By Bob Schlesinger, Cleveland Press Hockey Writer
There may be better quarterbacks than Joe Namath, better basketball players than Pete Maravich.
And yes, there may be, and then again there may not be, better goaltenders than Gerry Cheevers.
But whether or not Cheevers is number one in the world at the profession of keeping red lights turned off (vice squad super cops are not considered part of this discussion), or whether he's rated way down there as third or fourth best, he shares something with Broadway Joe and Pistol Pete.
Politicians call it charisma. Variety Magazine might term it pizzazz.
You'll see Gerry play many great games, some good ones, and yes, a few not so good ones, if you watch him work a lot. But you'll never see him turn in a dull performance.
He makes things happen instead of letting them happen. Action instead of reaction.
If there's a more exciting play in hockey than Cheevers coming 20 feet out of the nets to throw a flying tackle at the puck, which is on the stick of an enemy forward coming in alone, this writer hasn't seen it yet.
To do that sort of thing requires two characteristics:
A: You have to be very brave because a fellow can get hurt trying something like that.
B: You have to be very prepared emotionally to hear a lot of not very nice things from the fans if the maneuver doesn't work.
In games I have seen over the past three seasons, Cheevers' percentage of stopping breakaway opportunities has been phenomenal.
A one-on-one (attacker on goalie) situation is supposed to be almost even money according to most hockey texts (some say 6 to 5 in the goalie's favor). Yet through the years, I'd estimate that Dr. No has stopped a half dozen breakaways for every time he was beaten on one.
Only twice can I recall that he looked really silly getting caught far from his cage. And neither was actually a bad play.
That his setbacks are so rare that they are memorable should tell you something.
One time he came tar out to confront Bobby Hull, who was walking in all alone. Alas, the Golden Jet put on the brakes, avoided Cheevers, and coasted in to tap the puck into the deserted cage.
Still, Cheesy has used the same maneuver on Hull a couple more times, and it has worked.
What makes it a good play? If you sit back in the cage and give Hull (whose shot is as deadly accurate as it is unbelievably rapid) all the time he wants, the odds are great that he's going to score anyhow.
If you do it that way, you don't look as silly as Cheevers did, but a goal against is a goal against is a goal against.
The other play which comes to mind came in the last 20 seconds of a game against Minnesota with the Crusaders trailing by a goal.
Cheevers came out nearly to the blue line, to meet an enemy forward who was coming in alone. He tried to steal the puck with a poke check, repeatedly, until both players wound up in the corner.
Alas, the attacker was able to pass the puck to a teammate and an empty net goal resulted.
Still, if you accept that the object of the game is to win and not just to keep the score down, it was a great percentage play.
If Cheevers had sat back and allowed the Saints to play with the puck, the clock would have run out. Only by stealing the puck quickly and making the outlet pass for a breakaway in the other direction did he have a prayer of giving his teammates a chance to tie the score.
After the first Russia-Team Canada series, which saw Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito share the netminding chores (not very successfully) for Canada, the conventional wisdom was that the only way not to get sucked out of position by the smooth passing Russians was to stay in the cage and stand up.
When Cheevers was selected for Canada-Russia II last fall, it was suggested that he would be the wrong man for the job unless he greatly modified his ramblin' man, gamblin' man style.
Instead, Gerry changed his style not a bit, unless it was to play with ever more calculated recklessness than usual.
The result is now history. Cheevers was spectacularly successful, shutting off the Soviets to a far greater degree than either Dryden or Esposito had managed. Although Russia won the series, Cheevers became a Canadian national hero in the process.
It's possible to debate the number one goalie in the world issue eternally without convincing each of the top netminder's advocates that their man is not the best.
Still, it's not too hard to make a case for the stitched-masked Crusader.
Against the Russians, Cheevers was superior to both Esposito and Dryden. That was in the most pressure-filled circumstances imaginable.
And in that series last fall, he seemed slightly superior, at the very least equal, to Tretiak, the Soviet netminder who has to be considered in the number one competition.
Finally, there is Bernie Parent, the new Golden Boy of those scribes who worship at the shrine of Clarence Campbell and the National Hockey League.
Playing behind the Philadelphia Flyers, whose checking is awesome, Parent has fared spectacularly well.
But let's not forget that Parent, in the World Hockey Association's first season, was playing behind the Philly Blazers, who recognized only one kind of a check, the type you put in the bank.
Cleveland met Philadelphia, its “natural rival” many times that season. Indeed it seemed we were looking at those ugly orange uniforms every week.
And in a vast majority of those head-to-head confrontations, Cheevers was the superior netminder.
Number one in the world?
It just could be.
And Gerry is best when the chips are down.
Watch him closely.
You may never see another one like him.