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Top 100 Goalies: No. 98 — Earl Robertson

Imagine parachuting in for an NHL debut in the Cup final. He lived that dream and flourished.

Not many goalies can make the claim they made their big-league debut in an NHL final and went on to win the Stanley Cup, but that’s exactly what Earl Robertson did back in 1937 for the Detroit Red Wings.

A 10-year minor-league journeyman, Robertson made his NHL debut in Game 1 of the Cup final after Detroit starter Normie Smith injured his elbow in the Red Wings’ first-round series. Smith’s elbow had swelled up so badly, he had to watch from the stands.

The Red Wings faced the New York Rangers in the 1937 final and were looking to defend the Cup. Detroit was dealing with injury problems already when its star goalie went down. Prior to joining the Wings, Robertson had lived a nomadic pro career starting at age 17, playing for minor-league teams in Regina, Vancouver, Victoria, Tacoma, Oakland, San Francisco, Hollywood, Edmonton, Windsor, Rochester and Pittsburgh.

Robertson was 26 when the Wings called him up from the Pittsburgh Hornets. He played well the first three games, withstanding the pressure of a Cup-final series, but Detroit trailed 2-1 and was on the brink of elimination in the best-of-five final. That set the stage for heroics that forever etched Robertson into hockey history.

He was flawless turning aside shot after shot in a 1-0 Game 4 victory in Detroit. He followed that up with a 3-0 shutout on home ice in Game 5 to give Detroit its second Stanley Cup. Robertson even stopped the first penalty shot awarded in a Cup final game when he robbed Rangers forward Alex Shibicky to preserve the shutout. “They could take me out and shoot me now,” Earl told reporters after the game. “I’d die happy.”

After backstopping his team to glory, Robertson didn’t receive any of the team bonus money Stanley Cup winners get, newspapers reported. That’s because he was viewed as a replacement. The Red Wings owner, James Norris Sr., soon insisted on looking after Robertson personally by handing him a $600 cheque. It’s likely that if the Conn Smythe Trophy had been awarded in those days, Detroit’s Marty Barry would have won it. But Robertson surely would have been runner-up. Barry, who scored the Cup-winning goal, told Robertson, “You were great, kid. Just sensational. They can’t keep you in the minors now.”

Barry was right. But they could trade Robertson. The Red Wings stuck with Normie Smith the following season, so Robertson was shipped to the New York Americans for Red Doran and cash. It worked out because Robertson, who never played a regular-season game for Detroit, went on to play five seasons with the Americans and was one of the NHL’s better goalies despite playing for a weak squad. He was named a second team all-star in 1939 and twice finished in the top five in Hart Trophy voting.

In 1942, Robertson went to fight in the Second World War and served with the 19th Alberta Dragoons. When he came out of the service at 32, his hockey career was over. Robertson died in 1979 at 68 in Wetaskiwin, Alta., where he had made his home after retiring.

Born: Nov. 24, 1910, Bengough, Sask.
NHL Career: 1937-42
Teams: Det, NYA, Bro
Stats: 60-95-34, 2.92 GAA, 16 SO
All-Star: 1 (Second-1)
Stanley Cups: 1

DID YOU KNOW?

In addition to back-to-back shutouts in the 1937 Cup final, Robertson posted a 3-0 shutout in his NHL regular-season debut on Nov. 4, 1937, against Chicago. Living in New York for five years, Robertson and his wife were often seen at nightclubs or the Radio City Music Hall on off nights or even watching the sunset from the Empire State Building. It was a different lifestyle from growing up in a small Saskatchewan town.

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