Al Rollins entry to the National Hockey League is associated with nothing more than a publicity stunt by Leaf boss Conn Smythe. But in actuality, there was some very serious implications when he arrived and asserted himself as more than just a temporary solution.
Legend has always had it that Rollins was brought in simply as a measure to put pressure on Turk Broda - Toronto's superstar though overweight goaltender. It wasn't completely true, as Al was brought in to shore up the Leafs rapidly thinning goaltender depth chart.
However, Rollins, acquired from Cleveland of the AHL in 1949, filled a big hole in the Leafs lineup from the day he arrived.
"Toronto at the time had Turk Broda," recalls Rollins. "They had Baz Bastien who was probably the best goaltender in the minors. Howie Harvey (brother of Hab's great Doug) out of St. Mike's was probably the best amateur goalkeeper of the day. They were set forever."
However Toronto's fortune quickly deteriorated.
"The first day of training camp they lose Baz Bastien (to an eye injury). Howie Harvey was probably the first player who retired because of a skin disease - guck they called it."
That left Rollins as the only goalie besides The Turk.
Rollins first task was to serve as an apprentice - the norm in the old 6 team league.
"They brought me in and I spent all year just practicing and traveling and watching the visiting goalkeepers. I always sat behind the visitors' net and watched the other goalies and, with coach Hap Day, I had to go over every goal with him, visitor and home team, what the goalie did wrong. That first year I played two games. It was a learning process. I appreciated it. If you were to do it today to a rookie, he'd be insulted."
Over time Rollins assumed the starting job from the legendary Broda. He backstopped a strong defensive club throughout the early 1950s. He won the Vezina trophy in 1951. He was the goalie when Toronto won the cup thanks to Bill Barilko's legendary goal.
However Rolly was dealt to the weak Chicago Blackhawks team in 1952. The team was desperate for players and the other NHL teams sent them some in an "unofficial" aid plan to save the Hawks. In fact in Rollins first year in Chicago, they only had about 20 players in training camp and Rollins was the only goaltender. The poor trainer had to suit up as a goalie in scrimmages.
Despite the terrible team, Rollins was incredible. And the hockey public noticed. In his first year he played 70 games and averaged 38 shots against! He had an incredibly respectable 27-28-15 record with 6 shutouts and a 2.50 GAA. He finished a close second to Gordie Howe in the Hart Trophy balloting.
The following season, 1953-54, the Hawks seemingly got worst. And while Rollins numbers took a beating he only got better. Forget about the 12-47-7 record. He played in the all star game and had 5 shutouts. Most importantly, he won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP! That tells you just how good Rollins was - a 12 win season in 66 games earned him the most prestigious individual prize in hockey, over names like Howe and Richard!
Many modern fans remember how valiantly Ron Tugnutt battled the Boston Bruins when he played for the sad sack Quebec Nordiques in the early 1990s. The Bruins had 70 shots on goal, and superstar Ray Bourque had an unofficial record of 19 shots on goal by himself. Tugnut stood on his head that night and almost singlehandedly earned the tie for his team that night, and became an instant fan favorite. Well that's how Al Rollins was for almost every game that he played for the Hawks. He is on of the most underrated goalies in hockey history.
Rollins continued to battle for a couple more years but ultimately he couldn't improve the team by himself.
By 1957 Rollins was sent to the minors because he and coach Tommy Ivan "didn't see eye to eye." Except for a brief appearance with the New York Rangers in 1959, his NHL career was over.
Though he was 37 years old at the time, he continued to play and by age 40 he guided Drumheller to the Allan Cup.
"I was a better goal keeper at 40 years than I was when I won the Vezina Trophy," offered Rollins.
After retirement, Rollins coached at the University of Calgary for 5 years before roaming around the American minor league circuit as a coach in places like Spokane, Salt Lake City, and Tulsa. He was able to lead Spokane to the Allan Cup in 1970 - the first US based team to do so.
Alo, who was a big goalie for his era, played in 430 games with a 141-205-83 decision record. He posted 28 shutouts and 2.79 career goals against average.