The 1951 Stanley Cup final goes down in history as the one that ended on an overtime goal by Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko, who died later that summer in a plane crash. It will also be remembered as one of the most closely contested Cup finals ever, even though the Leafs dispatched of the Montreal Canadiens in five games.
One reason it was so close is because of a player who is largely forgotten for his work, Canadiens goalie Gerry McNeil. In the first round, McNeil led the Habs to a six-game victory over Detroit despite finishing 22 points behind the Red Wings in the standings. The first two games went to quadruple and triple overtime with Montreal winning both. But it was in the final that McNeil did his finest work. “The only reason that series is close is because of McNeil,” said hockey historian Eric Zweig. “The Leafs outplay them in every game and outshoot them by huge numbers, but McNeil is the guy who keeps it close. The newspapers at the time were raving about how brilliant he was and how he kept them in the series.”
McNeil is overlooked in Canadiens’ lore. Even though he won two Stanley Cups, he gets lost in the shuffle in an organization that has produced some of the finest goaltenders in hockey. And it doesn’t help that his career in Montreal was bookended by Bill Durnan on one side and Jacques Plante on the other. Those two won a combined 13 Vezina Trophies.
In fact, when McNeil started his career with the Canadiens in 1943, he actually outplayed Durnan in training camp, but the team decided to go with the more experienced goalie. McNeil had to wait seven years while Durnan piled up a motherlode of Vezinas. After leading the Montreal Royals to back-to-back Quebec Senior League titles and an Allan Cup in 1947, McNeil was essentially the Habs’ stopgap, providing four years of work between the sudden and early retirement of Durnan and the emergence of Plante as one of the game’s all-time greatest at the position. “He’s one of those guys who’s a really good goalie who isn’t around that long and gets overshadowed by the bigger names around him,” Zweig said. “But he’s certainly there in a great era. Montreal makes the Stanley Cup final almost every year he’s there.”
McNeil played in an era when it was more difficult to find NHL work than any other time in the game’s history. Hockey had not yet evolved to a two-goalie system, which left only the best of the best to play in the world’s top league. “He’s a victim of the one-goalie-six-teams factor,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “People often say goalies of that era are overrated, but there were only six jobs, so you had to be pretty damn good to get one of them. And once Plante pushes him out, there’s nowhere to go. That’s why Johnny Bower didn’t make it to the NHL full-time until he was 33.”
McNeil got his name on the Cup with Montreal in 1957 despite playing only nine regular-season games and none in the playoffs, but he did earn his Stanley Cup in 1953 when he took over from Plante in the final and led the Canadiens to a five-game triumph over Boston. And even though McNeil never won a Vezina Trophy, he had an enormous hand in Durnan winning his last one in 1950. With Durnan out with an infection and leading the Vezina race by four goals, McNeil played the last six games and allowed only nine goals to give the Habs a comfortable 14-goal cushion. In those days, the award went to the goalie who played the most games on the team that allowed the fewest goals.
McNeil missed out on the Canadiens’ five-Cup dynasty of the late 1950s, finishing his career in the obscurity of the minors, winning a final title with the Montreal Royals in the Eastern Pro League. It should come as no surprise McNeil left the NHL quietly and without fanfare, because that was how he was when he was playing in it.
Born: April 17, 1926, Quebec City, Que.
NHL Career: 1947-57
Stats: 119-105-52, 2.34 GAA, 28 SO
All-Star: 1 (Second-1)
Stanley Cups: 2
DID YOU KNOW?
In addition to Bill Barilko’s Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal in 1951, McNeil is the last goalie to give up an OT goal in Game 7 of the Cup final. It happened in 1954 versus Detroit. A Tony Leswick dump-in caromed off Doug Harvey’s glove as he swiped at it and went over McNeil’s shoulder. What goes unnoticed is the Habs were down 3-1 in the series when they pulled Jacques Plante and McNeil got them back in the series.