There is great debate as to who was hockey's first goaltending superstar. The NHL and hockey as we know it were in their infancy. Statistic keeping was rudimentary. And there was no trophy to honour the best goalie each season until 1927.
The debate generally comes down to two men: The Chicoutimi Cucumber or Praying Bennie.
Georges Vezina, nicknamed the Cucumber after his cool demeanor, is an obvious choice. After all, it is his name that adorns the trophy annually awarded to the NHL's outstanding goaltender. Vezina would lead the Montreal Canadiens to 2 NHA and 3 NHL titles, as well as 2 Stanley Cup championships. However his etching in hockey history as hockey's first great goalie because the trophy was named after him should be examined further. Vezina died tragically in the 1925-26 season suffering from complications of undiagnosed tuberculosis. As often is the case, his tragic and early death may have made him more of a legend than he should be considered.
Vezina certainly deserves consideration, but Clint Benedict, a.k.a Praying Bennie, was statistically the early dominant goaltender. Granted he played with the powerhouse Ottawa Senators in the early 1920s, nonetheless Benedict led the NHL in wins in 6 of his 7 seasons in the nation's capital, as well as leading or sharing the lead in shutouts and GAA in every season. He won 3 Stanley Cups in 4 years in Ottawa, and added another after moving to Montreal. He was also instrumental in shaping the game. His perfection of the accidental fall led to a rule change that allowed goaltenders to leave their feet to stop the puck. He also was the first goalie, not Jacques Plante, to wear a mask in a NHL game.
Another notable goalie of the era also deserves mention. Hugh Lehman was Benedict's statistical twin in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association at the time. "Old Eagle Eyes" was a British Columbia Lower Mainland mainstay, starring in the PCHA with the New Westminister Royals and Vancouver Millionaires/Maroons. Forgotten about on the west coast, he would play in 8 Stanley Cup finals but would win only one championship. In 1926, following the collapse of the PCHA, the 41 year old Lehman joined the Chicago Blackhawks for parts of two seasons.
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