November 27, 2015
Though not a a Hockey Hall of Famer, Gerry McNeil played an important role in Montreal Canadiens history. He filled in in the nets between the Bill Durnan and Jacques Plante eras, winning the Stanley Cup in 1953.
Gerry McNeil was a longtime senior amateur goalkeeper with the Montreal Royals before getting his shot at the NHL. Despite playing up in Quebec, they only became interested in him after a suggestion from the long forgotten and hulking blue liner Mike McMahon.
McNeil arrived at about the same time was Bill Durnan. Obviously the Canadiens were proven correct in their choice of Durnan over McNeil. But the Canadiens were impressed enough to keep McNeil in their system. He would join the Royals and dominate the Quebec senior leagues. He would also get to know many of the Habs players, as he would often fill in in practices where an extra goaltender was needed.
By the end of his tenure Bill Durnan, one of the greatest goaltenders of all time, was not appreciated by fans in the Montreal Forum for some strange reason. The boobirds were on him much of 1949-50 despite the fact he would win his sixth Vezina Trophy in seven seasons that year. This, along with illness, caused Durnan to succumb to the goaltender's occupational disease---a nervous breakdown. He told coach Dick Irvin during the 1950 playoffs to replace him with McNeil and Durnan's playing days were over.
McNeil was sharp, but the Canadiens weren't and lost to the Rangers. McNeil played well in his first full season of 1950-51, as the Habs new goalkeeper but despite leading the Canadiens to the finals, Toronto won the Stanley Cup that year. McNeil was the goalie who surrendered Bill Barilko's now famous goal. Unfortunately a solid NHL career will always be overshadowed by that one goal.
1952-53 was McNeil's year of glory. He led the NHL in shutouts with 10 (tied with Harry Lumley) and got his goals against average down to 2.12. Despite missing 4 games with a hobbled ankle, he was sharp in the playoffs and led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, the Habs first since 1945-46.
Towards the end of the 1953-54 season though, McNeil lost his starting position to a young Jacques Plante. When the Canadiens were facing elimination against Detroit in the 1953-54 Stanley Cup finals, Plante was pulled by coach Dick Irvin in favour of the veteran McNeil. The Canadiens promptly won the next two games to force a seventh game. Unfortunately, Tony Leswick's overtime fluke undid the Habs, as an easy shot by the Red Wings was tipped off Canadiens defenceman Doug Harvey's glove behind McNeil.
Like Bill Durnan, McNeil then faced the Forum boo-birds and his own nerves became shaken. Coach Dick Irvin was no longer a fan of his either. A crushed McNeil retired for one season and coached junior hockey, but he would return to the nets yet again.
McNeil rejoined the Montreal Royals in 1955-56 and would even return to the Canadiens in 1956-57, getting his name on the Stanley Cup for a second time. Jacques Plante was injured during 1956-57 and McNeil was called up to the Canadiens for 9 games of unexpected play.
Gerry then played for the Rochester Americans of the AHL for two seasons, played for the Montreal Royals in 1959-60 and then finished his career with the AHL's Quebec Aces.
With his hockey days long behind him, he moved onto a long career with the Seagram's Distilleries, before retiring permanently on West Island.