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Top 100 Goalies: No. 99 — Don Simmons

He might have been the world’s seventh-best goalie, but he had to settle as the world’s best backup in the Original Six era.

It should come as no surprise that when Don Simmons died in 2010, it took about three months for the hockey world to learn the news. That’s because Simmons was a private man who wanted no fuss made over him. So it turns out Simmons died as he lived, uncelebrated and in semi-obscurity.

A lot of people believe that, for most of his career, Simmons was the seventh-best goalie in the world. That’s pretty heady stuff, but the problem was the best league on the planet only had six teams when he played. And it’s that unfortunate circumstance that relegated him to footnote status as an NHLer, even though he lives on in the goaltending equipment that bears his name.

There is no equivalent of a relief pitcher in hockey, but if there were, Simmons would go down as one of the greatest ever. With only six starting jobs and the No. 1 goalie usually playing 70 games a season, Simmons had to be content as an unsung hero, subbing in several times for star starters in Boston and Toronto and producing great results. “If expansion comes 10 years earlier, we probably know a lot more about Don Simmons than we do,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “I think he’s the greatest backup in the history of the NHL.”

When Terry Sawchuk left the Bruins with nervous exhaustion in 1956-57, Simmons stepped in and led the team to back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup final against the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins lost both series, but Simmons performed admirably. In 1957-58, he split goaltending duties with Harry Lumley before becoming the No. 1 man for the only time in his career the next season.

But it was with the Toronto Maple Leafs that Simmons did his most notable work. The Leafs went into the Cup final in 1962 against the defending champion Chicago Black Hawks not having won a title since 1951. Starter Johnny Bower was felled by a Bobby Hull shot in Game 4, which tied the series at two games each. In came Simmons who, despite spending most of the season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans, backstopped the Leafs to 8-4 and 2-1 wins to end the drought and ignite a run of three straight Cups. Simmons was Bower’s backup for the next two Cup victories before finishing his career in the minors, save for a few brief stints as Ed Giacomin’s backup with the New York Rangers. “He never really gets to be the guy in any place, does he?” said hockey historian Eric Zweig. “He was pretty heroic in place of Bower in 1962, but they didn’t keep him around. The starter played almost all the games back in the day, but it was good to have a guy like Simmons around in the minors who could come up for a week or so and win a handful of games.”

Simmons retired in 1969 and literally set up shop in Fort Erie, Ont., establishing Don Simmons Sports Inc., which bills itself as the world’s first and largest goalie equipment store.

Born: Sept. 13, 1931, Port Colborne, Ont.
NHL Career: 1956-69
Teams: Bos, Tor, NYR
Stats: 100-102-41, 2.89 GAA, .904 SP, 20 SO
Stanley Cups: 1

DID YOU KNOW?

For someone who Toiled in relative obscurity, it’s only fitting that Don Simmons is the Buzz Aldrin of NHL history. Jacques Plante is immortalized for becoming the first goalie to wear facial protection in 1959, but Simmons was quick to follow Plante’s lead while with Boston. Simmons broke his nose 15 times and was once hit with a puck in the throat before donning the mask, which was the ‘pretzel style’ facial protection.

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