The Exoneration of André “Red Light” Racicot

It is time to stop misremembering the much maligned backup.

We are all familiar with the very catchy nickname “Red Light” for former Montreal Canadiens goaltender André Racicot. It was a derisive nickname meant to symbolize that the goaltender was unable to prevent the opposing team from scoring, and doomed the Canadiens to high scoring contests.

Sure enough, a mere glance at his statistics today would certainly start to lend to that impression, but has Racicot been fairly represented by history? Or has unfair expectation led to false urban legend?

Certainly things didn’t start off well for Racicot. In his first and only NHL game of his rookie season in 1989-90, he lasted a mere 13 minutes in net for the Canadiens, giving up three goals on six shots, for a terrifying goals-against average of 13.85 and a save percentage of .500 for the year.

But there is always more to the story than mere numbers. Looking beyond the statistics, Racicot was hardly given a lot of time to prepare himself mentally and appeared visibly nervous according to La Presse at the start of the game.

“Pat Burns told me [about starting] right after warm-ups. Patrick Roy even took the warm-ups as starting goaltender. Pat asked me if I was ready — of course I was. I’ve been waiting for a chance since my call-up [from Sherbrooke]. Now I just hope that I will get another chance. If I had stopped that first shot, it would have changed everything.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs scored on Racicot right off the bat, on their first shot on goal 39 seconds into the game. 12 minutes later Racicot was pulled, and according to La Presse, laid down for a few short instants behind the Habs bench before taking a seat. Not the way anyone would want to start their NHL career.

“I decided to pull Racicot, even if I don’t hold him accountable for the goals. He was like a piece of meat tossed to the sharks,” said Burns after the game. The Canadiens were lifeless to start the contest. “The Canadiens defencemen just let us skate around,” Leafs forward Ed Olczyk said, after scoring a hat trick on the night.

Racicot returned to the AHL’s Sherbrooke Canadiens soon afterward, as regular backup, Bryan Hayward, returned from injury.

In his first start with the farm team after being sent back down, Racicot said he was very nervous at the start, wondering if his game had left him. However, he played a great game, making 33 saves against the Hershey Bears, helping the Canadiens win 4-3.

“The future is a little less dark today. I know now that I am not a bad goaltender. When I started the game I was very nervous. The two days that followed the Toronto game were very difficult. I was discouraged. I felt like I missed my biggest opportunity. Pat Burns said to not worry about it, that it wasn’t my fault, the players said that it was all their faults, but that changed little for me. I had missed my shot.”

The tandem of Racicot and Jean-Claude Bergeron would lead the Sherbrooke Canadiens to the lowest goals-against average in the AHL that season, but it was Bergeron who edged ahead to win the best individual goaltender award, despite both having similar statistics.

Racicot lost out once again to Bergeron the following season, this time for the coveted vacant NHL backup role. Racicot started the season in Sherbrooke, but was called up to the NHL practically a year to the day of that Toronto game, as Patrick Roy injured his knee and required time off. By the end of the 1990-91 season Racicot was anointed backup to Roy, having outplayed Bergeron, who returned to Sherbrooke.

The 1991-92 season presented both upstarts with an additional challenge. Veteran goaltender Roland Melanson was acquired during training camp from the New Jersey Devils, and supplanted Racicot and Bergeron, who were both sent to the AHL, to the freshly minted Fredericton Canadiens.

“Roland is very good for Patrick,” said Burns. “It’s a lot easier since he arrived. The youngsters were maybe a little intimidated by Patrick. There were things they would not dare say or do. A guy like Roland, who spent several seasons as backup to Billy Smith with the Islanders, and there is nothing that intimidates him. He continuously encourages Patrick, he goes to talk to him, which is really good.”

But Melanson didn’t quite pan out for the Canadiens that season, missing time due to family matters as well as injuries. In the end he would only play nine games that year.

Bergeron’s star also fell during the 1991-92 season, as newcomer Frederic Chabot took his spot in Fredericton, while Bergeron ended up with the Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League.

The scene was set for Racicot to rise to backup that season with Melanson and Bergeron’s struggles, however Racicot also was befallen with bad performances. Limited to nine NHL games all season, he had zero wins (three ties) to show for it. But in his defence, he was used so rarely, so sporadically, that it was difficult to bring any kind of momentum to his game. Despite the win/loss record, Racicot had maintained his goals-against average from the previous season, and improved on his save percentage. His record contained a 40-save performance, two 30-save performances, and three 25-save performances.

That off-season Bergeron was gone, traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in return for Frederic Chabot, whom the nascent Florida team picked in the expansion draft. Melanson was gone as well.

Expansion Casualties: Chabot three times unlucky

Despite all the setbacks and challenges, Racicot finally won the backup role full-time for the 1992-93 season, signing a new one-year contract, with an option, paying him $250,000 per year. “It’s a nice vote of confidence and certainly it serves as motivation. It’s up to me now not to let anyone down,” he said.

Racicot would be the undisputed backup that season, holding the role through the Stanley Cup conquest of 1993.

For the 1993-94, the team brought on another veteran goalie, Ron Tugnutt, who battled Racicot for the backup role. Racicot was not re-signed for the 1994-95 season.

A Quantitative Look

When all is said and done, it’s probably near impossible to be placed in a situation to be Patrick Roy’s substitute. Roy was one of the best goaltenders in the league at the time, and certainly any backup’s performance would pale in comparison to St. Patrick’s. Melanson flamed out, Bergeron had a moment in the spotlight but wilted in the face of partnering with Roy, and Racicot emerged from the pack for a brief instant, but never truly stood a chance in the public eye at the foot of a giant.

Let’s take a quantitative view of his performances in 1990-91 and 1992-93, the two seasons when he was Roy’s number-two. First of all, a myopic comparison to Roy leads to the expected result: Racicot was a worse goalie than Roy.

But how did Racicot compare statistically to the other backup goaltenders in the NHL at the time? Was he truly as bad as the nickname would imply, or was he a victim of proximity and expectation?

The data set used to provide some quantitative perspective started off by including all goaltenders who played in those two seasons, filtering out the starters for all the teams, as well as goalies who played fewer than 10 games in an effort to objectively isolate the data to just true backups; goaltenders who would have had some extensive play in a season but not considered to be in a 1A/1B-type dynamic, as that was clearly not the case in Montreal.

  • In 1990-91, out of 72 goaltenders who played at least one game, 19 goaltenders were isolated that met the criteria set here for a backup.
  • In 1992-93, out of 77 goaltenders, 21 goaltenders were isolated./

The resulting tabulation of statistics showed that Racicot was, in fact, quite good when compared to his peers in win percentage and save percentage. A summarized view below shows that, at worst, Racicot was an above-average backup netminder. That is certainly the beginning of a case to exonerate the maligned goaltender.

So yes, Racicot did have a turbulent time ascending from the AHL to NHL backup. And it certainly wasn’t easy at times. But in the two seasons where his role became defined, he actually performed well — at least good enough compared to his peers. He would never be a serious contender for an NHL starter’s job, and in fact he would not play for any other NHL team after his time with Montreal was up. But André Racicot, for all his shortcomings, was not as awful as his nickname made him out to be. In the shadow of Patrick Roy, few goaltenders would have blossomed.

And so even though history may have painted him with an evocative nickname, the reality is that he was actually not that bad. He was above average, and really, isn’t that the best you can hope for from a backup goaltender?

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