His life was tragically cut short, but the legacy of Georges Vezina will never be forgotten. He was a revolutionary netminder who ruled the crease for the Montreal Canadiens across two eras, from 1910 until 1925. Vezina was the face of the National Hockey Association for the last seven years of its existence and a dominant goalie in the first eight seasons of the NHL.
Vezina perfected the stand-up style of netminding during a time when goalies were not allowed to leave their feet (the infraction was punished with a $2 fine at the time). His ability to make saves with his stick gave him an advantage in net and, given the state of the Canadiens when he arrived, strong goaltending was necessary.
Known as ‘The Chicoutimi Cucumber’ because of his cool demeanor, Vezina caught eyes as a member of the roving Chicoutimi Sagueneens, his hometown squad. At the time, the Sags travelled around Quebec playing exhibition games, since the town was too far away for competition to visit. Fortuitously, the Montreal Canadiens made a rare trek to Chicoutimi for an exhibition game and were blown away by the 22-year-old who was putting up a wall against them. Incredibly, Vezina played in boots for most of his youth and only began skating in his late teens.
When Vezina joined the Canadiens in 1910, the team was playing in the NHA, the precursor to the NHL. In his fourth season with Montreal, Vezina steered the Canadiens to a first-place tie with Toronto, but the Habs lost a two-game playoff series, and Toronto went on to beat the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champions from Victoria for the Stanley Cup.
Two years later, Vezina got his team to the top, as the Canadiens won their first Cup. The year was 1916, and the opponent was the Pacific’s Portland Rosebuds (also the first American team to vie for the chalice). The series went the full five games, with Vezina closing out Portland by allowing just one goal in a 2-1 Cup clincher. Montreal lost in the final the next year – the final season for the NHA – when Seattle and star goalie Hap Holmes came out on top.
In 1917, the NHL was formed, and Vezina continued his strong performance by leading the new circuit with a 3.93 goals-against average. While that sounds terrible by today’s standards, it’s worth noting that, according to modern metrics, he led the NHL in goalie point shares that year, too – his play essentially earned Montreal another five points in the standings.
Montreal’s first Cup under the NHL banner came in 1924, with a 2-0 series win over the Calgary Tigers of the Western League. That season, Vezina was also the GAA champ, but with a sizzling 1.97 rate and league-leading three shutouts. In the Cup challenge versus Calgary, he gave up just one goal in two games. Vezina’s next season was also a great one, as he led the NHL with a 1.81 GAA, though Montreal lost to Victoria in the Cup final. Unfortunately, that would be Vezina’s final full year of hockey.
During training camp for the 1925-26 season, Vezina was not in good health. He was always a pale and frail-looking man, but he had lost a lot of weight and was running a high fever. Never one to complain, Vezina played the season opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates but was pulled after one period (even though he had a shutout going). Vezina was diagnosed with tuberculosis a day later and advised to go home to Chicoutimi. The grave illness broke a string of 328 consecutive starts made by the formidable Vezina, stretching back to Montreal’s days in the old NHA.
His last request from the Canadiens was for his sweater from the most recent Cup final. He died on March 27, 1926, at 39.
Though he was a quiet man, Vezina was not without personality. He ran a tannery during his playing days and smoked a pipe in the dressing room. His death was mourned by the entire province of Quebec, and Montreal ownership made sure his name would never be forgotten by establishing the Vezina Trophy in 1927, awarded at the time to the goalie who played the most games on the team that allowed the fewest goals – and today to the NHL’s top goalie as voted by the league’s GMs. Poetically, the first winner was George Hainsworth, the rookie who replaced Vezina and became next great Canadiens goaltender. Hainsworth won three Vezinas during his career.
Vezina also has an arena named after him in his hometown. The Centre Georges-Vezina is home to the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Sagueneens, who have the same nickname as the team Vezina got his first break with a century ago. When the Hockey Hall of Fame was founded, Vezina was part of the first class of inductees in 1945. He was one of 11 players in that class, with Charlie Gardiner the only other netminder honored.
Born: Jan. 21, 1887, Chicoutimi, Que.
NHL Career: 1917-25
Stats: 103-81-5, 3.28 GAA, 13 SO
Stanley Cups: 1
DID YOU KNOW?
Fable was often reported as fact, and hockey writers sometimes went along it. When Montreal GM Leo Dandurand told reporters that Vezina spoke no English and had 22 children, including three sets of triplets, it was taken as the truth, and references to his numerous offspring can still be found to this day. In reality, Vezina had two boys: Jean-Jules and Marcel Stanley. Marcel was born the night of Vezina’s first Cup win in 1916. Vezina was from a big family, however, the youngest of eight children. Oh, and Vezina could speak a little English.