21 January 1887
- 27 March 1926
Georges Vézina was a goaltender, most famous for his tenure with the Montreal Canadiens in the National Hockey League. At only 5 ft 6 in, he would be considered small by modern standards for goaltenders; however he played in an era where goaltenders did not drop to the ice to make saves, so his small size was an advantage.
A Beloved Laconist
Frank Boucher, a hockey player in Vézina's era remembered the goalie 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." This unflappable character earned him the nickname for which he is famous: "Le Concombre de Chicoutimi" (The Chicoutimi Cucumber). Once his professional career began, he was quickly welcomed and adored by the Montreal fans, earning his other nickname: "Le Habitant Silenceux" ("The Silent Inhabitant"), a reflection of "Les Habs" whom he faithfully served for 328 National Hockey Association and National Hockey League games.
An Amateur Phenom
Born to his father, a baker, and his mother in Chicoutimi, Quebec, the young Vézina began his hockey career playing street hockey. By some accounts, he did not wear a pair of skates until he joined the hometown amateur team at the age of sixteen. Although his career hit a roadblock when Vézina left Le Petit Séminaire de Chicoutimi to assist his family's bakery, the young goaltender quickly improved his game. In those days, larger teams would travel through the provinces, searching for amateur teams to play in exhibitions. One such game pitted the Chicoutimi locals against the Montreal Nationals of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League. After winning the game and impressing the Nationals' retiring goaltender, he was invited to practise with Le Club Athlétique Canadien (the forerunners to the National Hockey League team that would form in 1915) starting in the 1910-1911 season.
A Professional Superstar
As a professional, Vézina was immediately successful, leading all National Hockey Association goaltenders in GAA as a rookie. He would do it again in the 1923-1924 season with an unbelievable 2.00 goals per game. His career stat of 3.49 only seems high by modern standards: for many years, he was the dominant goalie in the league. He was also a constant presence in the nets of Les Glorieux, wearing La Sainte-Flanelle 328 consecutive league games and 39 straight playoff contests across sixteen professional seasons from 1911 to 1925. He was also the first National Hockey League goaltender to record a shutout (a 9-0 win against Toronto in 1918), and the first goaltender to be credited with an assist. But perhaps most importantly, the first three of Montreal's Stanley Cups would be won on Vézina's watch.
A Historical Hero
Perhaps what makes Vézina's string of uninterrupted games most impressive was the first game he failed to finish. During the Canadiens' home opener of the 1925-1926 season against Pittsburgh, Vézina would leave the ice after the first period bleeding from the mouth. He attempted to return after the intermission, but falling to the ice, he had to leave. It turned out that Vézina had tuberculosis, a fact he had been hiding from his family and team so he could continue to play. Forced to retire due to his rapidly degrading health, Vézina died four months later. He left behind 22 children, including one named Marcel-Stanley for the trophy he loved.
After his death, the owners of the Canadiens decided to sponsor an award in his name for the least scored-upon goaltender. The first winner of the Vézina Trophy was Vézina's understudy, George Hainsworth for his play in the 1926-1927 season. Eleven other Canadiens goaltenders have won the award since, although now for the most valuable goaltender in the National Hockey League as voted by broadcasters and writers of the NHL rather than goals-against-average.
Although Vézina was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945, if you travel to Le Centre Bell to watch "the Flying Frenchmen", you won't see Vézina's number amongst the twelve Canadiens' numbers which have been "raised to the rafters". What was the reason his number was never retired? Vezina skated before numbers were sewn to the backs of players' sweaters, another anachronism of the nearly forgotten period of hockey in which Vézina played. Instead, Vézina has been honored with his own set of rafters since 1949; the Chicoutimi Centre Georges Vézina is named for their first son.