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Goaltenders: The Expansion Years (1967-1979)

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The NHL started recording shots by players during the 1967-68 season, but for whatever reason, they didn't record shots stopped by goaltenders until 1983-84.  It's an odd omission, and author Sebastien Tremblay has single-handedly closed the gap in those statistics by collecting shots on goal data for every game over that 15-year missing period.  If that sounds like a daunting project - it is!   

Tremblay has a new book out - Goaltenders: The Expansion Years (1967-1979) - which has all of this data, shot logs for every game in the 1970s, and - if that wasn't enough - profiles of every goaltender who played during this time.  He was good enough to answer a few of the questions I had about his project...

Desjardins: What prompted you to start working on this project?

Tremblay: I spent many years collecting statistics on goalies and I was always interested in knowing more about them than just the stats that were handily available so I started looking for a resource that would profile goalies but could not find any that would give me information on goalies other than hall of famers such as Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Bernard Parent or the very well known like Rogie Vachon or Gary Smith.  There was no resource that I felt was complete enough so my original plan was to write a book featuring all goalies in NHL history.  However as I began researching everything, it became clear to me that I would have to divide the project into multiple volumes. 

During a visit at the National Archives in Ottawa to consult the documents from the Jacques Plante Collection, I was surprised to discover save percentage statistics available for as far back as the early fifties so I started thinking about the possibility of putting together the statistics that had been apparently missing from the NHL until 1982.  But with the statistics and all of the game details, the books had to be divided some more so I went with the era idea.  The "Expansion Years (1967-1979)" became the first product of a long research process.

Desjardins: During the 1966-67 season, there were six teams and fewer than 15 NHL goaltending jobs.  Eight years later, you had 32 pro teams between the NHL and WHA.  How did this affect goaltending?  Were there enough goalies with the skills to fill all those jobs?  Were there a lot of good goalies toiling in minor professional leagues who immediately showed they belonged in the NHL all along?

Tremblay: You had a lot of good goaltenders toiling in the minors prior to the first expansion and goaltending quality did not decrease too much.  But like everything else, the explosion in professional jobs meant that the talent was more scattered and you ultimately had goalies playing in those two leagues that did not possess the skills to do so.  Furthermore, by the mid seventies you were starting to see the European influence in the style of play which meant a much more offense-oriented game.  You can see it in the statistics - goals-against average went up and save percentage went down over the decade even for hall of famers.  Goaltenders were slow to adapt to those changes and the position wouldn't catch up until the mid- to late-eighties.

Desjardins: How did goaltending change during the 1970s?  Where were the big changes - skills?  Equipment?  I have this Gary Smith hockey card where he's playing without a mask - maybe 1977 - by 1982, I certainly can't imagine that.

Tremblay: As I mentioned earlier, the position did not evolve that much.  Position players improved much more and offensive systems changed radically.  The goalie equipment made a few improvements but nothing major aside from the goalie masks.  In 1967, you still had quite a few goaltenders who did not play with a mask but by the end of the 1973-74 season, with the departure of Andy Brown to the WHA, the NHL had no goaltenders playing without a mask.  Brown would remain the last to play without a mask until he retired from the WHA in 1977.

Desjardins: What's the most interesting story you came across as you profiled all of these goaltenders?

Tremblay: There were a lot of interesting ones especially with a guy like Gilles Gratton who would decide not to play because his horoscope was negative that day, or  Gary Simmons who disliked neckties so much that he had a clause to that effect put into his contract.  You have guys who came up with innovations such as Mike Veisor with the hard calf protector or Roy Edwards with the backplate on the mask because they suffered serious injuries.

Desjardins: Who was the best goalie of the 1970s?  Is this borne out by the stats, like save percentage?

Tremblay: The best goalies of the era were without a doubt Ken Dryden, Bernard Parent and Tony Esposito. All three were dominant for a significant period of time during that span but I think I could even add Jacques Plante to that list. He was at the tail end of his career but he still managed to be one of the best throughout the entire era and to put together two of the best single season performances. If he had been a bit younger, I think we would talking about Plante as being the best of the era.  You can see it in his save percentage.  Just take a look at what Jacques Plante was able to do so late in his career.  I think we were all stunned when Dominik Hasek put together two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres with a 930 save percentage and we know how dominant he was then. Go back another 20 years, and Plante had a save percentage above 940 even though he was 40 years old by then.