Gilles Villemure was born on May 30, 1940 and grew up in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec where the local hockey rink was right next to the fairgrounds race track, and so his two passions became hockey and horse racing. Luckily for him he was able to pursue both of these interests professionally.
Gilles began playing goal at the age of fourteen when the netminder on his team was injured. He had a brief tryout with the Troy (Ohio) Bruins of the IHL, and played his junior hockey with the famed Guelph Biltmores of the OHA where his teammates were Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert. He was scouted by Yvan Prud’homme and at sixteen signed a ‘C’ form and received a $100 signing bonus from the Rangers, with the promise of $500 when he turned pro. Following a season in Guelph, he played for the New York Rovers (1960-61) and the Long Island Ducks (1961-62) and signed with the Rangers as a free agent in 1962.
Gilles Villemure: “I took Eddie Giacomin’s job with the New York Rovers. He went up to Providence and I took over with the Rovers. Then I played for the Long Island Ducks. Lots of traveling. We played in Nashville, Knoxville, places like that. We used to play five, six games on the road with 15 – 16 hour bus trips. But we didn’t know any better. We just played. But I was happy to be there. I was making $165 a week and I had to pay for my rent and things like that. We got $4 a day meal money.”
Unfortunately back then there were only six goaltending jobs in the NHL and most of the incumbents were future Hall of Famers. So Gilles’ road to the big leagues was a long one, spending most of next nine years playing for Ranger farm clubs in Vancouver, Buffalo and Baltimore. In fact it was while playing for the Baltimore Clippers in 1966 that Gilles started wearing the mask with the famous grin that would become his trademark. He also got a brief taste of the NHL, making his Rangers debut during the 1963–64 season when he played five games in place of the injured Jacques Plante. He also saw action with the Rangers during the 1967–68 and 1968–69 seasons.
Gilles excelled at every stop along his minor league trail, being named the WHL’s Rookie of the Year in 1962-63, winning the AHL’s Les Cunningham Award as the league’s MVP twice (1968-69 and 1969-70) and the Harry “Hap” Holmes Award for the lowest GAA in the AHL those same years. During the 1969–70 season Villemure’s goaltending took the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL to regular-season and playoff championships. He posted eight shutouts, was named to the league’s First All-Star team and was considered by many to be the best goaltender not playing in the NHL.
Villemure finally made it to the Rangers on a full time basis in 1970-71 going 14-1-3 in his first eighteen games.
Gilles Villemure: “I thought I was ready because the last two years in Buffalo I was the MVP of the league and I thought I was playing well. But you never know, the minors and the NHL are two different things. But Emile Francis gave me a chance.”
Teamed with Ed Giacomin, the duo gave up a combined 173 goals for a 2.22 GAA, edging out their nearest competitor, the Chicago Black Hawks (2.33 GAA) to earn the Vezina Trophy. It was the first time a Ranger goaltender had won the award since Davey Kerr in 1940. The pair also combined for a total of twelve shutouts (Giacomin 8, Villemure 4) the most since John Ross Roach recorded thirteen blankings in 1928-29.
Gilles Villemure: “At first Eddie didn’t like it because I was taking half his playing time. But once I started playing in the NHL when I was 30, I was winning, so Emile had no choice but to play me, and Eddie and I got along very well. Winning the Vezina was special. Eddie played that last game against Detroit and I came on the ice and he lifted my arm up. I’ll never forget that. I still have a picture of that on my desk. Team trophies are better, but the individual trophies stay with you. You remember them.”
Both of them also made the All-Star team in 1971 and 1973, the first time two goaltenders from the same team had played in the mid-season game. During the course of Villemure’s Ranger career, he appeared in three All-Star games 1971, 1972 and 1973 and set a record for the longest recorded shutout streak at 79 minutes, 21 seconds. In a total of 88 minutes in three All Star appearances Gilles surrendered only one goal. His 0.68 All Star GAA is still the lowest of any netminder who has made at least two All-Star Game appearances.
Gilles Villemure: “In those years, the 1970s, the game was not the same as it is today. Now it’s wide open, but back then we played a regular game with low scores, now they’re 9–8, 10–8, whatever. It’s all offense now, nobody wants to get hurt.”
Villemure and Giacomin had vastly different styles. Where Giacomin was acrobatic, Villemure was a classic stand up goaltender who played his angles extremely well.
There was also another difference between the two netminders which Emile Francis used to the Rangers advantage. “It was great when I had Villemure and Giacomin because Eddie caught with his left hand and Gilly with his right and the other team was always all screwed up as to where they should shoot,” Francis once said. “They were both great goaltenders. But I had to keep telling the reporters, ‘We don’t have a number one goalie and we don’t have a number two goalie. They’re both number one goalies.”
Gilles was very low key, self-deprecating and perhaps the most under-rated goaltender in team history. He could have been a starter for any team in the league. But as Ed Giacomin often said,” I think way down deep Gilles Villemure’s first love was horses. But, what made the rotation so special for him was that he happened to have a guy who liked to play a lot, so he could devote more time to studying the racing forms.”
Gilles Villemure: “It didn’t bother me. If I played I played, if not it didn’t bother me one way or the other. Whatever was best for the team.”
Often asked the eternal question, Gilles knows exactly why the Rangers of the Francis era never won a Stanley Cup.
Gilles Villemure: “Jean Ratelle got hurt at the wrong time. He was the best player we had. Rod Gilbert has said that many times, ‘Jean was the best’. We went to the sixth game of the finals against Boston in 1972, I played the last two games because Eddie got hurt. We won the fifth game in Boston 3-2 and lost game six at home 3-0. But losing Ratelle was the big thing.”
During the offseason Villemure pursued his other passion – Harness Racing. He began driving horses at the age of seventeen and eventually raced locally at Roosevelt, Monticello, Freehold and the Meadowlands race tracks.
Gilles Villemure: “When I was a kid I had a chance to be a goalie or a harness driver. But I choose hockey. But I was that good as a driver. I was doing that well back home in the summer time. I did both, I think it helped my reflexes, It’s all timing. Emile Francis didn’t know that I was driving the horses and one day he was at Roosevelt Raceway and he sees me in the race and he says what the hell are you doing there Gilly? He didn’t even know I was racing. But he never bothered me about it. Never said you can’t do that. “
The Giacomin – Villemure partnership lasted through the 1974-75 season when injuries began to catch up with both of them. During the summer of 1975, the Rangers had obtained goaltender John Davidson from the Blues and were in the process of revamping the team. Reading the handwriting on the wall, Villemure, who was going through a divorce, asked Francis for a trade and was sent to Chicago for defenseman Doug Jarrett on October 28, 1975.
Gilles Villemure: “I was having problems at home and I said to Emile, if you want to trade me, just trade me. And the next day I was gone. There was a big turnover there. I don’t know why or who was behind it. You hear different stories. But everybody was being moved.”
Gilles stayed in Chicago until the end of the 1976-77 season, seeing spot duty as Tony Esposito’s backup. At that point John Ferguson tried to get him back for the Rangers who needed a steadying influence in goal.
Gilles Villemure: “I was traded back to New York when John Ferguson came in. However the third string goalie in Chicago got hurt and I had to go back.”
Former teammate Glenn Sather who by then was coach of the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers also offered Gilles a job, but he didn’t want to take his children out of school and disrupt his family life, so he retired.
In 194 regular season games with the Rangers, Gilles posted a 98-53-23 record with 13 shutouts and a 2.63 GAA. In 14 playoff games he went 5-5 with a 2.93 GAA. Overall in 205 regular season games with the Rangers and Black Hawks his record was 100-64-29 with 13 shutouts and a 2.81 GAA.
Villemure enjoyed his years with the Rangers and still lives in the area. He also has many fond memories of his Ranger teammates and the camaraderie they shared.
Gilles Villemure: “The team, the players we had were all unbelievably nice guys. That’s what I remember the most really. We were very close. On the road after the game we would all go out for a beer. Everybody was there and that’s an amazing thing right there, because usually you have your own way to go. But we stuck together like that all the time. It was incredible. Even at home after practice we would all go out to lunch together. I don’t think I was ever mad at anybody on the team. No one ever fought off the ice, everyone got along very well. That’s what I remember. We were all on the same page.”