OLD BULWARKS: LORNE CHABOT AND A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF NHL GOALTENDERS IN THE 1920s AND 1930s
“Why isn’t Theoren Fleury in the Hall of Fame?” “Why isn’t Alex Mogilny in the Hall of Fame?” “Why isn’t Pierre Turgeon or Rod Brind’Amour in the Hall?” I’ll be damned if I’ve even been asked about Herb Cain once or twice by some baffled tourist who is giddy to tell me that he lived two doors down from Herb Cain’s second cousin.
Hockey produces many heroes over the course of their respective careers. While the Esso Great Hall is adorned with plaques of over 400 inducted members, the (at times) ill-advised guests of the Hockey Hall of Fame are perplexed at why numerous others who have given these fans such fond memories don’t line the wall of smiling and serious faces that have been immortalized in Hockey’s sacred temple of excellence.
And hey, to each their own. I love being asked about some old-time player whose numbers just don’t simply add up to their hall-of-fame counterparts. It’s usually the same sullen answer: “They aren’t inducted here, contrary to what you’ve been told. I’m sorry. But you know what? We might still have their decrepit shoulder pads still on display in the dynasty section.” That might bring about some smiles and some banter.
People travel from all over the world to visit the museum, barring the COVID pandemic of course. For many, growing up with certain figures who are cherished idols of theirs renders it a tough pill to swallow when they find out they have yet to be enshrined amongst the numerous other plaques of greats. The fans of the Fleurys, and Mogilnys, and Alfredssons, and Roenicks might have their day at some point in the future.
For other greats who have hung up their skates 75+ years ago, the ethics and logistics of them being enshrined, especially if they are long deceased, are next to none. It’s a crying shame. For me, the player who has been done the dirtiest by not only the selection committee, but also just had shit luck all throughout his career and his life after hockey, is the mercurial and chin-dimpled goaltender, Lorne Chabot.
Born in Montreal in 1900, Chabot played for Laval College in 1919 before heading to Manitoba to tend goal for the Brandon Mounted Police. He then enjoyed six fruitful years of amateur play, donning the pads for the Brandon Wheat Cities and the Port Arthur Bearcats. His scintillating saves allowed the Bearcats to claim back-to-back Allan Cups for the top senior amateur hockey club in 1925 and 1926.
Closing in on his 26th birthday, Chabot turned pro when he was signed by the expansion New York Rangers to compete for the starting netminding job with Hal Winkler. Both would be given the chance to earn minutes throughout the first two months of the season before Chabot was cemented as the starter and Winkler was traded to the Boston Bruins.
Boom, he was officially the main goaltender for a promising young team. He would maintain this label as a ‘starting goaltender in the National Hockey League’ essentially until his final season in 1936-37 when he only featured in 6 contests for the Rangers’ city-rivals, the New York Americans.
After calling it a career at age 36, Chabot’s numbers read as such: 11 seasons, a regular season record of 201 wins, 146 losses, and 62 ties (keeping in mind regular seasons in this era were between just 44 to 48 games, and backup goaltenders were never dressed, thus making it extremely unlikely a goalie would be replaced unless they were injured badly). In his 411 appearances, he shut out his opponents an exceptional 71 times (some sources say 72, and others 73, but hey, let’s low-ball him, because he’s been done dirty by so many others, it’s almost customary).
His overall goals-against average throughout his entire career was a sparkling 2.04. He won two Stanley Cups, one in 1928 with the Rangers, and the other in 1932 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and sported a playoff record of 13-17-6 (yes, ties could happen back in the late 20s and early 30s under NHL regulations) along with a further 5 playoff shutouts and 1.51 GAA. He was awarded the Vezina trophy in 1934-35 after replacing the legendary deceased Chicago goalie Charlie Gardiner and keeping the defending champion Blackhawks successful by going 26-17-5 with 8 shutouts and a 1.80 GAA. He was named the goalie of the 1st all-star team, and was the first ever NHL player to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine!
The answer to why he's been constantly shunned by the Hall has always escaped me. Granted, a little more light has been shed now that I’ve undergone extensive research, but I highly doubt members of the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee such as Jari Kurri, Pierre McGuire, Mark Chipman, or Marc de Foy have rebuttals prepared to exclude Chabot should his name ever come up in the annual meeting of deciding the next class of Hall of Famers. Simply put, his eligibility time frame has long passed.
By rule, he has been eligible since 1940, though the Hall of Fame had yet to exist upon his retirement. In the late 1980s, the Hall sought to have one old-time player be inducted each year to ensure that the contributions of these dinosaurs need not have gone in vain. But still, Chabot was always overlooked, to the point where that principle and precedent of honouring the older generation has since been abolished.
Coupled with the timeframe passing him by, Chabot also has some unfortunate blemishes on his resume of which he can hardly be blamed. Hopefully these misfortunes aren’t the reason for the Hall of Fame turning their back.
In his second season during the 1928 Cup finals, his Rangers were trailing 1-0 in a best of 5 series to the Montreal Maroons. Midway through Game 2, “Old Poison” Nels Stewart fired a high shot that caught Chabot just above the eye, knocking him unconscious and forcing him to miss the rest of the series. Rangers coach Lester Patrick famously slipped on Chabot’s bloodstained pads and played in goal for the rest of the contest, ultimately winning in overtime thanks to a goal from Frank Boucher.
Farm team reserve goaltender Joe Miller filled in for the rest of the series that saw the Rangers win in the decisive 5th game, earning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history (only their 2nd season of existence). Doctors feared that Chabot might never regain sight in his badly damaged eye, which has caused many to speculate that this is the reason that Patrick, who was also the general manager, traded Chabot to the Maple Leafs that October.
The following five seasons were spent in a Maple Leaf uniform, the longest tenure of Chabot’s career. He surrendered the first ever goal at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931, but his position with the team never wavered, and he provided durable goaltending while the ‘Kid Line’ began to prosper. The Leafs won the Cup in 1932, and the following season, they were in a heated semi-final series with the Bruins that came down to a deciding 5th game to see who would go on to the final.
It was the first of only two games in the history of the league to go into a sixth overtime period, and Chabot turned aside EVERY shot fired his way (reported as 93, though this figure is of course embellished and unreliable). Ken Doraty slipped through a weary Bruin defence and scored the game’s lone goal, sending the Leafs to the final, though they would go on to lose the series to Chabot’s old club, the Rangers.
Though confidence in his goaltending was sky high, he was traded in the 1933 offseason to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for their goaltending legend, George Hainsworth. Rumour has it that despite Hainsworth’s overwhelming accomplishments, the team desperately wanted a French-Canadian goaltender, thus landing Chabot. Chabot barely had time to get his feet wet (despite registering 8 shutouts and a 2.07 GAA) before he was acquired by the Blackhawks the following season, sent in a package deal with the great Howie Morenz.
The Blackhawks had just won the Cup in 1934, but their beloved goaltender, Charlie Gardiner, died after suffering a brain hemorrhage in the offseason. Stepping into gargantuan shoes, Chabot put together his statistically most impressive season, earning the aforementioned accolades that included the Vezina trophy, and Time Magazine cover. In the 1935 playoffs, the Blackhawks faced the Maroons in a two-game, home-and-home total-goals-scored series.
After a Game 1 scoreless tie, the second and decisive game in Chicago went to overtime, once again scoreless. The aptly named Baldy Northcott scored on the powerplay for the Maroons four minutes into the extra frame, eliminating the Blackhawks. Chabot finished the playoffs winless, yet with a 0.48 GAA. The Maroons went on to win the Cup.
One would think that the nearly 35 year-old Chabot would be comfortable maintaining his job in Chicago for at least a couple more seasons before calling it quits, but nah dude. He injured his knee in training camp and upon his return to fitness, the Blackhawks decided to keep his replacement, Mike Karakas, and Chabot was dealt back to the Habs…… for 5 days.
After being out of action for almost eleven months, he was then dispensed to the Maroons to start the remainder of their season in place of Bill Beveridge. Despite some wild score lines that included an 8-8 tie with the Americans, Chabot managed to lead the Maroons to a division title and the chance to repeat as champions. It was a textbook “if ya can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, as the Maroons had always irked the ire of old Lorne.
In the semi-finals, they were pitted against the Detroit Red Wings, and the curse of the Maroons reared its ugly head once again. Chabot had won the longest game ever played while with the Leafs three years ago, but Game 1 of the series vs. the Red Wings surpassed this record. It went an additional twelve minutes beyond the mark set in 1933, not ending until 2:25 am with only four minutes remaining in the sixth overtime. That’s essentially the equivalence of three full games.
The ice at the Montreal Forum was horrid, as Zambonis wouldn’t come into existence for another two decades, and ‘floodings’ were seldom even performed between periods on a routine basis. Chabot turned aside 67 shots, but the crucial 68th was slotted past him by a brash rookie named ‘Mud’ Bruneteau. Rumour has it that Chabot visited the exhausted Bruneteau in his hotel room two hours later (get to bed, Lorne. It’s 4:30 in the morning!) and presented the young scorer with the game puck he retrieved from his cage. The Wings would go on to sweep the series and later win the Cup.
Chabot’s final season had him feature in only six games for the brutal New York Americans. His final appearance as a professional came on January 26th, 1937, a dismal 9-0 defeat to the Blackhawks. Chabot had been the backup to Roy Worters throughout the first two months of the season, but was in turn replaced as starter by Alfie Moore after the Chicago drubbing.
While the manner in which he exited professional hockey was rather gloomy, the remainder of Chabot’s life was even darker. He began to suffer from Bright’s disease, a form of kidney failure that causes the body to simply shut down. I’m not going to make a clever pun about shutting down opposition to make this point either, this disease seems incredibly brutal. Chabot had to be bed-ridden for the final few years of his life, passing away from chronic nephritis five days after his 46th birthday.
So, yes. He had great misfortune both on and off the ice. Between the eye injury in the 1928 finals, to the trading to the Canadiens while he was at his peak with the Leafs, to losing his starting spot with Chicago after enjoying individual hardware, to featuring in the two longest games in NHL history (and losing the longest one), Chabot went through some bullshit. Perhaps it was the numerous transactions he was involved in down the stretch of his career that caused the selection committee to turn a blind eye (there’s your pun) to his greatness.
Six teams in eleven years shouts ‘journeyman’, despite him always ensured the starting job upon his arrival (except for his final season). If anything optimistically constructive can come from his frequent trades, he and Sean Burke are the only two goalies in NHL history to record shutouts for six different clubs.
During the beginning of his career with the Rangers, promoters tried to get him to change his name to Leopold Chabotzky to appeal to Jewish fans, with the hopes of making attendance at Madison Square Garden more diverse. Chabot hated it. He instead settled for the adroit nickname ‘Old Bulwarks’ as he was a fortified wall in the net.
But alas, don’t these fabled tales make him more endearing to the great legacy of the league? Figures such as Lester Patrick, Nels Stewart, Conn Smythe, Mud Bruneteau, Mike Karakas, and George Hainsworth have him to thank for giving them a stronger reputation within the hockey stratosphere. Tribulations aside, where is the deserved love for Chabot that can propel him inside of the Hall of Fame’s sacred walls?
His reputation amongst his peers during and after his career seems to be overwhelmingly positive. Johnny Bower claimed that if a goalie was to be judged by how brilliantly he performed in important games, Chabot measured up to any of his fellow netminders during his era who have managed to earn a place in the Hall of Fame. He would often cheat by leaning more towards his far post, daring shooters to beat him to the short side before gracefully blocking attempts with his stick or pads. He was known for his smarts and sharp quickness, even though his 6’1, 185 lbs was deemed ‘large’ at the time.
While he was suffering from Bright’s disease, an outpouring of encouragement and declarations of respect poured in from his former teammates. His passing in 1946 came one year after the inaugural Hall of Fame class became enshrined, and subsequent classes throughout the 1950s and early 1960s seemed to include absolutely any player who did anything memorable for the sake of contributing to the game in order to fill space. How was Chabot still passed up in favour of other now-forgotten names who got the call to the Hall?
Time for an analytical deep dive. Throughout Chabot’s eleven seasons in the big leagues, there were at most 10 teams, and at least 8. Considering how teams would never dress a backup and rely on the work of their starter for each and every game unless they were physically unable to perform, there aren’t a whole load of contemporaries.
Nonetheless, of the thirty-six inducted goaltenders to have played at least one season in the NHL, NINE of them overlapped throughout a portion of Chabot’s career. Nine out of thirty-six is exactly one quarter of all the inducted NHL goalies.That’s an extraordinary number for such a concise timeframe, so how in the hell did Chabot get overshadowed by these contemporaries of his? Was he really that much more inferior to them?
Granted, Turk Broda’s rookie season was 1936-37, Chabot’s final season in which he only played in six games, so we’ll omit Broda from the comparisons. We’ll also omit both Hugh Lehman and Harry “Hap” Holmes, who both only overlapped with Chabot’s first two seasons, as their prime was over a decade prior, when comparable statistics do not coincide. That leaves us with six Hall of Fame goalies to compare to Chabot, who greatly overlapped with his career, consistently facing off against one another across the rink.
Those six goalies are Alec Connell, Charlie Gardiner, George Hainsworth, Roy Worters, Clint Benedict, and Cecil “Tiny” Thompson. I’ll also include John Ross Roach and Dave Kerr within the comparison, who like Chabot, are not enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but had long, very good careers that overlapped with ‘Old Bulwarks’.
Now, I’ve taken into account era-adjusted inflation for goals against averages, because I know how some of you belly-ache about how “you can’t compare eras, because the game was soooooo much different. How can one say that someone in the 20s actually could have played in the Original 6 era, let alone today? The game has evolved so much that Chabot wouldn’t be able to handle the finesse of Crosby and Datsyuk”. Well, no shit. Of course the game has evolved, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse, but we owe everything we have today because of our heroic generational predecessors. We have what we have today, because of people from yesterday.
Does the same need to be enforced when talking about Gretzky’s 200+ point seasons and how they should be deflated because “it is impossible to pull off today”? Enough! We need to give the respect these contrasting eras are due. Take the statistics of those times as they are, it’s how the game was played (but alas, I’ll still inflate the GAA for ya).
Shutouts became increasingly common as the 1920s progressed. Even after they reached their apex in 1928-29 (historically dubbed ‘The Year of the Shutout’) shutouts still were in abundance throughout the course of the 1930s. Of the nine goalies mentioned above for comparison, they currently range from 3rd most shutouts all-time to 39th. Dividing their number of regular season games played by their number of shutouts, the results determine how many games transpired per shutout.
Chabot, who is 12th all-time on the shutout list, ranks third within the group of nine, earning a shutout every 5.8 games in which he played. Only Hainsworth and Connell earn a shutout more regularly, sitting 3rd and 6th respectively on the all-time list. Hainsworth had 22 shutouts in the fabled 1928-29 season, and Connell still has the longest shutout streak at 461:29. Fair enough. Everyone else, however, is inferior to Chabot in this field. Where’s the love?
If the question pertains to success via Cup wins, only Benedict won more Cups, being a part of the early 1920s Ottawa Senators dynasty. Chabot’s two championships in 1928 and 1932 equal Hainsworth’s back-to-back titles in 1930 and 1931 and Connell’s two titles in 1927 and 1935. Gardiner, Roach, Kerr, and Thompson each won one Stanley Cup. Worters won zero.
Vezina trophies during this time were difficult to transcend to how good goalies were as individuals. They definitely speak volumes if they appear on your resume, but up until the 1981-82 season, the Vezina trophy was simply the equivalent of the Jennings trophy today. Whichever team conceded the fewest goals in the regular season would win the trophy via their goaltender. Chabot won one Vezina, so boom, he’s blessed. Hainsworth won the first three, Thompson won four (three during Chabot’s career span, and one more after Chabot had retired), Gardiner won two, Worters won one, and Kerr won one after Chabot’s days were up.
Who’s to say that Chabot could have won more than one had it been awarded on merit to the most valuable goaltender to his team like it is today? Connell, having the greatest GAA in league history (more on that shortly), never won a Vezina trophy, and Benedict could easily have been the recipient of several if it existed during the early 1920s. Chabot winning one Vezina doesn’t necessarily help or hinder his case in being inducted, though the season in which he won the trophy saw him dominate in nearly all statistical categories, thus arguably earning the trophy through the same means as today.
Chabot won 48.8% of regular season games in which he appeared, 47.8% if you include playoff games. While this falls just short of the 50% mark, ties were much more common a result than they are today, thus winning 48% of all career games in which 15% of all appearances resulted in draws makes him a winning goaltender (all-time record of 214-163-68 including playoffs). Only Hainsworth, Benedict and Thompson had higher winning percentages during the regular season and playoffs, Hainsworth having the best rate at 52.9%.
For Chabot to have such a solid winning percentage, all the while being traded left, right and centre during the home stretch of his career says a lot.
Worters and Gardiner had woeful win percentages, as the New York Americans and Chicago Blackhawks (except for 1934) were complete dog shit. Worters won the Hart trophy for league MVP during the ‘Year of the Shutout’ for single-handedly keeping the Americans out of the cellar, which possibly propels him ahead of Chabot when considering which goalies from that era should be enshrined. Gardiner, maybe they just felt sorry for his career ending prematurely due to a brain hemorrhage, as there’s nothing here that tells me he deserved a plaque more than Chabot. Sorry if that seems harsh.
Miraculously, goalie point shares are available for this era! GPS allows us to determine how many regular season points a player earned for their team by how well they played. Obviously, having a longer career and playing more games gives you a better chance of earning a higher GPS. Chabot ranked 7th out of the nine goalies in terms of the number of games played, thus it comes as no surprise that he remains in seventh place for total career GPS.
This study actually reveals how valuable Benedict was, as he played in the second-fewest amount of games, yet had the 5th highest total GPS out of the nine. No harm, no foul on Chabot.
Now, goals against average. Compared to today, goals came more frequent at the beginning of the 1920s when Benedict and Roach were pioneers of the NHL. Within a few years, goals reaaaaalllllly tapered off, and during the aforementioned ‘Year of the Shutout’, they reached an all-time low, to the point where passing the puck forward in the attacking zone became imperative. Then, the 1930s saw more goal scoring, but still far less than today. So, GAAs are quite an interesting measurement.
Chabot’s career GAA of 2.04 (or 2.03 as some sources have it) would be the 4th best GAA of any goaltender who played in at least 200 games. Who are the three that are placed above him? Connell (who finished his career with a bewildering 1.91), Hainsworth, and Gardiner, with Thompson finishing in 5th, Kerr in 7th, Worters in 12th, Benedict in 14th, and Roach in 29th.
Applying the era-adjusted inflation, the numbers are much less impressive. Because Benedict was a part of the NHL’s first few seasons in which goal scoring was much higher than today, his career GAA of 2.32 is only slightly adjusted to 2.43 by today’s standards, which is the best amongst the nine goaltenders in discussion. Chabot’s miraculous 2.04 is bumped up to 2.79, which by today’s standards would be attributed to a starting goalie on a poor team (Jonathan Quick had a 2.79 GAA last season for the Los Angeles Kings, who were abysmal and were one of the seven teams to not partake in the bubble).
Carey Price also had a 2.79 GAA, and carried a heavy workload all season for the Canadiens, once again easily their most valuable player.
Gardiner’s GAA rises from a 2.02 to a 2.90. Roach’s rises to a grim 3.21. Connell’s all-time record hardly looks baffling when adjusted, expanding to a docile 2.56. Of the nine goalies, Chabot’s fourth lowest GAA during his era comes in at sixth after inflation, ahead of Gardiner, Worters, and Roach. Keep in mind Gardiner and Worters are Hall-of-Famers. Hell, Grant Fuhr’s career GAA is 3.38 (3.04 when adjusted), and his resume, despite winning two more Cups than Chabot, is relatively similar in terms of hardware; one Vezina, and a First-Team All-Star.
Should he get in some time in the near future, thousands of fans around the world will gawk “WHO?”. Who will speak on his behalf and who would accept the honours? I dug as deep as I could for information on his family, and it seems even his offspring have passed away at this point.
Source: The Hockey News
To those who question why the Fleurys and the Alfredssons and the Mogilnys and the Brind’Amours have yet to hear their name called by Lanny McDonald, their time very well might still come, and they’ll rightfully earn it. Chabot’s time has sadly passed, I’m Gretzky-percent sure of it; slipped through his fingers just like the puck that was fired by Bruneteau in the sixth overtime period. IT’S A DAMN SHAME! At least there’s solace knowing that he has to be mentioned when discussing the most underrated goalies in history. Now that’s a fact.