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Following the April 22nd post-season Eastern Conference first round clash between the Florida Panthers and the New York Islanders, sports pages featured this headline: “Griess Stops Barkov on a Penalty Shot in Overtime”. The obvious drama created by that familiar “sudden death” scenario set the stage for what has often been called “the most exciting play in hockey”.
The normal one-on-one format is nerve-wracking enough on its own—but add the threat of a goal ending it all, and the tension only increases.
When the Islanders’ Calvin de Haan closed his hand on the puck, the fat was in the fire. Projected as only the third instance in playoff history during overtime, 18 years had passed since the last incident of its kind. On April 23, 1998 the Habs’ Andy Moog turned away Pittsburgh’s Alex Morozov’s attempt to salt that contest away. Two years earlier the Penguins’ Ken Wreggett had stoned Washington’s Joe Juneau in like manner.
Credit for this spine-tingling confrontation goes to the later Frank Patrick, who, along with brother Lester, not only organized the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in opposition to the NHA, but was involved in several innovations to the world’s fastest sport. Erroneously, however, he did not invent the penalty shot, but rather adapted it to hockey from a completely different sport. In 1921, along with his parents and his wife Catherine, he took a trip to the Old Country, where he took in a polo match. When a certain rule was violated the referee called a “penalty shot”. On that occasion it happened to win the game. He “got a kick out of it”, and reasoned “if it could excite this very conservative English crowd, it would go great with hockey fans!”
Indeed it was introduced to their league rules for the 1921-22 PCHA season. To the Patricks this was the answer for stopping the deliberate fouls on skaters who had good opportunities to score. During the initial contest of the new schedule the regulation was put into effect, with Seattle’s Tommy Dunderdale potting the puck behind Vancouver’s Hugh Lehman. He was allowed to skate up to one of the three “dots” on the ice, 35 feet (11 m) from the net and take his free shot.
This policy endured for the duration of the rebel major league’s existence. But the NHL would have none of it, season after season. Only once was it given serious consideration. At the September 26, 1926 league’s annual meeting the rules committee brought the proposal before the loop’s big-wigs—but the motion was defeated by the majority.
Several of the teams’ representatives had seen the tactic first hand since its inauguration by the coast circuit. Toronto interests could not forget the contest played on December 1, 1922, when the Champion St. Pats met the Victoria Cougars on the exhibition tour of the West. There were five awarded during the spirited match—two were successful—one by each team.
When the Montreal Canadiens met the challenge by the same club in the 1925 Stanley Cup final, Frank Fredrickson failed to dent George Vezina’s armour in the final match of that four-game series.
In November of that year, the Ottawa Senators met the Cougars in an exhibition series. On November 21st, with the game being played under “Western” rules, the Capital City’s Cy Denneny whipped a shot past Hap Holmes in the Victoria cage.
But it wasn’t until the 1934-35 campaign that the world’s premier loop decided to include this rule for their fraternity. If an attacking player had an obvious opportunity to score, yet was hooked, tripped, or otherwise denied that chance, the rule was applied. Initially his shot was to be taken from a circle 30 feet from the net, and his stick was required to be confined to that circle.
The regulation was first applied on November 10, 1934. Toronto’s Bill Thoms tripped the Canadiens’ Georges Mantha who he was in the clear. Armand Mondou was chosen to take the league’s very first penalty shot, and, even though his slap shot was like a bullet, George Hainsworth managed to turn it aside.
The first penalty shot taker in the NHL, Armand Mondou
Only three days letter the second instance of this new form of rule violation punishment involved the Maroons and new St. Louis Eagles. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Syd Howe just as he was about shoot, prompting an immediate call. The sturdy “Scotty” Bowman was given the nod, and he built up speed heading for the designated marker, before nabbing the disc and firing it past Alex Connell into the twine. It was the Eagle’s only marker, resulting on a 2-1 loss.
There were actually 29 calls of this kind made in that initial season—14 resulted in goals. Whether it was the novelty of the innovation, or the fact that far too many were being robbed
of scoring chances (resulting only in a two-minute visit to the coop), is difficult to determine. But it did seem to have a positive reduction in last effort attempts to foil a possible tally. During the 1935-36 season only five such calls were made; and in 1936-37 just one free shot of this kind was granted. In fact between 1937-38 and 1960-61 there were six years when not a single instance occurred; and on nine occasions either a mere one or two misdemeanors called for this drastic measure.
For the next 20 campaigns the average penalty shot total per schedule was seven. The next decade saw a decided increase in sentences of this nature. From that point it seemed the multiplication table was put into effect. From 1990-1991 through 1999-2000 the lowest number of penalty shots per year was 24. And then the totals really took off. Numbers like 57, 103, 78, and 69 were common in the stats columns. The success rate of penalty shots over the years has been estimated at 34.1 percent.
Like all new designations, there were obvious difficulties in players getting used to the actual modus operandi of the opportunity. There were at least four cases in the 1930’s when successful attempts were waved off because skaters crossed the penalty shot line before releasing their shots. “Hap” Emms, “Busher” Jackson, and “Babe” Siebert were three of them. On January 14, 1939, the latter was called upon the represent his sextet in the application of this punishment.
When the Americans’ Leroy Goldsworthy pulled down the Habs’ “Toe” Blake, referee Norm Lamport signaled the call. But the “Babe” blew the chance to break the 1-1 tie when he overshot the runway and his tally against Earl Robinson was cancelled.
The NHL powers-that-be were constantly tinkering with the fine details of this retribution for committing one kind of dastardly deed or another. For the 1939-40 campaign, for instance, the “line” from which the shot could be taken was moved back to 38 feet from 30.
But one of the most significant adaptations was set in place in preparation for the 1940-41 schedule. There would now be two kinds of penalty shot—a major and a minor. The latter was to be applied when goalie incurred a two-minute sentence. This called for the usual free shot from the designated spot in front of the net. The major would grant the one taking the shot to skate right on his potential victim and, as Sydney Gruson put it: “to do everything but blow his brains out before taking the shot!”
Previous to the 1945-46 season the minor penalty shot was removed from the rule book, meaning that every such call allowed the designated shooter to move in as close to the netminder as he chose before making his play.
The final major change in the free shot format, which took place in 1961-62, awarded the attempt only to the player having been fouled.
Complications set in when penalties handed out to goalies created nail-biting propositions. It came to a head during the playoffs in the spring of 1949. The Canadiens’ Ken Reardon and Red Wings’ cage cop, Harry Lumley got into a mix-up. Had the rule been strictly applied a successful penalty shot in sudden-death overtime would have, as one scribe put it, “ended things in rather cheap fashion”—a post-season contest decided by a free shot.
Perhaps the official that night imitated “refereeing by the seat of one’s pants” as “King” Clancy did. In a tense match between the Leafs and the Red Wings at the old Olympia, a big brawl erupted. While the little Irish whistle tooter was trying to sort out the culprits, he glanced up to see Turk Broda and Terry Sawchuk, of all people, scrapping. The rule at the time called for a penalty shot if a goaltender was in a fight. He was faced with the dilemma of what would happen if both were reprimanded in that way. There was nothing in the rule book which stipulated who would face the music first. Toronto Coach “Hap” Day would demand to see the rule—Detroit’s bench boss, Tommy Ivan, would claim the home team’s choice. He confessed that he found a simple solution—he simply ignored the fight—while Day badgered him the rest of the contest with, “What happened to the penalty shot?”
Several other wild and weird tales emanate from this unique shinny procedure. Back in the late 1930’s with Toronto and the Americans involved in an intense tilt, Gordie Drillon was called upon to represent the Leafs in this rare opportunity. But in a stranger-than-fiction move, the star-spangled outfit insisted on the goal being disallowed because “they weren’t ready!”. Their appeal was actually honoured, and the nervous centre missed on the second try.
Johnny Gottselig recalls the very last “major” version of this freebee in the spring on 1944. The Habs’ Leo Lamoureux hooked the Blackhawks’ Virgil Johnson when he was in the clear, prompting referee Bill Chadwick to signal the traditional call for this transgression. Johnson, one of the few U.S.-born skaters in the league at the time was so nervous that he muffed his slapshot, and the old boot heel trickled to Bill Durnan who made an easy save.
Marcel Pelletier was a hockey “tourist” making the rounds in several league and teams. In 1966 he was guarding the twine for the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League. A penalty shot was called against his club, and the eccentric backstop observed the shooter take an extra amount of time to circle around, picking up speed as he went. Without warning Marcel skated to the blueline and stood over the puck. He knew his opponent was supposed to touch the disc first, so, in his own words, “What can I do? I can no touch it! I can no skate back! So I bat the puck away and say to de ref: ‘The penalty shot she is over, no?’ He say, ‘Yes she is over!’
De player he go crazy mad—but Marcel he is really happy!”
On February 2, 1968 Wayne Connelly of the North Stars bore in on the Motor City’s goalie, Roger Crozier and fired. When the dust had cleared the puck was behind him. But the score didn’t count. He had stopped the first shot, and it was a rebound which beat him. He was required only to stop the initial try.
While details are sketchy, it is known that Joey Mullen beat his goaltending opponent in a 1986-87 contest. But the goal was disallowed because a measurement of the curve of the sniper’s stick was called for, and it proved to be an illegal shillelagh.
Patrick Marleau’s disallowed free shot in September of 2014 deserved to be featured on the 2011 TV programme, “The Unexplained”. He was successful in his effort against the Rangers in that pre-season game. But, for some mysterious reason the goal light didn’t go on. Voilà! No score!
But the epitome of faux pas took place on November 8, 1959. This confessed “goof” by referee Dalton McArthur was tagged by Andy O’Brien as “the funniest hockey story of all time!” And so, it is recorded for posterity, an example of how on-the-spot decisions can easily be the wrong ones.
The Bruins and the Blackhawks had faced off in an early-season conflict, when Boston’s ace sniper, Bronco Horvath was thwarted by a Chicago stick being tossed at him. McArthur rightfully signaled a penalty shot. Then the fun began. It was still a year away from the regulation which stipulated the “victim” automatically took the shot. At that time the team captain picked the one to be given this privilege. But McArthur, in the heat of the moment forgot whether it was the “offending” or “non-offending” team which made that key choice.
He blew it big time. While Horvath skated casually around, waiting to be designated to represent his sextet in this rare incident, the referee skated to the Chicago bench giving them the strategic pick of the B.’s.
A pow wow took place at the Windy City bench. “Who had the weakest shot on the Bruin squad?”. Glenn Hall picked Larry Leach. And while Horvath fumed, and both Manager Lynn Patrick and Coach Milt Schmidt shouted and waved the rule book to prove their opposition to this travesty, the expected took place—Hall easily turned Leach away.
There was consolation in that Boston won the match 5-3. But Horvath lost the scoring championship to Bobby Hull by a single point. The red-faced man in the striped shirt admitted afterwards if he never had to call another penalty shot it would be too soon for him.
Whenever penalty shots are discussed in shinny circles it seems the prevailing question is: “has anything significant ever been decided by one of these freebees?”
For certain, games have been. For instance, it happened shortly after the institution of this decree became law. On January 16, 1936 the Rangers’ Bert Connelly whipped a shot past the Leafs’ George Hainsworth to tally the only marker in a 1-0 shutout win. Among others, 70 years later the feat was duplicated by Chad Kilger in Pittsburgh on March 19, 2006. His was the lone goal giving Toronto the 1-0 victory over the home-town Penguins.
Playoff matches have had the scales tipped for a victory via this rarity as well. On May 11, 1992, when Jaromir Jagr bulged the twine twice in a post-season match against the Rangers, including once with a penalty shot, it was reported that this was the 10th time in the playoffs it had happened. Eleven years earlier, for instance, the New York Rangers managed to get into the win column courtesy Anders Hedberg’s successful free shot against the Blues’ Mike Liut. His marker broke a 3-3 tie and spurred his team on to victory.
There has never been an instance when sudden death overtime was brought to a conclusion by this kind of one-on-one confrontation. Consequently, there has never been a series or a championship ended in this manner.
The late Dick Irvin Sr. used to say about sudden-death overtime: “When your team gets the first goal it’s sudden; when the opponent gets it, it’s death!” That goes double if it’s a penalty shot.
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