Cesare Maniago exemplified the need for expansion in 1967-68. Maniago was a star in the minor leagues for much of the 1960s, not only a top goaltender but the CHL MVP in 1965. But back in those Original Six days Cesare couldn't crack an NHL lineup. The few times he got called up to the NHL he backed up names like Jacques Plante, Ed Giacomin and Johnny Bower.
The NHL was forced to expand because of players like Maniago. The minor leagues were becoming full of NHL quality players that really were as good as many NHLers. The farm teams could ice a team that could compete against the NHL. If they didn't expand, the minor leagues perhaps could have taken over the NHL as hockey's top league.
Maniago moved around a lot in his early days. He played in places like Sudbury, Spokane, Vancouver, Ottawa, Quebec, Buffalo, Omaha, Minneapolis and Baltimore - all in the minor leagues from 1966 through 1966. Despite short stints with Toronto and Montreal, it wasn't until 1965-66 that Cesare cracked an NHL lineup somewhat regularly. He played 34 games over the next two years with the New York Rangers, backing up the legendary Eddie Giacomin.
The Minnesota North Stars were one of 6 new teams entering the League in 1967-69. They selected the Trail British Columbia native in the expansion draft in June 6, 1967.
"When expansion came and you ended up in Minnesota, your first reaction was that you were an outcast, that nobody wanted you. But we had some guys who had been good players. Leo Boivin and Doug Mohns were two of them. I played with Gump Worsley in Minnesota when he was at the end of his career and I can't say enough good things about him."
Maniago might have felt outcasted at first, but soon he showed he was right at home in the NHL. After bouncing around in the minor leagues, Cesare stayed put in Minny for the next 9 seasons. In 1976 he was traded to Vancouver and played his final two NHL seasons in his home province.
Cesare, who now owns a sporting goods store in Vancouver, was involved in several history making headlines. He surrendered Boom Boom Geoffrion's 50th goal of the season in 1961 to make him only the second player to score 50 in a season. Bobby Hull scored his 51st of the season against Maniago in 1966, thus marking the first time a player scored more than 50 goals in a single season. Stan Mikita also scored his 500th career goal against Maniago in 1977.
One of my favorite Cesare Maniago story was when he tried to become the first goalie to score back in the 1961-62 season with Hull-Ottawa of the EPHL.
"Those were the days when the goalie could skate across the red line, and I used to join the rush on a delayed penalty. One time I took a shot and hit the goal post. But that all ended in a game against Kitchener. Jean Ratelle was with them and they had a pretty good team. I was carrying the puck at their blueline and somebody hit me with a bodycheck that KO'd me. I was out like a light and went into convulsions. Imagine how that must have looked, a goalie knocked out at the other team's blueline. Anyway, I think that was the last time I ever rushed up the ice."
That was classic Cesare. A colorful guy and not a bad goalie either.
Upon retiring from hockey in 1978, Maniago got involved with the sporting goods retail business, eventually building his own little empire. Maniago Sports Ltd marked an interesting circle of "Little Cesare's" life, as a sporting goods store in his childhood made a very big impact on his life.
The store in his native Trail BC was owned by former Canadian tennis player Walt Stohlberg.
"He was an ex-Davis Cupper for Canada" recalled Maniago, a local rink rat at his early age. "And one day I was there, he picked up a tennis racket, told me to get a good goalie stick and started hitting tennis balls at me."
Is that what made him interested in goaltending?
"Sure it did!" fondly remembers Maniago with a big smile.
That was the humble beginnings for this big league netminder. Stohlberg was also a big part of Maniago's post-hockey life. He introduced Maniago to the retail people in the sporting goods industry in British Columbia. He prepared Cesare for business life, and even taught his wife Mavis how to do the bookkeeping.
"He was pretty involved and then he had a stroke" recalls Cesare. "Then he had another couple of strokes and he was gone...."
Time passed and Maniago continued to work hard for Stohlberg's company. He eventually bought the company from Stohlberg's widow. He changed the name to Maniago Sports at the suggestion of a retailer. It was a sound business move as Maniago's name was well known in the community, but it was a tough decision for Cesare.
"I wanted to keep Walt's name. That's how much I thought of the individual."
Nowadays Maniago Sports is one of the biggest sporting good retailers in the Vancouver area.
Does Maniago miss his hockey days though?
"A lot of people ask about that. I never had a chance to reflect because I've kept constantly busy. maybe some have more time. Maybe some want to continue to think about how it was. I will admit one thing I miss. The total excitement of winning an important game. The thrill of a key victory."
His key games include his Allan Cup championship, even though it came against his hometown. Maniago backstopped Chatham Ontario to the amateur championship against the Trail Smoke Eaters.
"That really created the stepping stone to pro hockey for me, and it was in Trail against the Smoke Eaters! I had to laugh...one guy, the goal judge, was an ex goalie. He was barking out instructions to me and then when Trail scored, he was cheering!"
Another favorite memory is of course his first NHL game.
"Johnny Bower was hurt and we won 2-1 in Detroit, and I was the first star of the game. That created real excitement when they announced the stars. I actually was in tears that night.
" There have been other thrills, but nothing quite like those two."