The original mask, the only mask Gerry Cheevers ever wore in games, hangs these days on a wall in his grandson’s bedroom. It’s the white mask with the telltale faux stitches, from an era when everything the Bruins did, everywhere they went, everything they said, was consumed by a Boston sporting public gone bonkers for hockey.
Cheevers, his career and times to be celebrated Dec. 2 as part of the Sports Museum’s annual “Tradition’’ lovefest at TD Garden, never wanted to wear a goalie mask. He was in his mid-20s, still trying to land steady NHL work, when he saw the game changing before his unprotected eyes.
“The way the game was going, with shots and speed and everything, you really had no choice,’’ mused Cheevers, 75, the other day from his home in Delray Beach, Fla. “I could see I wasn’t going to survive without it.’’
Cheevers thrived, backing the Bruins to two Stanley Cup championships (1970, ’72) and ultimately playing 14-plus NHL/WHA seasons on way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. On a team better known for the dynamic likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and Derek Sanderson, he was the constant, understated, gregarious puckstopper extraordinaire.
By his own admission, Cheevers was indifferent about practice. In fact, the day he first sported the stitches on what would become his trademark mask, he was sitting in the dressing room, having convinced coach Harry Sinden that he didn’t need to practice that morning.
“I think I was on the third page of the Racing Form,’’ recalled Cheevers, a lover of both ponies and pucks, “and Harry comes in and says, ‘Get your ass out there!’ Before I could even think, Frosty [John Forristall, team trainer] had drawn about a 12-stitch cut above one of the eyes.
“It was all Frosty. I didn’t do anything. I pulled it on and went out there. Maybe that sounds stupid, but that’s how it all started.’’
Other than his 3½ seasons with Cleveland in the rival World Hockey Association, Cheevers was a Bruin, plucked away from the rival Maple Leafs in an intraleague draft in 1965. He signed with Cleveland only weeks after helping the Bruins win the Cup in ’72, tripling the $70,000 salary Boston offered him to stay. When he returned in 1976, he was 35 years old, the senior puckstopper in residence paired with Gilles Gilbert.
By the fall of 1980, about to turn 40, Cheevers was Sinden’s pick to take over as head coach, a job he initially began working without assistants. He was soon joined by Jean Ratelle and Gary Doak as his top aides-de-camp and went on to record a highly respectable 204-126-46 (.604) record before being dismissed in February 1985.
“Nothing is better than playing,’’ said Cheevers. “That’s not 99 percent true — it’s 100 percent true. But, if you can’t play and you want to stay in the game, there are other avenues. I don’t think coaching is the most desirable one, but . . . I had a good record, and I am proud of that.’’
His coaching days were in a different era, noted Cheevers, who in typical self-deprecating fashion says he was not “a professional coach.’’ The game back then had the likes of Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour and Pat Quinn and Roger Neilson, men who took their craft very seriously. Cheevers, ever a gambler on the ice, coached more by hunch and feel.
Cheevers’s Bruins one day played Neilson’s Canucks at the Garden, and outshot Vancouver “by something like 55-8,’’ recalled Cheevers. Neilson was at the vanguard of the game’s video movement, perpetually viewing tape to dissect every move on the ice. Cheevers still remembers the game, he said, because he was unaware of a standing NHL policy that obligated the home team to provide a videotape to the visiting team when the day was done.
“So Roger’s outside our room, waiting for the tape,’’ recalled Cheevers. “Truth is, there was no tape. I’d told our video guy to tape the last episode of ‘M*A*S*H.’ That was a big deal, remember? There was no copy of the game.
“Roger’s in the hallway, and we’re all in the back, in a tiny room near the dressing room, watching ‘M*A*S*H.’ True story. I had to go to Channel 38 the next day, pick up a copy, and I mailed it to Roger.’’
Cheevers grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, on the same street as Stan Mikita, the fellow Hall of Famer and Blackhawks legend. Cheevers’s father coached the St. Denis CYO hockey team at a time when Gerry, age 8, dreamed of making it to the NHL as a high-scoring forward. All that changed when, following a 17-0 loss, the St. Denis goalie never showed for the next game.
“My dad didn’t have the nerve to put anyone in net but his own kid,’’ recalled Cheevers. “So I went in there, and we lost again, this time by 15-0. I spent the rest of my life trying to get even.’’
Other than 2-3 summer months spent in Canada, to visit family and escape the Florida heat, Cheevers can be found in Delray, normally at a golf course, with wife Betty usually on the links with him.
“People ask me if I play much golf,’’ he said. “And I say, ‘Not really, just once a day.’ ’’
As for the legendary mask, Cheevers said over the years he’s received tempting offers to sell it, but it remains on his grandson’s bedroom wall.
“That’s not going anywhere,’’ said the man behind all those stitches. “I’m not even allowed to go in there alone, because they think I might steal it back.’’Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.