We’re not sure what label they gave to guys like Cecil ‘Tiny’ Thompson back in the day, but there’s little doubt he was a rink rat. As a child he would position himself behind the net of the Calgary Tigers to study the movements of his idol Charlie Reid. Following his NHL playing days, he spent 30 years as a scout. Thompson was at home in a hockey rink.
Or a baseball diamond, a pastime that would serve him well as a goaltender. Prior to Thompson’s arrival in the late 1920s, NHL goalies rarely, if ever, actually made saves by catching the puck. But Thompson, who was a semi-pro baseball player in his hometown of Calgary, began snuffing out plays by catching the puck wearing nothing more than a padded player’s glove. Ever the innovator, Thompson was also one of the first puckhandling goalies, going down as the first goaltender in NHL history to record an assist.
Thompson’s exploits were overshadowed by Frank Brimsek, the man who replaced him in the Boston Bruins net, but there are those who think Thompson was every bit as good as Brimsek. “He’s a guy who I always thought didn’t get the credit he deserved,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “He was a really good goalie. He had some great success with the Bruins before Brimsek came along and even with Detroit late in his career he was on a really bad team and he got them into the playoffs.”
Bruins GM Art Ross purchased Thompson’s rights from the minor-pro Minneapolis Millers without having seen him play and Thompson did not disappoint. In fact, there are few goalies in the game who have had a more significant immediate impact than Thompson did. Think Ken Dryden, Tom Barrasso or Patrick Roy and you’re on the right track.
After allowing only 52 goals in 44 games in 1928-29, he went 5-0 in the playoffs – allowing only three goals – and led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup. He only got better from there. The next season, he won the first of what was a then-record four Vezina Trophies and, that same season, established a then-record 14-game unbeaten streak and an .875 winning percentage. He led the NHL in wins five times and in shutouts four.
Ross once called Thompson the best goaltender in the NHL since Georges Vezina and Red Wings coach-GM Jack Adams, who acquired Thompson late in his career, once referred to him as “the best goalie in the world.” He played forward early in his career, which explains his ability to handle the puck and get it up to his forwards.
As a baseball player, he was accustomed to getting low to stop ground balls, an attribute he brought with him to the crease. “There’s no videotape and they never wrote about their styles much, but there are pictures where he’s low to the ice,” said hockey historian Eric Zweig. “He was athletic. In pictures, he looks like an athlete in a way not many goalies do.”
Thompson’s love for the game didn’t end with his playing career. He scouted for the Chicago Black Hawks into the late 1970s, winning a Stanley Cup with them in 1961.
Born: May 31, 1903, Sandon, B.C
NHL Career: 1928-40
Teams: Bos, Det
Stats: 284-194-75, 2.07 GAA, 81 SO
All-Star: 4 (First-2, Second-2)
Trophies: 4 (Vezina-4)
Stanley Cups: 1
DID YOU KNOW?
At 5-foot-10 and 161 pounds, Thompson wasn’t tiny, particularly for the era in which he played. In fact, he was one of the bigger goalies of his time and covered a lot of the net. It turns out he earned the nickname ‘Tiny’ when he was in midget hockey in Calgary because he was the tallest player in the team picture. Hockey players were clearly more imaginative when it came to nicknames early in the 20th century.