In the history of the Hart Trophy, presented to the MVP of the National Hockey League, there are only 3 players who have won the award who are not presently inducted into the Hall of Fame. One is Eric Lindros, a bubble player who could find himself enshrined amongst the greats of the game. Another is Tommy Anderson. Given that he was a defenseman of the 30s and 40s who just doesn't have the stats or the additional hardware to merit selection, induction is unlikely. The third is goaltender Elwin Ira "Al" Rollins. Chances are he will never land inside the Hall, and while there was a time he may have deserved it, now he is a forgotten snapshot of the NHL of the 1950s.
The 1950-1951 NHL season would have been something to see. It was the year that Al Delvecchio, Boom Boom Geoffrion, and Jean Beliveau played their first NHL games. It was the year that the hockey world would get to see the masterful work of a 21 year old netminder named Terry Sawchuk, who would play all 70 games for Detroit, winning 44 of them, claim the Calder Trophy as Top Rookie, and set off on a Hall of Fame career. It would be the year that Toronto and Montreal would square off in the Stanley Cup Finals and all five games would go to overtime. It would be the year that Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko would score the Cup clinching goal in dramatic fashion -- his last appearance before he would vanish in a plane crash four months later. As an interesting aside, it would be the last time the Leafs would hoist the Cup for eleven years, the exact amount of time it took for Barilko's downed plane to be found. It would be the year that Montreal began an unprecedented 10 year string of appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals. They would win six of them, including five between 1956-1960. And it was the year that Al Rollins, in his first full NHL season as a starting netminder (he played 2 games in 1949-50), won a Stanley Cup, won the Vezina as Top Goaltender, and topped the league with a 27-5-8 record and a 1.77 goals against average.
After the 1951-1952 season, which saw the Leafs routed handily by the Red Wings in round 1 of the playoffs, Rollins couldn't convince Leafs management that he could be counted on to be the number one guy in the net and secure them another Stanley Cup. So Rollins was shipped off with a few other boys to the bottom dwelling Chicago Black Hawks. It was no exaggeration to say that finding yourself in Chicago during the 50s was the equivalent of being shipped to Siberia. You disappeared. And you played for the biggest laughingstock in hockey. Since being swept by the Canadiens in the 1943 Finals, the Black Hawks imploded. Between 1944 and 1957 they made the playoffs only twice, losing in the opening round both times. Of the 12 years they hit the golf course early, they finished dead last in nine of them.
Rollins found the Black Hawks to be in utter disarray. At one point he stated that he saw more breakaways in one game as the Chicago netminder than he saw in his three years in Toronto combined. Still, Rollins would fight for victory as best he could. He even became a footnote in history as Rocket Richard scored his 325th career goal, beating Rollins and breaking the record held by Nels Stewart. Due to Rollins, the Chicago Black Hawks met with modest success in 1952. With Rollins stepping up as best he could given the barrage of offense he faced on a nightly basis, he more than earned all 27 of the wins Chicago gained that season, and they made the playoffs for the first time since since 1946. In the opening round they would take Montreal to seven games but ultimately fall to the eventual Champions. Gordie Howe would walk away with the Hart Trophy as league MVP but Rollins would come in a close second in the voting.
1953-1954 would be a year of futility for the Black Hawks. Nothing would go right and once again they would find themselves sitting ugly in the NHL's moldy basement. Rumors swirled throughout the media that the Black Hawks were doomed and would fold. New owner Arthur Wirtz insisted that was not the case. It was not enough to convince fans, however. They stayed far, far away from the rink. About as far away as Chicago was from the top of the league. And that was mighty far.
The Black Hawks would finish with just 12 wins to go with their 51 losses. Al Rollins would be the man in net for all those wins. He gave up 213 goals in 66 games, sporting a hot air balloon-sized 3.23 goals against average and yet the prevalent discussion amongst the hockey writers of the day was 'Think how bad they would have been without Rollins!' And it was this thinking that would see Rollins, he of the league low 12 wins and shooting gallery target for the entire NHL, voted as the NHL Hart Trophy winner for MVP at the close of the 1953-1954 season. Chicago sports writer George Vass wrote that Rollins won "apparently for extraordinary gallantry under fire."
It wouldn't be the first time the Hart went to a player from a bad luck team. Defenseman Tommy Anderson won it in 1942 when he finished 10th in scoring as his team, the Brooklyn Americans, finished dead last in what would be their final season. It also wouldn't be the last time, as Andy Bathgate would win it while playing with the next-to-last place New York Rangers in 1958-1959.
That level of hockey analysis by sports writers is gone in this day and age. These days it's quite easy to spot the MVP candidates: large point totals, over 50 goals, outstanding goals against averages and save percentages combined with big big win totals, playoff teams. In fact, the last Hart Trophy winner not on a playoff team? Mario Lemieux in 1987-1988, the year Wayne Gretzky only played 64 games due to injuries, and thus Mario won the scoring title with 70 goals and 168 points in 77 games. You can argue that giving it to a guy on a last place team so recently shows that the writers do stretch themselves for these things but I'll argue you're wrong. When you consider that Pittsburgh finished last in the Patrick Division and would have leaped past the Rangers and Devils to secure the 4th playoff spot if they'd only eked out one more win, and the fact that the distance between last place Pittsburgh and the first place New York Islanders was just 7 points, well, there's just not much real stretching there. The Patrick Division was notoriously difficult at that time. Consider that four of the five Norris Division teams were worse than Pittsburgh, as were three of the Smythe Division teams...and five of them earned playoff spots! I'd dare say if they wanted to stretch they could have dropped the award in the lap of Luc Robitaille, with 53 goals and 111 points on a 4th place, 68-point earning Los Angeles Kings team. Or even to Peter Stastny, with 111 points on a 69-point Adams Division basement sitting Quebec Nordiques team.
Even Bathgate and his Rangers were one victory away from a playoff spot, so the stretch there was not nearly as extreme. If you look at the numbers, no greater divide existed between team futility and singular accolade. The 53-54 Chicago Black Hawks were abysmal. That cannot be overstated. They finished with 31 points...37 points behind the 5th place non-playoff New York Rangers. And the hockey writing community believed that the Black Hawks would have been ever worse had Rollins not been so strong in his 12 wins. So vital was his effort in abject failure for a franchise that they gave him the Hart Trophy as league MVP. And his teammates felt he deserved it. Defenseman Vince Collins once said, "He made you feel that you were somebody out there, that you were doing a job on the ice and were worthwhile to the community."
It would be great to imagine Al Rollins accepting his award beaming with pride, invigorating his ownership and his teammates and spurring them on to even modest success. Maybe in Hollywoodland that would happen. In reality, after three more years of horror, Rollins and Chicago management were at odds, and the award winner found himself shipped off to the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Hockey League. He would suit up for the New York Rangers 10 times during the 1959-1960 season but his professional hockey career essentially met its end when Chicago cut him loose. Although his NHL successes were history, Rollins would continue on in hockey. As a player he would help the Drumheller Miners win the Allan Cup in the Alberta Senior Hockey League. Hanging up the skates, he would find continued success as a coach, pacing behind the benches of the University of Calgary, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Houston, Tulsa, and Phoenix. In 1970 he would coach the Spokane Jets to an Allan Cup championship. He died in 1996, at age 69, after struggling with heart troubles.
It would be interesting to see the writers of our time go out on such a limb to recognize an outstanding player simply based on his merits and value as opposed to simply looking at the top of the scoring or goaltending charts every season. Those are the easy choices. The Hart Trophy is said to be presented to the "player adjudged most valuable to his team." Of course these arguments are always subjective. Let's be honest, no one would ever say Wayne Gretzky didn't deserve his MVP awards....except that Edmonton proved they could trade him away and still win Stanley Cups. So aside from leading the league in scoring, was he really the most valuable player to his team? There's an argument to be had there.
But kudos to the writers of 1953 and 1954 for thinking outside the box and for assessing the league-wide contingent of players, and recognizing the worth of a goaltender long forgotten. And unnecessarily so.
Here's to Al Rollins. MVP.