Prior to the 1965-66 season when the NHL ruled that teams must dress two netminders for games, many teams often employed amateurs and low minor leaguers to serve as practice and emergency goaltenders. These men were happy to share the ice with the pros and make a few bucks on the side. They provided relief for the regular netminder when he needed a day off and also allowed the team to hold a split-squad scrimmage with two real goalies instead of using a sheet of plywood, nicknamed “Woody” with holes cut in it, to cover one of the nets.
These goaltenders came from various walks of life and for many it was more of an avocation than an occupation. For example, Donald Summerville, the former mayor of Toronto, served as a practice goalie for the Maple Leafs in the 1930’s while Jacques Beauchamp, a sports editor in Montreal traveled with the Canadiens as their practice – substitute goaltender in the 1950’s.
Often the team’s trainer doubled as their practice goaltender. The Detroit Red Wings had three trainers through the years that not only donned the pads in practice but also got into NHL games on an emergency basis. Ross “Lefty” Wilson, saw action in three games, but only once with the Red Wings when he replaced Terry Sawchuk. In the other two appearances he faced his own team, taking over for Harry Lumley of Toronto and Don Simmons of Boston. Two of his assistants, Julian Klymkiw and Danny Olesevich also saw action replacing the injured Gump Worsley for parts of two Rangers – Wings games in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
The Rangers often called upon a goaltender from the New York Rovers, their Eastern Hockey League farm club and Garden co-tenant to fill the void. However, some famous names in Rangers lore got their start as practice goaltenders for the Blueshirts. Gerry Cosby, who was the practice goalie for the 1940 Stanley Cup winning Rangers, got his start in the 1930’s, first with the minor league Boston Tigers, then the Bruins and later the Rovers and the Rangers. Sal Messina, who played in the Met League as well as for the Rovers, Long Island Ducks and Philadelphia Ramblers, gained entrance into the world of NHL hockey by traveling with the Blueshirts as a practice – emergency goaltender in the early 1960’s. Then there was Joe Schaeffer, an office supply store manager from Long Island who served the Rangers as an off-ice official and practice – emergency goalie. Joe actually saw action in a couple of games replacing Gump Worsley who was injured.
One of the most interesting stories is that of Brooklyn-native Arnee Nocks who served as the Blueshirts practice goaltender from 1955 to 1963. Although Nocks didn’t even start skating until he was in his twenties, he got his big break in February of 1955 while he was watching the Rangers practice. The club’s regular spare netminder didn’t show up and trainer Frank Paice, who had seen Arnee play recreation league hockey, asked him if he wanted to fill in. Paice didn’t have to ask him twice as Arnee jumped at the opportunity to live his dream.
“The day Paice came over to me was the biggest thrill in my life”, Nocks once told writer Stan Fischler. “I was scared yet I knew this was the chance I’d waited for and I was going to go through with it. When I got on the ice my stomach was tied up in a thousand little knots. Then Andy Bathgate fired a shot and to my amazement, I stopped it! After that, one by one the little knots began to untie themselves and I felt like this is what I should have been doing all my life”.
By all accounts, Nocks was a pretty good goaltender. In 1958 the 32-year-old attended the Rangers training camp and played so well that coach Phil Watson said that he would have made him the Rangers regular goalie but he was too old.
Nocks accumulated more than 60 stitches during those workouts but kept all of his teeth until one day when he tried playing with a mask. A shot by Pat Hannigan struck Arnee’s mask at the mouth, shattering it and taking two of his front teeth with it. “Now I’m a real hockey player” he later told friends.
Nocks died of Parkinson’s disease in 1992 but he had an interesting life. When he wasn’t practicing with the Rangers he was a player-coach for the New Jersey Rockets of the NY/NJ Met League and an accomplished organist. Arnee also worked for the Dumont network and ABC-TV in New York, directing such shows as “The Kraft Theater”, “Captain Video”, “P.M. New York”, “Eyewitness News”, and the “Soupy Sales Show.” He also directed the first open-heart surgery on television, which earned him an Emmy nomination. And by being in the right place at the right time one February morning, he got to live his dream.