Hockey's Historic Highlights

You Gotta Have Hart!

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand


You Gotta Have Hart!

Posted May 13, 2019

Viewed 611 times

Al Rollins

   This instalment of HHH will be of a little different stripe that any others which have been posted in the last five and one half years. For one thing it will profile a single player, rather than including several in a composite theme — involving a number of individuals or teams. Also there will be some editorializing—something I am not usually inclined to do.

  The player is Al Rollins — the critique involves the choosing of award winners — particularly focusing on the Hart Trophy, which the lanky backstop won in 1954.

   The original Hart Trophy was donated to the NHL in 1924 by Dr. David A. Hart, father of Cecil Hart, a former manager of the Montreal Canadiens. In 1960 it was replaced by the Hart Memorial Trophy. In both cases it was meant to be awarded annually “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

   There have been occasions when it has merely duplicated the Ted Lindsay Award (formerly the Lester B. Pearson Award), which recognized “the league’s outstanding player”. In fact that has happened 29 times since the Pearson Award was introduced in 1971. And, the duplicate tributes were well deserved.

  But it says here that there were times when the import of the latter recognition simply spilled over into the MVP territory.

  It is not my intention to present a boring, year by year diagnosis of that supposition. Instead, “Elongated Al”, as he was sometimes called, will be profiled. The climax of his winning this award will make a case for his being the perfect example of that for which this Trophy was originally presented — the player “most valuable to his team”!

   Elwin Ira Rollins more than paid his apprenticeship dues before he ever pulled on the Blue & White sweater of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He stood between the uprights for the EAHL York Rovers; the Seattle Ironmen and Vancouver Canucks of the PCHL; the Edmonton Flyers of the Western Canada Senior League (with whom he won the Allan Cup); Kansas City Pla-Mors of the USHL; as well as the Cleveland Barons and Pittsburgh Hornets of the AHL.

   For the lanky twine tender, his career almost ended before it started. When a member of those (New York) Rovers, he walked into the medical offices of Madison Square Garden, with the dream of playing for the Rangers in mind. But when the doctor examined him, he informed him that he had rheumatic fever, and he was to "stop playing hockey". Maybe the medic was wrong, or Rollins was - -but he paid no attention to the warning. Both he and the hockey world enjoyed the benefits of that decision.

   As the 1950-51 NHL campaign got underway, Toronto was sadly lacking in goaltending depth. “Turk” Broda was aging and an understudy was needed. Rollins, who had practiced with the Leafs the previous season, and got into two contests, was summoned to back-up the “Fabulous Fatman” — perhaps even to spur him on to greater heights. But by December it appeared that he was even overshadowing his mentor. While an even split in games seemed to be the growing intent, the lanky 6’2”, 185 lb. cage cop was number one netminder for 40 games in the 70-game schedule. Not only that, but he managed to earn a stingy 1.77 goals-against-average—one better than the great Terry Sawchuk—and was awarded the Vezina Trophy.

   His performance so impressed Conn Smythe that he referred to him as their best hope in their quest for Lord Stanley’s Silver Chalice. Bill Barilko was the hero of the set, but Rollins provided solid backstopping at the other end—in the five-game series, each of which into overtime—before the Queen City crew cashed in.

  When the post-season accolades came due—in the form of All Star votes—despite winning the best goaltender brass ring—he was overlooked in the department. No one was more out of sorts about that omission than his partner-in-crime, the “Turk” himself. Rollins himself, tongue-in-cheek, opined that Lumley should have been chosen, on the basis of bravery alone — twine-tending for the hapless Blackhawks.

   The feathers flew following the Bud’s spine-tingling triumph over their arch-rivals, the Habitants. Lanky Al, who came to be known as a quipster, commented that “without Richard, the Canadiens were just a Senior club. He also took a mild verbal jab at Gerry McNeil — and neither comment was appreciated by the vanquished crew. He was labelled a “loud mouth”. But Len Bramson, veteran shinny scribe, felt that he was just joking. The Flying Frenchmen were not laughing.

   His stellar performance which led to the World Championship earned him a full-time job for the 1951-52 campaign. He stuck it out for the full 70 games all on his own (save for half of the last game of the season). While he recorded a decent 2.20 goals-against-average, the press was giving his defense corps the business for non-support. His natural talents saved the day on several occasions; but he was being overworked. Headlines which recorded exclamations like “sparkling effort” and “matchless and efficiency” following wins, ties, and even losses, were not uncommon.

  He was able to add some new experiences to his memory bank that year.

  On January 4, 1952 he stopped one of “Boom Boom” Geoffrion’s howitzers, which resulted in his toes on that foot to be paralyzed for a time. “I thought my leg was broken!”, he offered. His other extremity bore the brunt of a triple shot barrage against Detroit. Alex Delvechio finally penetrated his armour by bouncing one off his forehead into the cage.

   On the 13th he got into a shoving match with Glen Skov, which resulted in the net being dislodged and slammed up against the dasher. He got a rare goalie penalty for his aggressiveness. But that was countered during their January tilt against Chicago — when he recorded a rare assist for a netminder.

   When he was traded to the Blackhawks for Harry Lumley previous to the 1952-53 season, the Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell opined that Al’s only mistake was following in the skate tracks of the popular “Turk” Broda — a Toronto fan favourite for ever and a day. Perhaps the fact that a brief faltering mid-way through the previous schedule had prompted Broda to get into playing shape (but his revival to starring outings squelched that) did little to endear him to the team’s supporters.

   “He lacked the Turkey’s colour!” Dunnell said.

   It didn’t take long for the Windy City faithful to realize what a bargain they had received in the Vanguard, Saskatchewan native. It is a well-known fact that, on average, Rollins regularly faced 38 shots per game. The Chicago Stadium, in which the perpetual cellar dwellers stumbled through game after game, was the forum in which that average was solidified. One journalist maintained that “it was recognized his efforts deserve the highest praise of any Blackhawk goalie — including Charlie Gardiner!”

  The consensus was that he was the “glue that held the team together!” Amazingly, although Lumley was now with a third-place contingent, and Rollins with the last place team (31 points less), his average was better than the cage cop he replaced.  Manager Tobin was soon on the bandwagon nominating him for the Hart Trophy. He had placed second behind Gordie Howe in the voting in 1950.

  As the 1952-53 season began to unfold, it was evident to friend and foe alike that he was taking up right where he had left off. His stellar work, even in the hopeless Windy City corridors, was high on the “worth noting” list. But a strange fly-in-the-ointment slowed him. In December he came down with the chickenpox — caught from his four-year-old daughter, Susan. He didn’t realize the bug was ambushing him, until he got the shakes and incurred a fever. He felt “awful” was his candid comment. It didn’t help that he had experienced the agony of two broken teeth extracted just a day or two previously. He was off duty for 10 days. Jean Marois from the Quebec Aces was rushed in to fill the gap for two games.

  Following his battle with this kid’s malady, he returned to form quickly. He continued to impress with his matchless backstopping skills. His lightning-fast gloved hand received special attention. He would practice without his big goal stick in order to condition hlmself to use it as much as possible, and to sharpen his reflexes. He revealed that he loved to play baseball in the off season, and that his “trapper” was the same one he used on the diamond.

   It was during that campaign that one of his memorable quips was picked up by the shinny fifth estate.

   One night he was being bombarded with so many pucks that he felt like he was being used for target practice. When there was a brief lull in the action he yelled at the referee: “I’m getting so many shots I’m being vulcanized!”

   Rubberized? — indeed he was. And when it came time to recognize valiant efforts, he was honoured by winning what has been called “the most prized of individual awards” — the Hart Trophy. He received six more votes than Red Kelly, Detroit’s prized rearguard. He was the first ever to gain this recognition as a member of a last-place NHL club. He was also only the third twine tender to gain this honour, following the steps of Roy Worters in 1929, and Chuck Rayner in 1950. He proved invaluable to Chicago his first season with the club, but as the wire service opined: “In 1953-54 his play was even more valuable to the club, if that is possible!” In addition, Hawks won only 12 games, yet he notched an amazing five shutouts. 

   This notable accolade is the perfect example of the true intent of “the most valuable player to his team”. In simple terms, every Hart Trophy should reflect the answer to this question: “where would the club be without him? Again and again the press acknowledged that the Windy City Six would have been in even more dire straits had it not been for his heroic play between the pipes.

   All sorts of comments came to light in response to his accomplishment. Negatively, it was regarded as the “worst award choice ever made!”

   But far more were positive in their assessments—like “it evened out things in the light of the terrible year the team had”.

  Another: “It was awarded in much the same vein as the Masterton is now”.

  Still another: “It was a retro thing — the make up for his missing the trophy he should have won the previous year!”

   Perhaps the most candid was the most accurate: “Without him close games would have been blow-outs!”

   It says here that the question remains: “Where would the team have been without him?”

   The previous year “Mr. Hockey” was the majority choice for the Hart. Mr. Howe was deserving of recognition for his excellence any year. But when one views the league scoring race for 1952-53 it is easily noted that he had a great supporting cast. Six of his teammates joined him in the top 12 of the NHL stats.

   An anonymous hockey journalist based in St. Paul, Minnesota (whom I had never heard of until this day) who wrote under the name “The Hockey Czar”, submitted a blog entitled, “Al Rollins: The Last Real MVP?” I breathed an “Amen” to everything he said.

   “It would be interesting to see the writers of our time go out on such a limb to recognize an outstanding player simply based on his merits and value, as opposed to simply looking at the top of the scoring or goaltending charts… That level of hockey analysis by sports writers is gone in this day and age. These days it is easy to spot the MVP candidates: large total points, outstanding goals against averages and save percentages…”

  He even dared to stir the dust on sacred ground by commenting: “Let’s be honest; no one would ever say Wayne Gretzky didn’t deserve his MVP awards — except that Edmonton proved they could trade him away and still win Stanley Cups.” [It is the blogger’s mistake to have written “Cups” in the plural however.]

   That principle cannot be ignored when the time comes in 2019 to cast ballots for this year’s Hart Memorial Trophy. If it is NOT overlooked, then perhaps the early popular predictions may be scuttled in favour of a skater or net guardian who is the MOST VALUABLE TO HIS TEAM — but who may not be an automatic All Star due his statistics. Was this principle considered as the three finalists — Sidney Crosby, Nikita Kucherov, and Connor McDavid — were chosen?

   Certainly this laurel was the climactic moment in Elwin Ira’s hockey biography. But it was hardly the end of the line for the one that Joe Pelletier rightly tagged as “the most underrated goalie in hockey history”. He donned the big pads for three more years in Chicago—then took another kick at the can with the Rangers in 1959-60.

  Two weeks after the new year of 1955 was ushered in, Rollins was given a most-needed and deserved rest. Often acclaimed as having “nerves of steel”, the temper of that metal appeared to bend temporarily. The diagnosis was “frayed nerves”—a frayed mental state. The constant pressure under which he had been forced to compete finally took its toll. Hank Bassen was called up from the Buffalo Bisons to fill the gap for a total of 17 games.

  But while it affected him physically, there was no permanent damage—and definitely none to his quick wit. The first match of the 1955-56 schedule saw the Windy City sextet visiting their cousins at the Olympia in the Motor City. It had been 80 degrees (F) that day, and the arena was filled with fog. The game, though completed, was played under anything but ideal conditions. On one occasion referee Mehlenbacher lost sight of the old boot heel. This was the cue for Elongated Al. He shouted to the on-ice official: “Is there really a puck out there in that fog where they’re all rushing around?”

   A feature article in the February 16, 1957 Hockey News, penned by Bud Booth, headlined “10,000 Shots and StillUnnerved”, opened with: “At no time before in hockey history has a goalie with a last place team been able to hold his job for as long as five years…”

  The column went on to ponder “It’s hard to figure how Al has been able to keep out of a mental institution”.

   Early in the 1955-56 campaign, the Hawks were pitted against the Boston Bruins. Johnny Peirson, the Bruins’ forward,, who had missed all of the previous season in an early retirement from the game, took a shot which Rollins caught in his trapper. He tossed the disc to referee Red Story and quipped: “T'aint fair! We played a game last night, and are tired; but Peirson has been resting for two years!” (It wasn't two years but that's what he said)

  Without going into detail, his biography simply states, following that season, he and Manger Tommy Ivan were “not able to see eye to eye”—and he ended up with the Calgary Stampeders of the WHL.

But he was not finished in the Big Time yet. The New York Rangers tracked him down out on the prairies, and he rose to the occasion again for 10 games in 1959-60. He made a good impression on Broadway — there was even speculation that he would be set for still another season if he chose to do so. But it was not to be. He migrated to Winnipeg, then to Portland for his grand finale.

  His best years were behind him. Perhaps there was truth in jest when, in April of 1960 he was asked the secret to winning the Vezina Trophy. “Join the Montreal Canadiens!”, came his terse reply!

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