October 03, 2013

Horsing Around With Gilles Villemure

If there was one thing NHL goaltending veteran Gilles Villemure loved more than hockey, it was horses.

In the off-seasons Villemure worked as a trainer-driver in the world of harness racing.

"I've been training horses for 10 years now," Villemure told Hockey magazine in 1972. "And I'll be training horses long after I get out of hockey. At least I hope I will. In Harness racing you can be active into your seventies if you want. Hockey you can only play for a few years."

"Where I grew up, in Trois Rivieres, Quebec, the ice rink was next door to the race track. When I was about 10 or 11 I started walking horses. I'd do it for anybody who'd let me. Then I worked as a groom. Hockey was always my first love but there was no reason I couldn't do both."

And both he did. Whether he was playing minor league hockey in Charlotte or Vancouver or Buffalo, he always kept up with his horses.

Eventually his hockey apprenticeship led him to the bright lights of the Big Apple. Villemure joined the New York Rangers full time in 1970. He enjoyed some solid success sharing the net with Eddie Giacomin. The two shared the Vezina Trophy in 1971. With Giacomin around Villemure never really had a chance to be the workhorse in net (okay, that was a bad pun) but the stand up goalie was well respected around the league.

"Villemure's like another defenseman back there," Francis said. "He clears equally well with his stick or glove hand and he's real cool. You can shoot the puck at him all night and he'll never rattle."

But Villemure's big break in hockey also proved to be his big break in harness racing. He also cracked the line-up at Roosevelt Raceway.

"I came to New York with one horse and that was Guy Bistrol. He's a nice kind of horse, about $7,500 to $10,000 claimer. At first I felt out of place. The only other driver I knew was Lucien Fontaine. Then Roger White sent a few horses down and I drove for him. The biggest purse I won was in a $7,000 race with Timely Knight. Guy Bistrol won two out of three but then he broke a small bone in his leg. Altogether I had about 20 drives and three winners."

Villemure said all the driving and training helped keep him in shape for hockey season. Rangers' teammate Rod Gilbert, who owned but did not race horses, vouched for that.

"When you're driving a horse you have to make split second decisions. You have to know when to drive through an opening and when to sit and wait. As a goalie, Gilles has the same instincts. He waits for just the right time before he makes his move."

In 1975-76 Villemure was moved to Chicago where he backed up Tony Esposito. That meant Villemure did not get to play very often. He ended up retiring in 1977. He finished with an impressive 2.81 career goals-against average. His 98-65-27 career record included 13 shutouts.

And yes, Gilles Villemure did move full time into the world of racing and raising horses, until 1986.

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