The name Gerry Cheevers instantly brings to mind images of his unmistakable goalie mask. A simple white old-school mask, Cheevers had it covered in painted stitches.
"There were different types of masks but they were all white," Cheevers recalled in an interview with the Hockey Hall of Fame. "I hated white. It reminded me of purity, which was not the case the way I played goal. My thought was to get out of practice. One day, the puck came up and hit me. It wouldn't have cut me without my mask, but I fainted, passed out and on the training table. (Coach) Harry (Sinden) came in and said, 'Get out there! You're not hurt.' So I said okay. I turned to Frosty Forristall, our trainer and said, 'Frosty, paint a stitch mark or two on the mask,' so he painted this big gouge over the right eye and it got a laugh. We started to paint stitches every time I got hit. Frosty would calculate where it would have been and how many stitches it would have taken."
Beyond the mask, Cheevers is remembered as one of the greatest goaltenders in history, despite never winning a Vezina or never making a NHL All Star team.
He was an extremely popular figure and among the most entertaining goaltenders in hockey history. "Cheesey" had a style described as "aggressive and instinctive." He loved to skate around the ice and handle the puck, becoming one of the earliest goalies to roam the ice. A standup goalie who charged out of his net to challenge shooters, he was far from the perfect textbook goalie. Instead he relied on great reflexes and anticipation, often making saves look incredibly spectacular.
"Cheevers is the most exciting goalie you'll ever see," said Joe Crozier, a former goalie great and Cheevers minor league coach in Rochester. "He'll have your fans on the edge of their seats all night."
He was also very combative, not afraid to mix it up and take matters into his own hands, much like a later-day Billy Smith or Ron Hextall. The truculent goalie's combined 304 career PIMs between the NHL and WHA were once a major league record.
He was also recognized as one of hockey's true clutch goaltenders. He backstopped the Bruins to two Stanley Cup championships, in 1970 and 1972, and helped them reach the finals in 1976-77 and 1977-78. Harry Sinden said: "Certainly we had Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, but I'm sure we couldn't have won the Cups without Gerry Cheevers." Cheevers was one of the all time best "money" goalies. When the games were big, Cheevers was at his best.
Born in the "Garden City" of St. Catherines, Ontario on December 7, 1940, Gerry Cheevers grew up with hockey in his blood. His father was a part-time scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the local arena manager, and he was very active in the young goalie's upbringing.
His father encouraged his son to play junior hockey in the Leafs system with the St. Mikes Majors, although it was a no-brainer for the impressionable youngster who had always cheered on Turk Broda and the Leafs. He played well with St. Mikes, backstopping them to a Memorial Cup championship in 1961, his final year of junior hockey.
Cheevers actually played part of that final junior season as a forward.
"In my last year of junior, I played a month of forward," Cheevers recalled in an interview with the Hockey Hall of Fame. "They needed a goaltender for the next year, and Dave Dryden was available, but he could only come to the team if he could play ten or twelve games that year. Father David Bauer made a deal with him and put me at forward to satisfy both Dave Dryden and to show me what it was like to play forward. I played ten or twelve games at forward that year. I was never so happy to get back in goal! A lot of guys were trying to get even for wayward sticks in the crease! I could always skate. I was just missing the instinct of knowing what to do with the puck."
In 1961-62 Cheevers turned pro and bounced around with three minor league teams in two different leagues. But on December 2, 1961, just 5 days before his 21st birthday, he was called up by the Leafs to play two games due to injuries to Johnny Bower and Don Simmons.
"It was a great thrill — no mask, Bobby Hull, scared to death. Billy Harris got three goals (the Leafs won 6-4). Then we got on the train and played the next night in Detroit. We got beat 3-1. I'll never forget that night. Gordie Howe came down, shot what I thought was a routine wrist shot and knocked the stick right out of my hands! I thought, 'Oooh....They're a little bit bigger and stronger up here!"
That would prove to be the extent of his career with the Leafs. Those were the days of the Original Six, and goaltending jobs were hard to come by, and the Leafs were a powerhouse backed by Bower. Cheevers was moved on to the Bruins organization, but did not find regular employment until 1967-68, the first season of NHL expansion.
Cheevers confessed he wasn't all that excited about the Bruins, who at the time were a weak team.
I really wasn't crazy about sticking with the Bruins. But when Bobby Orr showed up (in 1966-67), they got a different perspective. You knew that it as just a matter of time before the team turned around. And then (in May 1967), they made the big trade with Chicago for Phil (Esposito), Kenny Hodge and Freddy Stanfield. It looked like things were going to be pretty good. I thought, 'I've gotta be on that team.'"
Powered by Cheevers, Orr and Esposito, the Bruins quickly evolved into a championship team, going from last place in 1966-67 to winning the Stanley Cup in 1970 and again in 1972.
Shockingly, Cheevers defected from the Bruins to sign with the upstart World Hockey Association. Citing unhappiness with the Bruins contract offers, he signed with the Cleveland Crusaders for 7 seasons and a whopping total, back then anyways, of $1.4 million.
"I had wonderful days in Cleveland. I would never trade them in."
Cheevers would play with the Crusaders for the next 4 seasons, but would return to the Bruins in 1976. He would play four more years with the Bruins before retiring in 1980.
Cheevers was one of the few goaltenders to become a successful coach. He took over as the Bruins coach in 1980-81, lasting until 1985. In that time he had an impressive record of 204 wins, 126 losses and 46 ties, though the Bruins could never go far in the playoffs.