Les Binkley never meant to be an AHL trainer with the Cleveland Barons, but he had no choice – if he also wanted to climb the professional ladder of goaltending.
A career minor-leaguer in the Barons system, Binkley got a break in 1961 when Cleveland’s one and only puckstopper, Gil Mayer, got hurt. Binkley was promoted from IHL Toledo and played well enough to please the Barons’ boss, Jim Hendy. “Jim invited me to the Barons’ AHL camp the next fall even though Mayer was really good,” Les told me in an interview for the book Up From The Minor Leagues Of Hockey I co-authored with my wife, Shirley. “Teams only carried one goalie then, but Hendy made an unusual offer. He wanted me to stay with the team as a trainer.”
AHL teams only carried one goalie – maskless, to boot – but Hendy figured if Mayer got hurt, ‘Bink’ could take over in a wink. The problem, as Binkley told Hendy, was that he knew plenty about kick saves but nothing about saving an injured player. Hendy said not to worry. “Jim said he’d get me ‘Kramer’s Correspondent’s Course For Trainers’ and that would do the trick,” Binkley said. “He got me the book, and I spent several weeks studying it. Then, one day, I asked him, ‘What if there’s a serious injury on the ice that I can’t handle?’ No worries. He said, ‘We’ll always have a doctor in the building.’ That made me feel better, and I figured I was one of the few people in hockey who had the opportunity to be a trainer and play goal in practices at the same time.”
As it happened, he took care of many injuries. “If a player got cut, I’d stop the bleeding and put a bandage on until we could get him a doctor to get stitched. Before every game I’d take a peek at my correspondence course just to keep sharp.”
Not that it was a snap. Before Binkley could take to the ice for a practice, he had to get the equipment ready for the other players. “Then, I’d have to leave early to get the towels and soap ready after the workouts.”
Binkley, 26 at the time, waited patiently for his chance, and it came in Buffalo when Mayer took a shot to the head and couldn’t continue. Barons coach Jack Gordon turned to Les and said: “Well, who’s going in? It’s either you or me, and you have more experience, so we’ll have to put the pads on you.”
Binkley lost 3-1 and returned to his training chores until Mayer went down again late in the season. This time Binkley got hot and eventually beat Mayer out for the job. He was the AHL’s rookie of the year at 27 in 1961-62 and began hoping an NHL team would discover him. “There were only six teams in the NHL, and all the goalies there were really great, so I tried to put the NHL out of my mind,” he said. “I was getting older, and it looked like there’d never be an opening for Les Binkley. By 1966, I was close to throwing in the pads.”
But in 1967-68 when Binkley was 33, the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams, Jack Riley, GM of the new Pittsburgh Penguins, signed him, and the one-time trainer became the Penguins’ starting goalie. More than that, he starred for his NHL club, employing the classic standup style without a mask but with his contact lenses focused on the puck. “It took a long time for me to get there,” he said, “but when I finally made the NHL, it was just the way I thought it would be. Big arenas, colorful crowds, bright lights. I’d come a long way from Owen Sound (Ont.), but every minute in the minors became worthwhile.”
It also meant that the “From Trainer To The NHL” story hit the wires, continent-wide, and that made Les chuckle. “They played up the fact a trainer came out of the dressing room, put on pads and became a star overnight,” he said. “As if I never played goal before, although I had for years and years – all the way from Quebec to San Diego. They had created the story and wanted to stick with it.”
Not that the bespectacled Binkley really cared too much. He starred as a Penguins rookie, even getting a standing ovation at Boston Garden after shutting out Bobby Orr and the Big, Bad Bruins. After the game, Bruins scout Red Sullivan opined, “Outside of one other goaltender, there’s no one who has more ability than Binkley.”
Binkley continued playing in the NHL and WHA for nine big-league seasons, until age 41.