Monday, May 30, 2016
After playing junior hockey with the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters of the Ontario Hockey League in 1959-60, goaltender Gilles Villemure, born on this date in 1940, joined the New York Rovers of the Eastern Hockey League for the 1960-61 season. He spent the next season with the Long Island Ducks, playing in 61 games that season.
He moved across the continent fir 1962-63 to become a member of the then minor league Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. There, Villemure posted his first winning record, going 35-31-4 in 70 games to win the WHL Rookie of the Year award.
He returned to the east coast for the 1963-64 season to play with the Baltimore Clippers of the American Hockey League as well as making his NHL debut with the New York Rangers, having been signed by the club back in 1962, but failed to impress, going 0-2-3 in five games played.
It was once more back across North America for the next two seasons, rejoining the WHL's Canucks for 1964-65 and 1965-66, being named a WHL First Team All-Star in 1966.
Back across the country yet again, he returned to Baltimore for the 1966-67 season, playing in 70 games with a 34-27-9 record. He was able to avoid the change in time zones for 1967-68 by becoming a member of the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL. He only saw action in 37 games for the Bisons, but had a winning record of 18-13-6 while posting the lowest goals against average of his career up to that point at 2.47. The highlight of his season was earning his first NHL victory during the four games he played with the Rangers that same season.
He really hit his stride the next two seasons with the Bisons, winning both the Hap Homes Award as the goalie with the lowest goals against average as well as the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL MVP in both 1969 and 1970. In the 1970 postseason, Villemure went 11-3 with a 2.13 GAA to lead the Bisons to the Calder Cup championship.
While the early part of his career was prior to the NHL expansion of 1967 when one goaltender played the majority, if not all of his teams games, the common thinking in the NHL had now evolved into favoring a two goalie rotation, creating a spot on the Rangers roster at long last. Paired with Eddie Giacomin on a strong Rangers club, Villemure played in 34 games in 1970-71 with a record of 22-8-4 and shared that season's Vezina Trophy with Giacomin.
He improved upon that mark in 1971-72, winning 24, setting an NHL career high, while losing just 7 and tying 4. He also made six playoff appearances with a 4-2 record as the Rangers made it to the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals.
The next season Villemure stayed on a roll, playing in 34 games with a record of 20-12-2 and also appeared in his third consecutive NHL All-Star Game. After playing in just 21 games in 1973-74, the popular Villemure rebounded with 45 appearances in 1974-75 and a 22-14-6 mark.
Now in his mid-30's thanks to his long minor league career, Villemure was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks for the final two seasons of his career where he saw limited action in a backup role to Tony Esposito before retiring after the 1976-77 season.
In all, Villemure played in 205 NHL games with a record of 100 wins, 64 losses and 29 ties and a career 2,81 goals against average.
Villemure remains a valued and respected member of the Rangers alumni, and is seen here pictured with current Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and his old goaltending partner Giacomin
Of note, during the offseason, Villemure was a professional harness race driver at horse racing tracks throughout the northeast.
"You need timing, you need quickness because when you live at the gate in harness racing, you have to time the gate, when you leave from behind the gate, if you have reflexes then you can get out of the gate quick," Villemure explained. "If you don't have the reflexes, then you lose a couple of steps and as a goaltender you need reflexes, of course. You have to make the right move at the right time."
Today's featured jersey is a 1971-72 New York Rangers Gilles Villemure jersey. While the Rangers had worn a variation of this white jersey since 1951-52, this jersey would only remain in use until the 1976-76 season until being replaced by a new modernized jersey that featured the Rangers shield logo rather than the diagonal "Rangers" cresting.
That new style would only last for two brief seasons before the return of the classic Rangers jerseys, which remain in use through this day, surviving the change to the Reebok Edge jerseys in 2007.
Today's video section begins with footage from a Rangers game against the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1970 which features Villemure versus Jacques Plante for Toronto.
Here is footage of a conversation with Villemure while he is signing reproductions of his instantly recognizable goalie mask.