Robb Tallas (Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
The “Emergency Backup” goaltender has come to the forefront thanks to Florida’s March 3 goaltending debacle when goaltending coach Robb Tallas had to suit up midgame. Stu Hackel breaks down the history, and the future, of one of the NHL’s greatest oddities.
Among hockey’s great quirks – and there are a few -- is that it’s the only pro sport with the potential for someone not on the roster to come out of the stands and actually play in the game. It takes a very rare set of circumstances to open that door and it hasn’t actually happened in the NHL for over 50 years. But the rules permit it.
If both the starting and backup goalies cannot continue, the next in line, according to the rules, can be anyone deemed “qualified” by the league. He could be the team’s goalie coach (and most of them are retired netminders) or virtually anyone who has sufficient experience at the position. It could also be a skater in the game who is brave enough or crazy enough to face enemy fire.
That scenario came very close to transpiring on March 3 when both Florida Panthers goalies, Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya, were injured in a game against Toronto. Luongo’s initial shoulder injury set Rule 5.3 into motion, as goalie coach Robb Tallas – who hasn’t played in 14 seasons – sought to get permission from the league to dress as the backup, just as fellow retired NHLers-turned coaches Arturs Irbe and Dwayne Roloson have done earlier this season.
When that approval was delayed, Panthers forward Derek McKenzie left the bench and hustled to put on Tallas’s equipment (and no NHL skater has gone in goal since October 1960 when Boston’s Jerry Toppazini took over for an injured Don Simmons in the last minute of a game against Chicago). Somewhere in there, Montoya was also injured and Tallas’ approval came through, but Luongo returned from getting checked out and was healthy enough to resume, although he hasn’t played since.
It was, however, a close call and the kind of scenario NHL general managers have discussed in the past but without agreeing on a solution. As the GMs convene for their annual working vacation in Florida this week, there should again be some discussion -- and perhaps new procedures – relating to emergency backup goaltenders.
This meeting regularly sets the stage for rule changes the following season. And while most of the focus may fall on potential changes to the overtime format and shootouts, the Panthers’ plight on March 3 may renew the GMs resolve to address the issue.
“The recent Florida game in which both goaltenders were injured in the same game was unique, but brought to light a situation to be considered and discussed,” Nashville GM David Poile told The Hockey News in an email. Poile also sits on the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee, which gets recommended rule changes from the GMs and moves them closer to adoption.
“There are a host of considerations to be brought forward as the league explores various options to insure fairness and safety,” Poile added. “It may well be a topic of discussion at our upcoming GM meeting and I am anxious to and interested in putting all scenarios on the table.”
Among the proposals may be reviving “house goalies,” an Original Six relic in which the home team was responsible for making sure a decent puckstopper was in the building for each game. At a time when teams were required to only carry one netminder, these standby goalies didn’t dress for the game but would leave their arena seats and head to the dressing room if either team’s netminder went down. The game was delayed until he could get his gear on and take warmup shots.
But when the NHL mandated clubs dress a second goalie for all games, beginning in the 1965 playoffs, standby netminders went the way of the rover, referees using bells instead of whistles, penalized players staying in the box after a power play tally and, more recently, goal judges and tie games.
Some GM’s no doubt will object to bringing back house goalies, fearing the visiting team would have no control over who will stand in front of their goal. And, there will doubtless be CBA-related issues to any solution. The question facing the GMs, however, is the adequacy of the current rule, which forces them to scramble for a second backup. How safe would it have been for some of the recent emergency backups to play, and how competitive would they have been?
A short parade of emergency backup goalies have pulled on NHL sweaters and strapped on pads in recent years. All of them – the former NHLers, plus ex-minor leaguers or collegians who range in age from their early 20s to early 50s -- were just a strained muscle or crease crash away from being pressed into service.
And yet, the chances of that becoming necessary are remote. It’s seems that an emergency non-roster replacement hasn’t actually gone from the stands to an NHL game since November 1963, when Harrison Gray took over for injured Terry Sawchuck in the Detroit net. The previous month, Jean-Guy Morissette took over for Montreal’s Gump Worsley.
The NHL mandated the clubs provide a house goalie who could be used by either team in case of injury beginning in the 1950-51 season. The arrangements apparently varied team-to-team, but in a 1972 book on his goaltending sons Dave and Ken, Murray Dryden recalled when Dave was a junior hockey goalie and the NHL house goalie at Maple Leaf Gardens when his schedule permitted. Dave received the lordly sum of $10 a game from the Maple Leafs to sit in the press box at Maple Leaf Gardens as the standby and made his NHL debut for the Rangers in February 1962 as a 20 year old when Worsley was injured, surrendering three goals in two periods. The Leafs gave him $100 for his 40 minutes of work.
Unlike other house goalies, Dave Dryden eventually had a good pro career in both the NHL and WHA. But many house goalies got in one game and never had their name on an NHL game sheet again. To those of us growing up in the Original Six era, the names of these in-game substitutes – Gray, Morrisette, Bob DeCourcy, Tom McGrattan, Dan Olesevich, Julian Klymkiw and Don Aiken – were shrouded in great mystery. Who were these guys whose unexpected time on the big stage could only be measured in minutes? Where did they come from? Where did they go?
Some house goalies were more noteworthy. In 1951, 46-year-old Blackhawks assistant trainer Moe Roberts took over for a period, replacing injured Harry Lumley. Roberts had played in the NHL as far back as 1925 and had a long and distinguished minor pro career that ended in ’46. He became the oldest man to ever play in the NHL until Gordie Howe broke his record in 1979. Enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, he’s still the oldest man ever to play goal in the NHL.
Lefty Wilson, a popular Red Wings equipment manager, got into goal for three games during the ‘50s due to injury, and in two of them, he played against Detroit, beating them on both occasions at a time when the Wings were a league powerhouse.
''There was no way I wanted those guys to score on me,'' Wilson told Dick Irvin for the 1995 book In the Crease. ''It would have been terrible to go to work in the dressing room the next day and have them give me the needle about how many they scored.''
Marcel Pelletier filled in for the Blackhawks during a '51 game and played five more at the outset of his long minor-pro career. Eleven years later he took over twice for Worsley – who is probably the all-time leader in giving way to injury replacements -- with the Rangers in 1962-63. That’s a long gap between NHL appearances and those games sum up Pelletier’s NHL playing career. After the ’67 expansion, however, he became an essential member of the Flyers hockey department as player personnel director, helping build a two-time Stanley Cup champion and perennial contender.
As the Madison Square Garden house goalie, Pelletier proved to be an upgrade over his predecessor, Joe Schaefer. A former amateur netminder who went into business on Long Island, Schaefer was the Rangers’ practice goalie during the ‘50s, 35 years old and out of shape when a laceration to Worsley’s hand forced him to face Bobby Hull and the Blackhawks. “He turned white when he was told to get into uniform,” Worsley recalled in his autobiography and a 1-0 Rangers lead turned into a 5-1 Rangers loss.
A year later, Worsley’s torn hamstring to meant Schaefer again had to face Chicago and what had been a 1-1 tie became a 4-3 Rangers defeat in his second and final NHL appearance. When Schaefer visited the Gumper in the hospital after the game, Worsley recalled his pal was still sweating and shaking all over.
And Schaefer then uttered the impossible solution for the NHL’s emergency goaltender dilemma: “Stay healthy Gumpy, will you please?” he said.