When you look at goalie photographs from the 1920s and ’30s, it’s tough not to feel at least a smidgen of incredulity. It’s difficult to believe these undersized and sparsely equipped men had the courage to stand in front of flying vulcanized rubber for a living. After all, a puck to the face or an unpadded area is going to hurt even if it comes off a rudimentary wooden stick.
George Hainsworth takes that amazement to another level. He’s a dumpy, diminutive figure who looks as though he should be managing the team’s accounting books, not carving a place for himself in the history books. If there’s a more unlikely looking athlete in NHL annals, we haven’t found him. (Cy Denneny, one of the greatest scorers of his generation, gives Hainsworth a good run.)
It’s fitting that Hainsworth looked like an accountant because that’s how he played – highly calculated and without emotion. The NHL was in its infancy and more flamboyant goalies such as Tiny Thompson in Boston and Roy Worters with the New York Americans were garnering the attention and imagination of fans. All Hainsworth did with his sublimely efficient style was capture two Stanley Cups and three Vezina Trophies. “He always looks sort of scared and timid,” said hockey historian Eric Zweig.
Timid, perhaps, but not scared. Hainsworth was mild-mannered and understated, but stood up to the best shooters and had the heart of a lion. Take the 1928-29 season. At a time when the dearth of scoring made The Dead Puck Era look like a goal-a-palooza, Hainsworth took stinginess to ridiculous levels. He had 22 shutouts in 44 games and posted a 0.92 goals-against average with the Montreal Canadiens, a run that included a shutout streak of 343 minutes and five seconds and a 16-game unbeaten streak. And he did it all while playing with a broken nose sustained early that season in a pre-game warm-up.
It was incredibly difficult to score then, as evidenced by the fact six of Hainsworth’s 22 shutouts were 0-0 ties. After that season, the NHL began to allow passing in the offensive zone, “but somebody has to be the best and his numbers are way better, even in a crazy low year,” Zweig said. “All those shutouts and a 0.92 average is pretty impressive.”
Hainsworth used to apologize for not being more exciting and was often called boring because he almost never made a spectacular save. That’s because he didn’t have to. He was always in such good position that he made stopping the puck look easy. He was just 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds and when you look at pictures of him in the cage, there’s a lot of net behind him. But shooters would skate in and get stared down by a cool customer who simply would not be fooled into making the first move. “He’s kind of like the Nick Lidstrom of goaltending,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “He didn’t get the recognition he deserved and he was always in the right spot.”
Hainsworth’s ability to be in the right spot included his tenure with the Canadiens, where he had the unenviable task of replacing Georges Vezina after Vezina died of tuberculosis. Lore has it that Newsy Lalonde, the former Habs star who was a player, coach and manager of the Saskatoon Sheiks in the Western Canadian League, was looking for a goalie and was offered Hainsworth by the Canadiens. After Vezina died and the WCHL folded, Lalonde returned the favor and directed Hainsworth to the Canadiens. Hainsworth won the first three Vezina Trophies, the award that bore his predecessor’s name.
Like Bill Durnan and Ken Dryden later, Hainsworth was an English-Canadian star in a French-Canadian environment. But unlike Durnan and Dryden, it took Hainsworth some time to win over the Canadiens fans. He did so with his play, but never really felt at home in Montreal. Then the Great Depression hit and the Habs fell on hard times. In fact, it’s hard to believe, but at one point they almost moved to Cleveland. The Canadiens thought they would sell more tickets with a Quebecer in goal, so they dealt Hainsworth to Toronto for Lorne Chabot, a Montreal native who lasted only one year with the Canadiens before being sent to Chicago in the infamous Howie Morenz trade. Hainsworth backstopped the Maple Leafs to the Cup final in two of the three seasons he played in Toronto, but they couldn’t win the ultimate prize.
It was not for a lack of effort from the small man in the crease. “I remember talking to (Leafs’ Hall of Fame defenseman) Red Horner and he said that it had more to do with the team,” Duff said. “They couldn’t stop carousing and partying. He said other teams would party during the season, but would shut it down in the playoffs. He was really angry about it, too. And it was only a couple of years before he died. He got talking about how many finals they had been to and lost and he got really angry about it. ‘F---in’ guys wouldn’t stop their drinking and carousing.’ ”
Born: June 26, 1895, Toronto, Ont.
NHL Career: 1926-36
Teams: Mtl, Tor
Stats: 246-145-74, 1.93 GAA, 94 SO
Trophies: 3 (Vezina-3)
Stanley Cups: 2
DID YOU KNOW?
Hainsworth sits third all-time in the NHL with 94 career shutouts, but he’s second in major-league shutouts to Martin Brodeur. Before he played in the NHL, Hainsworth spent three seasons with the Saskatoon Sheiks of the WCHL, which was on par with the NHL. Hainsworth had 10 shutouts in the WCHL, giving him 104 overall, one more than Terry Sawchuk and 21 behind Brodeur.