As unknown goalies go, Jack McCartan was right up there – or down there, if you will – at the start of the 1959-60 season. After three years at the University of Minnesota, he seemed more destined for hockey oblivion than stardom on a world stage. Certainly no New York hockey savant could in his wildest fantasies picture this St. Paul product dislodging Hall of Famer Lorne ‘Gump’ Worsley or Stanley Cup-winner Al Rollins from the New York Rangers net. But McCartan did.
Even more far-fetched was the mere suggestion Jack would spearhead Uncle Sam’s Olympic team to gold at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. “Before we even hit the ice, everybody said we couldn’t possibly win gold,” said U.S. coach Jack Riley. “We were up against powers like Canada, Russia and Sweden.”
When I interviewed McCartan for my book Where Have They Gone?, he told me he was amazed he even made the Olympic hockey team. “Baseball was my No. 1 sport,” he revealed. “If I had concentrated on baseball, I could have turned pro.”
But he eschewed the diamond for the ice after three good puckstopping years with the Gophers. That led to his Olympic heroics, most notably in the Canada vs. USA matchup. At first the Canadians overwhelmed the Americans. “All I could see,” McCartan said, “were streaks of green Canadian jerseys.”
But the Amerks won, 2-1, then beat the Soviets 3-2, leading to a final conquest of the Czechs. “Once we got the gold,” Jack said, “I got some recognition, and I began thinking of turning pro.”
Sure enough, Rangers GM Muzz Patrick flew him to New York for a contract signing, after which McCartan had his first workout and dose of skepticism from critics, myself included. “Some writers criticized Patrick for even signing me,” Jack admitted. “They said it was a publicity stunt to boost attendance and that I didn’t have enough experience to stick in the NHL.”
At first it looked like a gimmick. Worsley and Rollins had infinitely more experience, let alone ability. From a more romantic viewpoint, Rollins was in the process of regaining the form that helped him win a Cup with Toronto in 1951. But nostalgia gave way to a good, old-fashioned New York hustle. Coach Alf Pike didn’t waste any time, starting McCartan against Detroit in the next game at Madison Square Garden, March 6, 1960. On the other side were future Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Norm Ullman up front, with the inimitable Terry Sawchuk in goal. “I tried to hide my nervousness,” McCartan said, “but it wasn’t easy. Sweat trickled down my jersey, my mouth was parched, and my tongue was thick. I kept telling myself, ‘Take it easy, kid. Try to look like you belong here.’ ”
Jack knew stopping the first shot was critical. He also figured the immortal Howe, then in his prime, was the biggest threat. “As much as I could,” McCartan said, “I kept my eye on Gordie. I figured he’d be in on me first.”
Then it happened. In the opening minute, Howe deked Rangers defenseman Bill Gadsby and skated in 1-on-1 against McCartan while Garden fans held their collective breath. “I hugged the near post, and he faked a shot to the far corner while still holding the puck,” McCartan said. “Gordie wanted to pull me out of the net and put it behind me. But I was ready for him, and when he took a wrist shot low, I dove at the puck and got my body in front of it for my big first save.”
McCartan exited with a 3-1 win. Suddenly, ‘Jumpin’ Jack’ had become The Big Apple’s newest conquering hero. He went 1-1-2 with a 1.75 goals-against average for the last-place Blueshirts. But there was a hitch – a U.S. Army hitch. McCartan still was a soldier and had gotten a 30-day leave to play in the NHL. Now, in the midst of his fabulous foray, he had to don khaki once more.
If that wasn’t a downer, his return to The Show the following season was in more ways than one. Jack’s goaltending was mediocre, and some players doubted he belonged at the top. One of the skeptics, Reg Fleming of the Blackhawks, finally put a physical finish on McCartan’s career. After an on-ice scuffle during a Chicago-New York game, he stooped to pick up the gloves he had dropped. “Fleming suckered me with a punch to the head,” McCartan lamented. “That was it…I saw stars.”
Coincidentally, McCartan’s star had fallen for good in the NHL. He bounced around the minors for more than a decade, completing his career with the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints. Looking backward, Jack fingers his Olympic triumph and Howe-stopping NHL debut as his career highlights. “I just happened to get hot at the right time,” he said. “Anyone can get hot, and things just went my way.”
Then a pause and a philosophical postscript about his NHL debut and its denouement: “Maybe the Rangers played well for me that night I beat Howe because they were afraid of getting blown right out of the building. Come to think of it, I didn’t have that much of a big-league career, but getting a chance to play in the NHL made it all worthwhile.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Season preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.