Gerry Cheevers is best known for his stitch-adorned goalie mask. While it looked very intimidating, the story behind it was pretty funny. It might even leave some readers in stitches themselves.
Part of a tandem with Eddie Johnston in Boston, Cheevers helped the Bruins win two Stanley Cups in the early 1970s, but his mask will live on as long as those championships. Blessed with a great sense of humor, the native of St. Catharines, Ont., once left practice early, using a weak shot to the mask as his excuse. “It wasn’t a hard shot at all,” Cheevers said. “But I went down like I was dead.”
Chilling back in the dressing room, he was busted by GM Harry Sinden, who told Cheevers to get back on the ice. Not one to let an opportunity for fun go by, Cheevers told the trainer to paint a big 10-stitch mark on his mask. “There was no way that shot would have ever given me a stitch, let alone 10,” Cheevers said. “But that was my way of protesting the fact Harry made me go back out.”
As his career went on, Cheevers had more stitches added to the design, which has become iconic. Decades later, Bruins goalie Steve Shields would pay tribute to Cheevers by having the stitch mask painted onto his modern goalie mask, with the flourish of having ears and hair sprayed on behind it to make the mask look like Cheevers’ entire head. It was especially nice since Cheevers was also Shields’ goalie coach in Boston.
An aggressive netminder who would often stray from the crease, Cheevers was sometimes caught out there, but his demeanor in net was a plus when it mattered. Cheevers cared more about team success than his own stats, and when it came to the post-season, he was at his best. Cheevers is the only goalie in NHL history to win at least 50 playoff games in fewer than 90 appearances. Cheevers’ 53 wins are good for top-20 all-time, while his eight shutouts are more than a number of netminders ahead of him on that wins list.
The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972 with Cheevers between the pipes (though Johnston platooned with him on the second run) and perhaps could have won another the next season had it not been for the World Hockey Association. Cheevers signed a huge-for-the-time seven-year deal worth $1.4 million with the Cleveland Crusaders and immediately paid dividends by earning goalie-of-the-year honors in the rebel league.
But Cheevers’ heart eventually brought him back to Boston after Cleveland allowed him to leave in 1976, midway through the contract. In the 1977 NHL playoffs, Cheevers once again helped the Bruins make a run, though their tournament ended with a loss in the final to the archrival Montreal Canadiens. Cheevers retired as a Bruin in 1980.
With his playing days finished, Cheevers turned to coaching, helming the Bruins for several years in the early 1980s before becoming a goalie coach and scout for the franchise. In 1985, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
For a guy who didn’t want to practice all those years ago, Cheevers certainly loved the game and kept himself near the Bruins for an incredibly long time.
Born: Dec. 7, 1940, St. Catharines, Ont.
NHL Career: 1961-80
Teams: Tor, Bos
Stats: 230-102-74, 2.89 GAA, .901 SP, 26 SO
Stanley Cups: 2
DID YOU KNOW?
Back in the day when off-seasons were for having fun instead of training, Cheevers had a unique way of slimming down before camp. The netminder would don several black garbage bags, then drive around in his car in the late summer sun with the heater on in order to sweat the pounds off. His playing weight of 185 pounds would be on the light side for an NHL goalie these days. No word on how the car smelled.