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Top 100 Goalies: No. 42 — John Vanbiesbrouck

‘Beezer’ starred in the perfect platoon and one of the greatest underdog stories ever. But he never got that free video.

For a netminder who stood just 5-foot-8, John Vanbiesbrouck managed to make a big impact in two NHL markets. Vanbiesbrouck first came onto the scene with the New York Rangers in the mid-1980s, then shuffled over to the Florida Panthers, where he helped turn an expansion team into a Stanley Cup finalist in a shockingly short amount of time.

Vanbiesbrouck looks back on those times whimsically: there was a lot of fun, but also many challenges. For example, he came into the NHL when it was a 21-team circuit. That meant there were only so many goalie jobs to go around.

“It was a hard lineup to crack,” he said. “You were literally taking someone’s spot. The acceptance level was really hard, they didn’t love you for five years. Now you’re readily accepted right away in the room. Back then, you had to earn the respect of your teammates and coaches. In 1986, we made a good run in the playoffs, and I was more consistent. I was respected because I produced. But think about a time where things weren’t tied to a contract. Does that even happen anymore?”

Vanbiesbrouck really hit his stride at 22 in 1985-86, winning the Vezina Trophy and earning first-team all-star honors. He was on his way.

Not that playing in Manhattan is a walk in Central Park. There was a ton of attention on the Rangers in the early 1990s, when Mark Messier and Brian Leetch were leading a revival for the formerly woebegone franchise. Celebrities and other distractions were all around the team. “It was an interesting time during a renaissance for the league,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “You had (Wayne) Gretzky in Los Angeles and Messier with us in New York. It was a difficult time to manage your life. Playing was the easy part.”

Things got more complicated beginning in 1990-91, when he began to share the crease with 24-year-old upstart Mike Richter. That gave New York a two-headed monster in net, one that was canonized in The Hockey News in a picture featuring both netminders wearing the same oversized sweater together. “I remember that picture well,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “The caveat was that we switched every game, so you could look at the calendar and know when your next start was. The press was critical, but it was very fair.”

The competition also pushed Vanbiesbrouck, who was very familiar with hockey’s meritocracy. “Mike was a really good person and a really good goalie,” he said. “I can’t tell you every day was rosy, but it made me work harder and prepare harder and I thank Mike for that. It was a pivotal time.”

NHL expansion put an end to the tandem after three seasons together. Vanbiesbrouck knew he was getting a new address in 1993-94, he just didn’t know if it would be with the Panthers or Anaheim. In the end, Florida nabbed the netminder.

It was a boom time for NHL expansion in the American Sunbelt and Blockbuster Video magnate Wayne Huizenga owned the Panthers. “We thought we were going to get free videos,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We didn’t.”

What they ended up getting was a team with something to prove, and in Year 3, the Panthers made a surprise run to the Cup final, before falling to Colorado in four games. “We were in the moment,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “A lot of guys who had been told they were muckers and grinders emerged as good players. We were a well-rounded team, and we had a heartbeat. But even in the playoffs we were scared. We didn’t want to be embarrassed. We had a bunch of guys who just wanted to play. You played every minute to survive.”

Vanbiesbrouck sees a lot of parallels between those early Florida teams and the Vegas Golden Knights, the biggest success story in NHL expansion history. “We had to create our own environment,” he said. “Roger Neilson and Bobby Clarke did a great job with that.”

For the past five years, Vanbiesbrouck tried to build a culture as GM and director of hockey operations for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks. Some of the prospects he helped develop include Detroit Red Wings pick Keith Petruzzelli and top 2018 draft prospect Andrei Svechnikov. “It’s really hard, the challenge is unique,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “Junior hockey is like expansion, where you have to build continuity. But everybody has hope. We have fantastic attitudes here.”

Now, Vanbiesbrouck has stepped into an even bigger challenge as assistant executive director of hockey operations of USA Hockey. His duties include overseeing international teams at the men’s, women’s and sled levels, not to mention the national junior program. The position opened up after the unexpected passing of beloved executive Jim Johannson, so the standard for the job is high. It will be one of the biggest challenges Vanbiesbrouck has taken on since his playing days. But let’s not forget: the man does like challenges.

Born: Sept. 4, 1963, Detroit, Mich.
NHL Career: 1981-2002
Teams: NYR, Fla, Phi, NYI, NJ
Stats: 374-346-119, 2.98 GAA, .899 SP, 40 SO
All-Star: 2 (First-1, Second-1)
Trophies: 1 (Vezina-1)

DID YOU KNOW?

When Vanbiesbrouck went to Sault Ste. Marie in 1980 as a teenager, he was a rarity: an American goalie in the OHL. “Turned out it was a real frontier,” he said, “being an American playing in a Canadian system. (GM) Sam McMaster and (coach) Terry Crisp were great. They were just genuine about putting together a hockey team. There were no biases.” Now, some of the best OHL goalies hail from the United States.

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