In the French-speaking town of Chicoutimi, Quebec is an arena with an Olympic-sized rink. Built in 1949, it was renamed in 1965 in honour of one of its beloved native sons, Georges Vézina.
Vézina, the son of a baker, was born in 1887. The youngest of 8 children, he left school at 14 to work in the bakery. Like all the other kids, he played hockey in the street whenever he could, and when he was 16, he joined a hockey team, the Chicoutimi-based Saguenéens, named after the region and the river that cuts through the city, on its way to the Saint Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
By the time Vézina was 18, the club that would become the Montreal Canadiens — then members of the NHA, the precursor of the NHL — took a road trip and stopped in Chicoutimi for a little exhibition match. Although the Canadien’s team was being paid money to play and were the obvious favourites to win, the Saguenéens goalkeeper came away from that match with a shutout and the Saguenéens stole a win. The goaltender for the Canadiens at the time was impressed with what he saw that he tried to get the club president to hire Vézina on the spot. Which might have worked except for one big problem: Vézina wasn’t interested.
Four year’s later, the Hab’s goaltender was going to soon be hanging up his skates for a job in the front office, and time was running out to find someone to replace him between the pipes. After another exhibition game in Chicoutimi, meeting up against Vézina once again, he arranged a tryout invitation for both Vézina and his brother, Pierre, in Montreal. Pierre, who was an insurance policy that his younger brother would actually make the trip, didn’t make the team, but the “Chicoutimi Cucumber” did: they liked the way he maintained an upright stature and how he used his stick and to deflect incoming pucks! Signing a contract with the Habs for $800/year, he played his first game as a professional on New Year’s Eve, 1910.
And then he played every game the Canadiens had, without missing a one.
He played for them when they were part of the NHA, he played for them when they became part of the NHL. He played for them when they won their first Stanley Cup, in 1916 – that night one of his two sons were born, who, to honour the Cup, they named Marcel-Stanley; then once again in 1924 when they won their second championship.
Vézina played 327 consecutive games without the Canadiens needing anyone to replace him. In game 328, the season opener of the 1925-26 season, Vézina collapsed on the ice during the second period and taken off the ice.
When he’d shown up for training camp, he was the shadow of the man who left, victorious as holders of the cup, at the end of the previous season. He was had lost around 35 pounds, had a fever, but didn’t say anything about being unwell. The day after his collapse, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised to return home to Saguenay.
Before he left, though, he went to the Canadiens locker room one last time and said a tearful goodbye to his teammates. Sitting in his usual corner of the dressing room, where he was known to smoke his pipe and read the paper, Vézina asked for one last favour from the team: the world series sweater that he had worn the season before when they won the Stanley Cup.
The Montreal Canadiens loved their never-rattled Chicoutimi Cucumber so much they paid him his entire last season’s salary of $6,000 — despite having played under half of one game; the following season they bought a trophy in the name of their dear goalie, who had died a few months before Chicoutimi hospital, aged 39. The Georges Vézina Trophy has been awarded since the 1926-27 season to the most outstanding “gardien de but” – the French term for goaltender, and is cherished and a true mark of honour for the final defenders of the net.
The Saguenéens, part of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, play out of the Centre Georges-Vézina, where a replica painting of the Chicoutimi Cucumber watches over the main entrance of the building, right next to the Sags’ Team Store. The 5’6″ goalie is dressed as he always was when playing a game, in his Canadiens sweater, leather pads to protect his legs, leather gloves extending to his elbows, skates and his stick. The goalie who had the first shutout ever — and first assist too — will live on as long as the trophy bearing his name is awarded to the select excellent few who choose to lead their team netminding, in between the pipes.