Former Hab Goalie Claude Pronovost's One Day Of Glory
In hockey's ancient times - the mid original six era, in this case - NHL teams were either too poor or too cheap to pay themselves the luxury of carrying an additional backup goaltender. For reasons beyond common sense, the home team was required to provide a substitute stopper, a sort of emergency pinch hitter, who when called upon, would jump into a set of goalie equipement and head to ice level.
Cold as stone one minute, he would then be paid a minimal fee (usually $100) to toss himself in the way of flying pucks after just a brief minute's hastened warmup. As insane as that seems, that was how it went for over fifty years of NHL hockey.
In 1956, at the Montreal Forum, it was goalie Claude Pronovost's task to wait in the wings for the rare occurence when his services would be called upon.
Claude was the younger brother of Marcel Pronovost, then a defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings, and the older sibling of Jean, later a star with the Pittsburgh Penguins. A cousin, Andre, also born in their hometown of Shawinigan Falls, joined the Canadiens a few seasons later.
Claude Pronovost had been under contract with the Canadiens since the 1953 season, having toiled in their system with the Montreal Jr. Royals and Jr. Canadiens as well as teams in Chicoutimi and Shawinigan. Along the way, he'd earned the nickname "Suitcase" due to the endless shuffling back and forth from being the Canadiens spare stopper. Part of his agreement, one in which was shared with Gerry McNeil, the other Royals goalie, involved being at the Forum for all home games, in case of an injury to a goaltender from either side. With McNeil on the sidelines, injured himself, the responsability fell to Pronovost to be at the Forum on the night of January 14, 1956.
That night, he had no idea what lie in store for him. As he took he his usual spot in the Forum stands one hour before gametime, Camil Desroches, the Canadiens director of publicity came by to report to Pronovost that there had been a catastrophy of sorts in the Bruins dressing room. "Long John" Henry, the Bruins goalie who had been called up from Hershey to replace the injured Terry Sawchuk, had lost his equipement in the course of his travels. Pads, trapper, and blocker weren't the going concern, but nowhere in the city of Montreal would they find a pair of size 14 goalie skates to fit Henderson.
Bruins coach Milt Schmidt was expecting to get McNeil for the game, and only then learned he had been out of action for some time. "Suitcase Pronovost" would get his NHL baptism by fire that evening, oddly enough, against the Canadiens who owned his playing rights.
"I would never have imagined playing for either team that night" says Pronovost. With the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, Pronovost had just given up 31 goals in a nine game span, replacing the injured Gerry McNeil in goal.
"God was good to me" he adds. "I stopped 31 shots from the likes of the Rocket, Beliveau, Geoffrion and others, and shut out the Canadiens 2-0."
In the first period Leo Boivin gave the Bruins the lead. Lorne Ferguson added an insurance goal in the second. By the end of the game, the young backstop had blocked every shot directed his way and had even killed off his own penalty in the third period.
"It was a miracle. A dream. Incredible, but true. It was over 50 years ago now, but I remember it like it was yesterday" recalls Claude, who is 73 today, but only 20 when it happened.
And what exactly would come about from this stellar NHL debut?
"Not a whole lot, After the game, the Bruins coach Milt Schmidt congratulated me on helping the Bruins end an 11 game winless streak. He wanted me to stay with the Bruins until Sawchul returned, but Frank Selke, the Canadiens GM, would have no part of it. "
Selke informed Schmidt that Pronovost was under contract, and refused to let him join the Bruins.
"The truth was", Pronovost explains, "Is that I wasn't under contract to the Canadiens or the Montreal Royals. All my career I went by my word, handshake agreements, until I was traded to Chicago with Dollard St. Laurent in 1961. That's when I ended up in Buffalo in the AHL, making the most money so far, which was $5,000 per year."
"Milt Schmidt gave me a hundred dollar bill, my game sweater, and my stick was autographed by the entire Bruins team", says Pronovost.
On a taxi ride back to his home in Beauharnois, the driver refused to believe Pronovost's tall tale.
"It wasn't until I pulled out an American hundred dollar bill to pay the fare, did he believe me. He couldn't get over that a passenger of his had just shutout the Canadiens. He was so impressed and proud to have given me a lift, that he didn't charge me the fare."
Pronovost's career didn't exactly take off from there, despite it's spectacular NHL first step. Expecting that he may get another call from the Canadiens proved false, as he remained behind McNeil in the team's pecking order. He even felt for a time that the Canadiens were in short, punished for having shut them out.
He would appear two more NHL games three years later with Montreal. On the first occasion, he subbed for an injured Jacques Plante, and allowed two goals in a game the Habs were already behind in. With Plante still out, he was given the next start, but was pulled after allowing five goals and replaced by spare Claude Cyr, that evening spare goalie.
Before retiring in 1963, he'd share the QSHL's Vezina award with Charlie Hodge with the Montreal Sr. Royals. In was the end of several era's in that 1960 summer, as not only would the Royals be mothballed, but their baseball counterpart and namesake were done as well. That autumn, the Rocket that Pronovost had shut out, hung up his skates for good.
Today, Claude Pronovost is still quite active, working as a representative for a cement block company called Blocs Mirabel, in the Basses - Laurentides region.
This article was based on a previous EOTP piece with additional files from RDS's Jean - Paul Sarault on January 12, 2009.