When the name Gerry McNamara comes up in a conversation, it is most likely in reference to the former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
However, long before he became the Leafs GM, McNamara put in his time as a player.
This month, Gerry McNamara was in the guest chair 'Inside the Room', as Mike Wilson (The Ultimate Leafs Fan) moderated another evening of hockey talk.
For a couple of hours on a hot August night, a casually dressed McNamara spent a couple of hours discussing his career as a player, scout and general manager.
"My dad sent me to St. Mike's when I was 15-years-old," McNamara stated as he began his talk. "I went as a student, not as a hockey player."
One weekend, McNamara's brother, who played hockey for St. Mike's, took him to Maple Leaf Gardens.
"My first impression of the Gardens was this isn't where they play hockey," he said of his visit to the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "The ice is too small."
McNamara provided an explanation for his thinking that way.
"The stands made the ice look so small to me that I couldn't believe they played those games there."
As it turned out, McNamara ended up not only taking in the sights of the hockey shrine, but he got on the ice for a short period of time during practice. Since he wasn't officially part of the team, McNamara was ordered off the ice.
"I was out there and I'd never had a pair of goaltender skates on in my life. They gave me pads and the whole shebang."
Though his early efforts to earn a spot between the pipes for the St. Mike's Majors and Buzzers didn't materialize, he did catch on with the St. Mike's midget squad.
"We had a game at Weston Arena," McNamara noted. "I'm living at Bay and St. Joseph, and I don't know where Weston Arena is. I got on the Bloor car (streetcar) and went up and down twice and couldn't find it. I had all my equipment with me."
The frustration of not reaching his destination caused McNamara to reassess his situation.
"I said, if their not interested in getting me there, I'm not interested in playing."
McNamara concentrated on his studies, but opportunity would knock on his door the next school year.
At seven-o'clock one evening a Basilian Father at St. Mike's came calling and knocked on McNamara's door. After making sure he had the right individual, McNamara recalled that his visitor asked him, "how would you like to come out and practice with the Majors?"
Intrigued by the offer, McNamara decided to get back on the ice. Over the next 4 years he would be part of the St. Mike's Majors.
"I ended up being the starting goaltender (with the Majors) for the last two years ('53-'54 & '54-'55) and Ed Chadwick was the goalie for the first two years."
In his last season with the Majors, McNamara went 25-17-4 in 46 contests. Satisfied with the performance of their goaltending prospect, the Toronto Maple Leafs were ready to talk turkey.
"I got $2,500 to sign and $3,500 to play in any league, except for the American League, which was $4,000.
A car accident during the 1955 OHA playoffs, followed by a lengthy recovery period, limited his action to 5 games the next year ('55-'56) with the American Hockey League Pittsburgh Hornets.
Back at full strength after his rehabilitation, McNamara was in the crease for several teams during the 1956-57 campaign.
"I started out in Winnipeg (WHL) and they sent me to Hershey and I played in the American League."
McNamara headed to Ontario in 1959-60 to join the Sudbury Wolves in the newly formed Eastern Professional Hockey League.
"In case anyone thinks that was a rinky-dink league...on the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens (were) the Rousseau's, the Tremblay's and Charlie Hodge. It was a very good league."
His 31 victories were the most recorded by any goalie in year one of the EPHL and he built upon his success in year two with the Wolves.
"I got a call from the Maple Leafs on February 12 (1961) to say that Johnny Bower got hurt, so I got called to the Leafs."
Prior to making his National Hockey League debut on February 15, 1961, against Montreal at the Gardens, 26-year-old McNamara talked with Joe Taylor of the Toronto Daily Star.
"I'm nervous, I guess," he told the reporter. "But I think it helps you. You can't play well unless you're keyed up. It's not exactly nervousness - it's more of an edge that keeps you on your toes."
If McNamara had butterflies in his first NHL start it didn't show. He kept the Leafs in a close contest, as the Habs scored an empty net goal to give them a 3-1 victory.
Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail wrote that, "...Gerry McNamara, the large fellow (6'2") who replaced Johnny Bower in the Leafs' net, acquitted himself with unusual skill and poise in his first league game."
Next up for McNamara was a Saturday night tilt against Chicago at Maple Leaf Gardens. After giving up first period goals to Ken Wharram and Tod Sloan, McNamara slammed the barn door shut and Toronto skated to a 5-2 win.
Twenty-fours hours after registering his first NHL win, McNamara and the Leafs were doubled-up on the scoreboard in a 4-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
McNamara earned his second win when the Leafs downed Montreal on February 23 at The Forum. Although happy with the two-points, there was a downside to his outing.
"I got hurt and I was out for three-and-a-half weeks. They put a cast on my knee."
Now needing a goalie to replace McNamara, Toronto once again turned to the Sudbury Wolves.
"Cesare Maniago was taking my place. He would go up to Sudbury and play, and then he would come back to Toronto and play."
Gerry McNamara wouldn't return to the Leafs line-up until the final regular season game in New York on March 19, 1961.
With both Sudbury goalies at his disposal, Toronto GM and coach, Punch Imlach, had to decide on a starting goalie for the finale. Would it be Maniago or McNamara?
And there were no shortage of individuals offering an opinion to Imlach concerning his dilemma.
Wren Blair, general manager of the EPHL Kingston Frontenacs, even managed to get word to Imlach. In a tight-race with the Wolves, Blair got Ed Houston, the EPHL president, to get on the blower with Punch Imlach. McNamara just happened to be in the trainers room when his boss took the call.
"Blair figured if I was sent back there (to Sudbury), he could win because Maniago would be down here."
But Imlach wasn't having any of this and wouldn't let any outsider dictate to him how he should run his team.
"Imlach turned to me and asked, 'are you ready to play'? I said, yes I can play."
Confident that McNamara was healthy enough to return, Imlach was ready to name his goalie for the encounter against the Rangers.
"He said, 'okay, you're coming with me tonight'," McNamara said of the travel plans following Toronto's Saturday night game at home.
This decision by Imlach had major ramifications.
The Leafs were battling Montreal for first-place in the standings and Johnny Bower was in contention for the Vezina Trophy (fewest goals against). They trailed the Canadiens by one-point going into the last night of the regular season. While the Leafs were in The Big Apple, Detroit played host to the Habs.
Late in their game at MSG, the P.A. announcer informed the crowd of the final score between the Red Wings and Canadiens.
"He said that Montreal had won 2-0, so that meant the Leafs were in second-place," McNamara noted of the final standings.
In the hunt for the Vezina, McNamara didn't let his teammate down. The Leafs and Rangers finished deadlocked at 2-2. As Red Burnett chronicled in the Toronto Daily Star, "McNamara had no chance on the pair that beat him."
By the end of the night, Bower and his replacements edged out Chicago's Glenn Hall by 4 goals (180 to 176) to capture the Vezina.
Bower told Burnett, "those two rookies did a great job while I watched from the sidelines. You can't beat that youth."
When the playoffs began, Cesare Maniago got the nod against Detroit. Imlach indicated to McNamara that his turn would come in the next round, but the Leafs were eliminated from post-season action by Detroit.
Over the next two seasons ('61-'62 & '62-'63) McNamara mostly played in the AHL with Pittsburgh and Rochester.
After a partial season ('63-'64) with the Charlotte Checkers in the Eastern Hockey League, McNamara put the brakes on his playing career.
"I quit and the reason why was I had a young family. I felt I should be with them."
Out of the game for two winters, McNamara answered his phone one day and got an offer he couldn't refuse.
"I got a call from Joe Kane a tremendous individual and a great friend of mine. He did so much for me. He wanted me to play for the Varsity Grads. I got myself into halfway decent shape and played pretty well."
He suited-up for 68 games between 1966-67 and 1967-68 with the OHA-Sr. "A" Grads and Toronto Marlboros.
"When the team folded, I got the crew together and made a deal with Orillia (Terriers) and ten of us went there to play. The second year ('69-'70) when I was in Orillia, we practiced at Maple Leaf Gardens. Mr. Ballard gave us the ice for nothing and gave us some equipment."
Staying close to the action at 60 Carlton Street had its benefits for McNamara.
When goalies Marv Edwards (Nov. '69) and Johnny Bower (Dec. '69) suffered ligament injuries, Bruce Gamble was the only fit netminder on the Leafs roster. To fill the void, McNamara took on the task of being Gamble's back-up. He was on the bench for Toronto's New Years Eve clash against Oakland.
"I don't think I'll even get in a game," McNamara told the Toronto media. " But if I do, I think I'll be ready. I've been playing with the Orillia Terriers senior team all along and, to tell you the truth, I consider myself to be a better goaltender than I was when I was still playing pro."
Evidence that McNamara wasn't just blowing smoke can be found in the fact the Terriers were finalists in the 1970 Allan Cup.
As he predicted, McNamara was firmly planted at the end of the Leafs bench and didn't get any meaningful work to showcase what he could do in his second go around in the NHL. In fact, he only hit the ice for parts of two games.
On January 14, 1970, the New York Rangers came to town and blasted the Leafs by a 7-1 score. McNamara replaced Bruce Gamble following the Rangers fifth goal at the 6:44 mark of the third period. Facing NHL shooters for the first time since March 1961, McNamara was beaten by Arnie Brown and Dave Balon.
His last appearance in the National Hockey League came on January 23, 1970, in Oakland. Once again, Bruce Gamble got the hook and McNamara played the final ten-minutes.
The jinx for Leaf goalies continued when McNamara suffered an injury to his catching hand in practice on February 13, 1970.
He returned to action with Orillia and hung-up his pads for good after playing in one Allan Cup contest with the Barrie Flyers in 1973.
TOMORROW: PART TWO - GERRY McNAMARA'S RETURN TO THE NHL AS A SCOUT AND GENERAL MANAGER.