FULLTILT LEGENDS: JOHN VANBIESBROUCK
When you look back on the history of the Rangers, some pretty good goalies come to mind. Since the 70’s, the Rangers have been blessed with some special men between the pipes. There is Hall of Famer and fan favorite Eddie Giacomin, Stanley Cup champion Mike Richter and the Rangers current backstop, “The King”, Henrik Lundquist to name a few.
Both Giacomin and Richter each have their numbers retired and hanging from the rafters of MSG and Lundqvist will certainly join them many many years from now.
One name that is often overlooked in Rangers goalie lore is that of John Vanbiesbrouck. Let’s take a look at the career of this very good Rangers netminder.
Vanbiesbrouck was born in Detroit, Michigan on September 4, 1963. In the spring of 1981 he was selected by the New York Rangers in the 4th round (72nd pick overall) of the NHL Draft. This was following a brilliant season for the Sault St Marie Greyhounds of the OMJHL where he had posted a record of 31-16-1.
He made his debut a quick 5 months after being drafted by New York. The Rangers had a goaltending emergency and on December 5, 1981, he defeated the Colorado Rockies 2-1 in Colorado. After the game the Rangers returned him to “the Sault”.
After apprenticing in the minors with the Rangers affiliate in Tulsa and helping lead the Oilers to the CHL Championship, Vanbiesbrouck made his way back to NY full time for the 1984-85 season. As a rookie he posted very modest numbers playing in 42 contests and posting GAA of 4.20. He did earn his first NHL shutout but finished the year with a mark of 12-24-3.
BECOMING THE BEEZER
The 1985-86 season was a coming out party for Vanbiesbrouck. Under new coach Ted Sator, the sophomore goaltender would go on to appear in a Ranger career high of 61 games posting a record of 31-21-5 with a GAA 3.32. The 31 wins would be his career one season high.
While the Rangers posted a record of 36-38-6 and squeaked into the playoffs, VBK helped lead them to a surprising playoff run once they were there. In the first round in a back and forth series with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Rangers upset the heavily favorite Flyers 3-2. The went on and won 2 of 3 in Philadelphia, including the decisive 5th game.
Downing the Flyers set up a match up with the Washington Capitals. Again the Rangers were the underdog as the Caps had finished the regular season 29 points ahead of the Blueshirts in the standings. The Rangers won Games 1 and 4 in OT and the series was tied at 2 going into Washington for Game 5. Vanbiesbrouck and the Rangers would take that game 4-2 and then two nights later, VBK stood on his head in leading the Rangers to a 2-1 series clinching victory at MSG.
That set up an Original 6 matchup with the Montreal Canadiens who were also one of the surprises of the 1986 post season. The Canadiens – led by an unheralded rookie named Patrick Roy – would defeat the Blueshirts in 5 closely contested games to go on to play for and eventually win the Stanley Cup. Remember that goalie matchup because it would haunt VBK again later in his career.
For VBK the season was a very rewarding one. Not only did he lead an understaffed Rangers playoff team to post season success, he also was selected as an NHL First Team All Star, he appeared in the All Star game and won the Vezina trophy as the Top Goaltender in the NHL. VBK parlayed that success into a new 3 year deal with the Rangers as well.
When the 1989-90 season began, VBK was the starting goalie. However, both he and the team struggled. So in January 1990, the Rangers brought up a rookie named Mike Richter and the two of them shared the goaltending duties the rest of the way. Coach Roger Neilson loved what each of them brought to the game and continued to rotate them, even through the playoffs. The Rangers would defeat the New York Islanders in the first round but were eliminated by the Caps in the second round.
The 1990-91 season the pairing of VBK and Richter – dubbed “Van-Richter-brouck” by the media was without a doubt the best pairing in the NHL. VBK actually was afforded the opportunity to leave Broadway in 1992 as a free agent but because of the compensation required to sign him, there weren’t many takers and he re-signed with NY.
The 1991-92 season – behind the scoring prowess of Brian Leetch, Mike Gartner and Tony Amonte, and the leadership of Mark Messier and emergence of Adam Graves- the Rangers were backstopped to the President’s Trophy for the first time in franchise history. A large part of that was also due to the Rangers superb goaltending tandem.
They would fall short in the playoffs as they were upset by the Pittsburgh Penguins after a thrilling first round defeat of the New Jersey Devils. For all intents and purposes though that was the beginning of the end of a great goaltending team.
BEEZER AND THE PANTHERS
The 1992-93 season for the Rangers was an unmitigated disaster. Injuries and overall poor play undermined the success they had accomplished the season before. Conflict between Head coach Roger Neilson and Messier didn’t help matters either.
Midway through the season GM Neil Smith relieved Neilson of his duties and replaced him with Ron Smith. The move did nothing as the Rangers season spiraled out of control and they failed to make the playoffs. For VBK it was to be his last season in blue.
During the off season, with the expansion draft looming the Rangers needed to make a move or lose a goaltender for nothing. Smith had to choose between keeping Richter or VBK and he chose Richter as the netminder of the future. He shipped VBK to the Vancouver Canucks for Doug Lidster (who would prove vital in the post season in 1994).
Since teams could only lose one goaltender the Canucks didn’t want to lose either Kirk McLean or Kay Whitmore. By obtaining VBK, they could keep both as it was a certainty that the Florida Panthers – led by new head coach Roger Neilson – would take VBK. It was no surprise they did and VBK did not disappoint. He provided instant stability for an expansion franchise in the most important position.Well-spoken and used to the media crush that was NY, VBK became the face of the Panthers franchise. In just their third season in existence, VBK helped lead the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche stormed out to a 3-0 Final lead and in Game 4 in triple OT, Uwe Krupp sent a wrister from the point which eluded VBK and gave the “Lanche a 1-0 victory and Stanley Cup Championship. The opposition goaltender? Patrick Roy.
Beezer would spend 5 seasons in Miami, Florida and was all the Panthers could ask for and more. All Star goalie, spokesperson, face of the franchise – you name it he did it.
After the 1998 season, VBK and the Panthers parted ways and the Flyers – who always seemed to be goalie starved – awarded VBK with a 2 year $7.25M contract. As with most Flyers goalies during this time, VBK posted great regular season numbers but crumbled in the playoffs. That first year in Philly was no exception.
He played in 62 games and had a GAA of 2.18 with a 27-18-5 record. But as what has become a somewhat yearly ritual for Flyer goalies he imploded in the playoffs as the Flyers were eliminated in 6 games by Toronto.
The Following season VBK was the starter but got off to a rough start. This prompted Flyer management to go with an unproven rookie named Brian Boucher and despite posting a 25-15-9 record, VBK was on the outside looking in come playoff time.
THE TRI-STATE HAT TRICK
During the summer of 2000, Philly traded VBK to the New York Islanders for a 4th round draft pick. The Islanders had drafted Rick DiPietro and VBK would serve a few purpose. For one, he could bridge the gap until DiPietro was ready to take the reins full time and second, he could also mentor the young netminder. That experiment didn’t last a full season as VBK was on the move again at the trade deadline.
The Islanders dealt him to the New Jersey Devils for Chris Terreri, thereby completing the “Tri-State Hat Trick” and easily becoming the biggest player to ever lace up the skates for all three NY-NJ area teams.
He would play only 4 games for the Devils behind workhorse Marty Brodeur and he won all 4 of them. And gained his 40th career shutout.
VBK was able to return to the Final with the Devils that season in search of that elusive Stanley Cup ring. However, fate had another veteran in mind as Raymond Bourque finally ended his championship drought as the Avalanche defeated the Devils in Game 7. (Yes, Patrick Roy…again!)
VBK retired soon after but it was short-lived as in the fall the Devils came calling and he returned for one more season. Again, behind Broduer, VBK’s games were limited and after the post season he retired again, this time for good.
A GREAT CAREER
Upon his retirement VBK finished with 374 wins which is the most by an American born NHL goalie. The 374 wins places him 13th all-time in NHL history. His 40 shutouts also are the most by an American goalie tying him with Frank Brimsek. VBK was also the last Ranger goalie to win the Vezina Trophy prior to Henrik Lundqvist
He also received several individual honors as the Sault St Marie Greyhounds retired his number and in Oct 2007 he was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame.
Career-wise he took over as head coach of the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds but a racial incident with player Trevor Daly forced him into giving up the position and he sold his stake of the team. People make mistakes and Vanbiesbrouck paid the price.
He also has worked a little as a broadcaster on HDNet and has worked the Winter Olympics for Westwood One Radio. Currently he serves as GM and Director of Hockey Operations for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL.
While Eddie Giacomin is beloved by all Ranger fans and Mike Richter is revered for his part in ending “The Curse”, John Vanbiesbrouck was a fine ambassador of the pipes bridging that time from John Davidson to Richter. Despite tasting success with other organizations though, VBK was and is a true Rangers legend.