Tommy Gorman is the greatest hockey executive you’ve likely never heard of, perhaps the best of all-time. Until Jim Rutherford won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, Gorman was the only GM in NHL history to win it with more than one franchise. And he did it with four.
Among Gorman’s extensive list of accomplishments was that he saw the brilliance in Alec Connell, not once but twice. The first was in the mid-1920s when Gorman signed Connell to play for the Ottawa Senators, whom he backstopped to a Stanley Cup in 1927. The second was when Gorman coaxed Connell out of retirement to play for the Montreal Maroons, where he won a Cup in 1935 in what Gorman described as “the greatest goalkeeping performance in the history of hockey.”
The years between those were lean. The Senators fell on hard times after winning the Cup, lasting four more seasons in the NHL with middling teams that were forced to sell off their stars. But Connell’s play never slipped in Ottawa and was one of the reasons it remained competitive. “Early in Ottawa, they were good, but he really didn’t play on another good team until he got to the Maroons when he came back,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “That makes his work even more impressive, because the teams in front of him weren’t exactly spectacular.”
Connell, an all-around athlete, didn’t start hockey until his teenage years and was placed in goal because he was such a poor skater. Since there was no forward passing in the offensive zone at the time, there wasn’t a need for goalies to get across the net the way they did in later years. Connell faced the pressure of taking over the Senators’ goaltending duties from Clint Benedict, a true superstar who led the league in goals-against average five straight seasons.
But when it comes to GAA, Connell was no slouch himself. His 1.91 GAA stands – and likely always will – as the lowest career mark in the history of the game. In 1927-28, he set another record that will likely never be equalled with a shutout streak of 460:49 (some sources say it was actually 461:29). He also owns the lowest single-season GAA in league history, with a line of 1.12 in 1925-26. He twice had 15 shutouts in a season, second only to the record of 22 by George Hainsworth.
It’s true that goals were very hard to come by in those days, largely because forward passing was not allowed in all three zones until 1929-30. “There are people who will tell you he was the greatest goalie of all-time,” said hockey historian Eric Zweig. “The fact that he has the lowest career goals-against average is a pretty good indication. There were a lot fewer games and no forward passing for the first part of his career, but still, somebody had to be the best, and he clearly was.”
And 73 years before Patrick Roy made his grand gesture that led to his divorce from the Montreal Canadiens, Connell did the same thing with the Senators. Early in the 1932-33 season, Connell allowed four goals in a game against the New York Rangers and was pulled by coach Cy Denneny. Connell shook the backup’s hand as he entered the game, then went to the bench and told Denneny, “Your move was the height of stupidity.” He never played for the Senators again, returning with the Maroons in 1934-35.
When it comes to his legacy, Connell did suffer a fair bit of misfortune. He led the NHL in GAA only once, in 1925-26, the year before the Vezina Trophy was established. All-star teams weren’t chosen until 1930-31 when he was past his prime. And Connell didn’t have much time to enjoy his status as a Hall of Famer – he died two weeks after his induction in 1958.
Born: Feb. 8, 1902, Ottawa, Ont.
NHL Career: 1924-37
Teams: Ott, Det, NYA, MtM
Stats: 193-156-67, 1.91 GAA, 81 SO
Stanley Cups: 2
DID YOU KNOW?
Like many players of his era, Connell played it fast and loose with his birthdate. He’s listed in the NHL records as born on Feb. 8, 1902, but there’s reason to believe he was born in 1900. “He shows up in the 1901 census, so he clearly had to have been born by then,” Zweig said. There is also the misconception that Connell was a firefighter in Ottawa in the off-season. In reality he worked in administration with the fire department.