When the NHL expanded from six to twelve teams in 1967, it was imperative for the half-dozen new teams – if they wanted to be competitive, at least – to have solid goaltending. With a West Division housing each of the new teams – the Oakland Seals, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, and Pittsburgh Penguins – they were ultimately at the mercy of the “Original Six” in the East for the first few seasons.
Good goaltending could keep scores in-check and perhaps steal unexpected wins here and there for each team’s inaugural season.
And so, the new teams tried to do just that – secure a cornerstone goaltender – when the 1967 NHL Expansion Draft took place. The Kings selected arguably hockey’s greatest goaltender, Terry Sawchuk, from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Blues grabbed another Hall of Famer in Glenn Hall. The Seals acquired a 6-time Stanley Cup champion in Charlie Hodge.
While a total of 12 goaltenders were chosen in the Expansion Draft, the Penguins made two marginal selections for the position in Joe Daley, whom they took from the Detroit Red Wings, and Roy Edwards from the Chicago Blackhawks.
Neither was a bad goalie per say, but were also not of the same caliber as Sawchuk, Hall, Hodge and some of the other netminders who were chosen. In fact, Edwards would be traded to Detroit on Sept. 7, 1967 in exchange for Hank Bassen, who would serve as the Penguins’ inaugural backup. Meanwhile, Daley would not appear in the Pittsburgh net until the 1968-69 season.
Nevertheless, the Penguins would in fact acquire their cornerstone, who would serve the franchise well for its first five straight seasons. Shortly before the 1967-68 season got underway, Pittsburgh acquired a 33-year-old rookie goalie from the old Western Hockey League’s (WHL) San Diego Gulls in exchange for cash.
His name was Les Binkley, and he would go on to have a one for the ages season as an original Pittsburgh Penguin and the team’s earliest hero.
Toiling in the Minors for Many Years
Binkley was born Jun. 6, 1934 in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. He had played 12 seasons of minor professional hockey across North America before he ever stepped foot into the NHL. This first portion of Binkley’s career saw him play in five different leagues and suit up for 10 different teams.
His finest minor league successes came during the parts of seven seasons that he played for the Cleveland Barons in the American Hockey League (AHL). Binkley won the league’s Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as the Rookie of the Year for 1961-62 after playing 60 games, while posting a 3.02 goals-against average and helping the Barons to go 39-28-3.
He would follow that up with two AHL Second Team All-Star selections in both 1964 and 1966, and won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award in 1966 for allowing the least amount of goals during the season. From 1961-62 through 1965-66, Binkley played seasons of 60, 63, 65, 40, and 66 games respectively.
Additionally, he backstopped the Barons to the 1963-64 Calder Cup championship – the most major trophy that Binkley would win in his professional career, at least as a player. He followed that up with an additional Calder Cup Final appearance in 1965-66, though the Barons would fall short to the Rochester Americans.
Keep in mind too that all of these accomplishments by Binkley in his minor league career were done while he played without a goaltender mask.
Throughout his career – both in the minors and in the NHL – he had somewhat of a unique look. A crew cut hairstyle, Binkley was taller that some of his contemporaries at 6-foot, and while not overweight by any means, still looked a bit paunchy. Off the ice he may have looked more like a grocer or barkeeper. Instead, he would become the first star goalie in Penguins history.
Success in Pittsburgh and the Team’s Composition
The first-year Penguins would finish second from the bottom in the West Division with a record of 27-34-13. However, they were only two points back of the North Stars (27-32-15) and barely missed out on the final playoff spot.
What is most critical to our discussion is that of Pittsburgh’s 27 victories, 20 of them belonged to Binkley. Likewise, 10 of the 13 ties were his as well. The 54 games that Binkley suited up out of the Penguins’ 74 total were the fullest NHL work of his career. Each of his games that first season were played maskless as well.
When compared with his goaltender counterparts from throughout the league, Binkley did quite well. Here is a quick synopsis of how his numbers looked league-wide that first season:
- 54 games played (third most in NHL).
- 10 ties (tied for third most)
- 150 goals allowed (third best)
- 1,585 shots against (third most)
- 1,435 saves (third best)
- Six shutouts (tied for second best)
While Binkley may have been the Penguins most important player their first season, he was not their only key contributor. They were a very seasoned team too. Of the 25 players to have appeared in at least one game during the first season, 17 of them were 29 years old or older.
35-year-old eventual Hockey Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate led the Penguins in scoring with 20 goals and 39 assists in 74 games. Ab McDonald was the team’s top goal scorer with 22 tallies. Noel Price was the top scorer among Penguins defensemen with six goals and 27 assists across 70 games. Nine different Penguins reached double digits in goals.
Binkley’s Season Broken Down by Game
With the exception of Bathgate and McDonald, none of the Penguins numbers in their first season were particularly good. All the more reason that Binkley’s performance in net was exceptional and heavily relied upon. In addition to going 20-24-10 and having six shutouts, Binkley compiled a solid 2.88 GAA together with a .905% save percentage.
We take a look now at some of the finer moments from Les Binkley’s 1967-68 NHL season:
Oct. 18, 1967:
Blessed with more NHL experience than Binkley, it was Bassen who got the first three starts for the Penguins. Binkley would not make his NHL debut until the fourth game of the season, at home against the North Stars.
Fueled by Bathgate’s hat-trick, the Penguins would scrap to a 3-3 tie with Minnesota. Binkley turned aside 28 of the 31 shots that he faced. Despite the anti-climatic first NHL game, the Penguins crease would be primarily his for the remainder of the season.
Oct. 21, 1967:
Binkley’s first win in the league would come three days later as the Penguins took on a high-flying Chicago Blackhawks team. Though unexpected help came by his teammates outshooting Chicago 43-33, Binkley was nonetheless remarkable in goal for a 4-2 victory.
The Blackhawks’ Eric Nesterenko and Bobby Hull both got pucks by him, but it mattered not. Binkley turned aside Hull’s four other opportunities. He also stopped all six shots from that season’s eventual Art Ross Trophy winner, Stan Mikita.
With the score deadlocked 2-2 after the second, Binkley gave the Penguins the added insurance to take the victory. He stopped all shots that the Blackhawks sent his way in the third, as Ken Schinkel and Gene Ubriaco scored to seal it for the Penguins.
Nov. 4, 1967:
While Binkley may not have gotten the Penguins’ first historic win, he did earn the team’s first ever shutout. Playing on the road in California, the Penguins faced the Oakland Seals.
The game would need just an unassisted tally from little Billy Dea at 1:23 of the opening period. From there, Binkley and Seals goalie Charlie Hodge would trade save for save the rest of the way. Aside from a penalty-filled second period which included a fight between Bathgate and Kent Douglas, it was a rather subdued but unique way to earn the team’s first shutout.
Dec. 23, 25 and 27, 1967:
Binkley would record two shutouts within three games across four days of work. All were played during a Pittsburgh home stand at Christmastime.
The Penguins and their goaltender would stonewall the North Stars on Dec. 23 to earn their third shutout of the season (Bassen had picked one up back in November). Binkley needed to stop a decent 23 shots to complete the whitewash, as the Penguins received goals from Bathgate, Art Stratton, Earl Ingarfield and Dea in a 4-0 win.
Two days later on Christmas Day, the Penguins got a close victory over the Los Angeles Kings. It was a relatively average game for Binkley, as he made 23 saves on 26 shots. Still, he made the saves he needed to, as Bathgate’s early third period goal held up to be the game-winner in a 4-3 finish.
Another two days after the Christmas festivities, Binkley recorded an additional shutout in what was an oddball game that just does not happen in today’s current NHL. The Penguins and the Seals played to a 0-0 tie, though Noel Price certainly tried to break the deadlock with eight shots on goal from the defense position. Binkley stopped all 24 shots he faced, while Oakland’s Gary Smith turned aside the 34 that came his way.
Jan. 28, 31 and Feb. 1, 1968:
Binkley repeated the same feat of two shutouts in three games a little more than month after he did it the first time.
True to his great importance of keeping the Penguins in games, he managed to shutout the “Big, Bad Bruins” by a score of 1-0 on Jan. 28. Binkley stopped all 33 shots that Boston sent his way, including eight shots from Bobby Orr alone. The Penguins, who only managed 16 shots on Gerry Cheevers, got the win when George Konik, in his only NHL season, slipped one into the net during the second.
Unfortunately, Binkley would have a terrible outing on Jan. 31 against the St. Louis Blues on the road. He would allow seven goals on 35 shots, and the Blues would chase him out of the net after two periods. Bassen would take the reigns in the third, but the Penguins were still decisively beaten 9-4.
Binkley would redeem himself completely the very next day. Now back at home and facing the Blues once more, he returned the favor by stopping all 22 shots sent his way. He backstopped the Penguins to a 2-0 victory, behind Bobby Rivard’s two goals that he put by Glenn Hall.
Mar. 26, 1968:
In one of his fullest pieces of action all season, Binkley made 41 saves in a 2-1 victory over the Kings. This game was decisively Binkley’s as there is no way that Pittsburgh would have gotten the win without his performance. To their credit, the Penguins’ Ingarfield and McDonald both beat Sawchuk, but the Penguins as a whole only generated 17 shots. Thankfully, Binkley only missed one of the 42 that came his way.
Mar. 30, 1968:
In his final game of the 1967-68 season, Binkley earned yet another shutout. On the road against Philadelphia, both teams fired for 23 shots apiece. However, while the Flyers’ Doug Favell allowed a goal from Leo Boivin, Binkley steered aside any that came his way. Ingarfield would add an empty-netter to secure the win for the Penguins by a score of 2-0.
Time in Pittsburgh and Onward
With there being no age limit yet on who was considered an NHL rookie, Binkley would finish fifth in voting for the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year.
He solidified himself as the most vital cog in the Penguin’s wheel and remained with the team through the 1971-72 season. When the team finally made the postseason for the first time in 1969-70, Binkley become the first goalie in Penguins’ history to win a playoff game.
While he would eventually jump to the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) beginning in 1972-73, he ended up playing 196 games in his NHL career – all as a Pittsburgh Penguin. Binkley’s career numbers amount to a record of 58-94-34, with 11 shutouts, a 3.23 GAA and a .898 SV%.
He would play four seasons in the WHA plus one in the old North American Hockey League (NAHL) – the inspiration for the film “Slap Shot” – with the short-lived Buffalo Norsemen. Binkley would retire as a player following the 1975-76 season.
He was far from done with being an important individual for the Penguins organization though. After working as a scout and a goaltending coach for 11 seasons with the Winnipeg Jets – both the WHA and NHL versions of the team – he would return to Pittsburgh for the 1989-90 season as a scout for them as well.
Binkley’s name is forever inscribed on the Stanley Cup as part of their championship teams in 1991 and 1992. A fantastic way to see his place with the organization come full circle. But it all initially started in 1967-68 – Les Binkley’s one for the ages season.
More ‘One for the Ages’ Stories:
- 1968-69 Doug Harvey, St. Louis Blues
- 1970-71 Charlie Hodge, Vancouver Canucks
- 1970-71 Roger Crozier, Buffalo Sabres
- 1972-73 Alex Delvecchio, Detroit Red Wings
- 1972-73 Bill ‘Cowboy’ Flett, Philadelphia Flyers
- 1973-74 Bill Goldsworthy, Minnesota North Stars
- 1975-76 Gary Bergman, Kansas City Scouts
- 1979-80 Dave Keon, Hartford Whalers
- 1979-80 Jim Schoenfeld, Buffalo Sabres
- 1981-82 Billy Smith, New York Islanders
- 1983-84 Tom Barrasso, Buffalo Sabres
- 1985-86 Mats Naslund, Montreal Canadiens
- 1993-94 Sergei Zubov, New York Rangers
- 1995-96 Wayne Gretzky, St. Louis Blues
- 2002-03 Steve Thomas, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim
- 2003-04 Alexandre Daigle, Minnesota Wild
- 2011-12 Ray Whitney, Phoenix Coyotes