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Top 100 Goalies: No. 78 — Mike Karakas

Stubbornness, inconsistency and surges of brilliance forged a career of high highs and low lows for American trailblazer.
HHOF Images

HHOF Images

In his eight full seasons in the NHL, Mike Karakas won more games than he lost in only three of them. He spent much of his career in the minors, partly because of contract disputes, plus the end of one season with Montreal in one of the few years they failed to make the playoffs. So let’s just say circumstances were not exactly set up for greatness when it came to Karakas.

But there are indications that, had Karakas been part of a team better than the moribund Chicago Black Hawks and not been so stubborn, history would look at him differently. He was the first U.S-born and -trained goaltender in NHL history, but what would’ve happened had he gone to a better team, the way fellow Minnesota native Frank Brimsek did when he joined the Boston Bruins three years after Karakas broke in?

We’ll never know, but this much is undeniable. Two of those three seasons when he won more than he lost, he led the NHL in wins. He cemented his legacy backstopping the most unlikely Stanley Cup champion in NHL history in 1938, playing the last two games of the final with a broken toe.

That season, the Black Hawks were 14-25-9 and backed into the playoffs, losing their final three regular-season games by a combined score of 13-3. But led by Karakas, who went 6-2 with a 1.71 goals-against average, Chicago got white-hot in the playoffs, knocking off the New York Americans and Montreal in the first two rounds before shocking Toronto, who had finished 20 points ahead of the Hawks in the standings.

Karakas broke his toe in the final game of the second round and when the Black Hawks discovered he couldn’t play Game 1 of the final, they pulled Maple Leafs minor-league goalie Alfie Moore out of a bar and won. Moore was ruled ineligible for Game 2 and Chicago lost, then fitted Karakas with a special protective boot for his skate and he went on to win Games 3 and 4 of the best-of-five series, allowing only two goals.

But Karakas butted heads with Chicago management after asking for a $500 raise the next season, and the Black Hawks went back to their losing ways. Karakas was out of the league within two years, only to return for three more seasons with Chicago starting in 1943-44. That season he almost repeated his heroics from 1938, leading the fourth-place Black Hawks to a first-round upset of Detroit before falling in the final to the Canadiens, who had finished 34 points ahead of them in the standings.

It’s difficult to find a place for Karakas among the true greats because he never played for what could be considered a good NHL team. And like the team in front of him, he could be maddeningly inconsistent. When he and the Hawks played to their potential, they were competitive and a tough out. When they were bad, they were truly awful. Part of the stain on Karakas’ reputation is that the bigger the game, the better he played, but he would often stray in games that were not as crucial. The problem with that is Chicago did not play in enough big games during his career for him to shine. “He has some years where he’s great and other years where he’s nothing and he’s bouncing around,” said hockey historian Eric Zweig. “It hurts him that he played for such bad teams.”

Born: Dec. 12, 1911, Aurora, Minn.
NHL Career: 1935-46
Teams: Chi, Mtl
Stats: 114-169-53, 2.91 GAA, 28 SO
All-Star: 1 (Second-1)
Stanley Cups: 1

DID YOU KNOW?

While it is often credited to Emile Francis, Karakas is the inventor of the trapper glove. He was a baseball catcher in high school – Frank Brimsek was his battery mate – and perfected the catching glove to complement his quick hands. Karakas played at 145 to 160 pounds but was 5-foot-11, tall for a goalie in that era. Observers said he tended goal bent over like a shortstop and was renowned for his athleticism and acrobatic saves.

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