team down. In December of the same year the Canadiens came back to town, this time they were able to convince Vezina to join their team and signed him to a staggering $800 contract, by today's standard that would be close to $20,000. On December 31, 1910, Vezina took his spot between the pipes for the Canadiens, he would remain between those pipes until November of 1925.

When Vezina came to Montreal the team was a member of the National Hockey Association, the NHA was the forerunner to the NHL. He had success early, nicknamed "The Chicoutimi Cucumber" because he was cool as a cucumber when he was in net, Vezina would lead the league in his first three seasons with the lowest goals against average. He would get his first shot at a Stanley Cup Title following the '13-14 season, when his team ended up in a tie with the Toronto Blueshirts it forced a 2 game total goal playoff. Vezina was able to shutout the Toronto team in the first game but then gave up 6 goals in the second game which pushed the Blueshirts onto the Stanley Cup Finals where they won it all. The Canadiens had a rough season the next time around, losing 14 of 18 games caused them to miss the playoffs. They bounced back in the 1915-'16 campaign by  finishing at the top of the NHA, it would set the table for them to meet the Pacific Hockey Association's Portland Rosebuds in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a best of 5 series to decide who took home the hardware. The series went the distance with Vezina playing his ass off. The night of Game 5, Montreal not only won their first cup in the history of their franchise, Vezina's second son was born, it was great night for the netminder.

The following season, Vezina led the league once again with the lowest goals against average. His goaltending led the Canadiens back to the Finals where they met and then lost to the Seattle Metropolitans, making the Seattle team the first team south of the Canadian border to win the Stanley Cup. In November of 1917 the NHA dissolved, with the Canadiens joining the newly formed NHL, Vezina became the first goalie in the history of the league to record a shutout on February 18, 1918, then on the 28th of December in the same year Vezina was credited with an assist after his teammate Newsy Lalonde snatched up the puck after a Vezina save, Lalonde put the biscuit in the basket and Vezina was credited with the first assist by a goaltender in the history of the NHL.

Vezina and the Canadiens would advance to the Stanley Cup Finals following the '18-'19 season, it was a 5 game series that set them up to avenge their 1917 Cup loss to the Seattle Metropolitans. With both teams tied 2 all, Game 5 was set to take place in Seattle. Before either team stepped on the ice for game 5 the series was cancelled because of the Spanish flu epidemic, a particularly deadly version of the flu that killed an estimated 20-50 million people worldwide. This would be the first time the Stanley Cup was not awarded to a team. It wouldn't be until the '23-24 season that  they would find themselves back in The Finals, Montreal took on the Calgary Tigers in the best of three, with the Canadiens sweeping the series in two games. It was Vezina's second championship and the first time the Montreal won Lord Stanley's Cup as a member of the NHL. They did go to The Finals again the next season, but would lose to the Victoria Cougars.

When Vezina arrived for camp for the '25-'26 campaign he was noticeably sick. He had lost significant weight and was not looking well at all, some disregarded it because he was a thin and pale guy already and nobody expected what was to come. The Canadiens opened the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates, after getting through the first period without allowing a goal, Vezina was seen in the locker room coughing up blood, he still attempted to go back out and play. Vezina didn't make it long, after collapsing near the goal he was replaced by Alponse Lacroix. It was the first time since 1910 the goalie had to have a substitute come into a game for him. Sadly it would be the last time Vezina took to the ice. The very next day he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was  advised to return home. On December 3, 1925 Vezina stood before his team one last time, with tears rolling down his cheeks he said goodbye to his second family, I would imagine it was one of the hardest days in his life. Vezina and his wife Marie returned to his hometown of Chicoutimi, where he spent the last few months of his life. Georges Vezina passed away on March 27th of 1926. Even with the fact he only played one game that season the organization still paid his $6,000 salary in full, it showed what he had meant to team.

Vezina was one of the most dominant goaltenders of his time. He helped the Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup Finals 5 times winning it twice, 7 times he had the lowest goals against average in his league and was runner up in that category another 5 times. Prior to the '26-'27 season Canadiens owners Joseph Cattaranich and Leo Letourneau immortalized his name by establishing The Vezina Award, a trophy that is given to the top goaltender in the league at the end of every season. Vezina was a great goalie, even when he was literally deathly ill he still wanted to go out and play the game. It says to me that he loved the game, he loved his team, and the only thing that would stop him from playing the game was an unbeatable illness. He played in a time when goaltenders didn't wear masks and the rules were different so a goalie couldn't even  leave his feet to make a save, you could only imagine how hard of a job that would have been. Georges Vezina was a true badass.  It has been over 100 years since he made his debut with the Canadiens and he still has fans, I know this because I'm one of them.

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