Don Simmons was a very good goaltender who just happened to be playing in the wrong era.
Like many netminders in the years before expansion, Simmons had the great misfortune of trying to break into the NHL during what many consider to be the Golden Age of Goaltending. Those were the days of the Original Six, when each team carried only one goalkeeper and five of the incumbents, Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk and Gump Worsley were eventually inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“If expansion came 10 years earlier, we would probably know a lot more about Don Simmons,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “I think he was the greatest backup in the history of the NHL.”
Simmons was born on September 13, 1931 in Port Colborne, Ontario. He began his junior career with the Galt Black Hawks of the OHA in 1948 and later moved to the St. Catharines Teepees. He turned pro in 1951-52 with the EAHL’s Springfield Indians earning second team All-Star honors his first two seasons.
icknamed “Dippy Don” for his habit of dropping low to block shots, the 5-10, 150 pound netminder made his NHL debut in 1956-57 with the Boston Bruins replacing Terry Sawchuk who missed much of the season due to what was called ‘nervous exhaustion.’ Don helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup finals that season and the next where they lost to Montreal each time.
Simmons notched a career high 24 wins in 1958-59 but the Bruins struggled during the 1959-60 season and he lost his job as the starter to Harry Lumley in 1959-60 and then to Bruce Gamble the following season. He was eventually traded to Toronto for Ed Chadwick in January 1961.
Over five seasons with the Bruins, Simmons compiled a 67-71-30 record with a 2.90 GAA and 15 shutouts. In 21 playoff games he went 11-10 with a 2.55 GAA and three shutouts. On January 10, 1960 he became only the second NHL goaltender to wear a mask, three months after Montreal’s Jacques Plante first wore one in a game against the Rangers on November 1, 1959.
In Toronto Don became Johnny Bower’s backup, which meant he spent a lot of time playing for Leaf farm clubs in Rochester and Tulsa.
However, in spot duty with Toronto over three seasons, Simmons posted a 29-21-7 record with a 2.69 GAA and five shutouts. He also saw action in three playoff games in 1962 going 2-1 with a 2.90 GAA and saw his name engraved on the Stanley Cup that season.
However, in the spring of 1964, Toronto GM / Coach Punch Imlach claimed 35-year old Terry Sawchuk off waivers from Detroit. Sawchuk split the netminding duties with 40-year old Johnny Bower making Simmons expendable. Don spent the entire 1964-65 season with the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League and was claimed by the Rangers in the 1965 Inter-League Draft.
At the time, Rangers GM / Coach Emile Francis had two young goalkeepers, Ed Giacomin and Cesare Maniago battling for the starters job in New York and needed a reliable veteran netminder in the system as a backup. Simmons filled that role perfectly. He spent most of the next four seasons playing for Ranger affiliates in Baltimore, Vancouver and Buffalo, while also seeing action in twenty-two games with the Blueshirts over those four seasons, posting a 4-10-4 record with a 3.46 GAA.
Don retired following the 1968-69 season and coincidently was once again replaced by Terry Sawchuk as Giacomin’s backup in New York. He founded a successful sporting goods company in Fort Erie, Ontario, specializing in goaltending equipment, which is still in business today.
Don passed away in September of 2010 at the age of 79. Overall in 249 regular season NHL games over 11 years, Don posted a 100-102-41 record with a 2.89 GAA and 20 shutouts. In 24 playoff games with Boston and Toronto he went 13-11 with a 2.59 GAA and three shutouts.