The teams he tended goal for were oftentimes the NHL’s basement dwellers. He still sits currently fourth-place all-time for most losses by a goaltender. Two of the teams he played for (albeit the same franchise in two different cities) do not even exist anymore. But his quick reflections and ability to keep a very poor team in the game on any given night enabled Gilles Meloche to carve out a 17-year NHL career. A career which saw him play in a total of 788 regular season games in five different cities across North America.
The very first time that I bought a pack of hockey cards was in the summer of 1988. I rode my bicycle up to the local drugstore which has since closed down twenty years ago. It was the 1988-89 edition of Topps hockey cards; the one that included Brett Hull’s rookie card and Wayne Gretzky’s first as a Los Angeles King. In the first pack I bought, I received my first ever goalie card – Gilles Meloche. Though this would be the last series to ever release a card of Meloche, he instantly became my favorite goaltender.
Meloche became a mild obsession for me. Into my teenage years and up into adulthood, I had to collect each of his hockey cards. From his 1972 rookie card with the California Golden Seals, into his time with the Cleveland Barons and the Minnesota North Stars. Once when I was 15, I waited in the pouring rain for a sports memorabilia store to open and then waited an additional hour inside while one of the store employees searched through boxes of cards for Meloche’s 1983 O-Pee-Chee card with the North Stars.
Here is an old pizza commercial that Meloche starred in during the early-1980s with the North Stars.
My favorite Gilles Meloche hockey card would have to be his 1975-76 Topps card depicting him with the California Golden Seals. I love the colors of the Seals’ uniforms from that time; teal and gold. I also like the youthful exuberance on Meloche’s face in the card’s photo; he was just about to enter into the prime of his career at that point, and had already been backstopping a woeful Seals team for a few seasons by that time.
Meloche also had arguably the coolest goaltending mask of all netminders, when he suited up the Cleveland Barons (the former California Golden Seals) who had re-located to Cleveland. While a black “B” backed by blood-red and an almost menacing top-hat above the face, Meloche exuded baron in his adornment.
As I collected his cards and learned more about his career, it began to bother me that Meloche wasn’t a “winner”. He perennially played on bad teams that went nowhere. But still, how could you play 17-years in the National Hockey League without being considered a great success? This troubled me. I began to fantasize and imagine what it might have been like if Meloche was the goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens or the Philadelphia Flyers during the 1970s, instead of the Seals and Cleveland Barons. Gilles would have won numerous Stanley Cup championships, and his stats for goals against and save percentage would have likely been out of this world. But this was all a very big “what if?”, and truly did not matter because it never happened.
I found solace in the fact that Gilles Meloche at least made it to the Stanley Cup Finals one time in his career. That was something that I could look upon as a positive achievement in his career. It was during the 1980-81 NHL season when the North Stars goaltending tandem of Meloche and teenage rookie Don Beaupre backstopped Minnesota to a Stanley Cup Finals showdown against the New York Islanders, who were into their second season of a four-year string of Stanley Cup championships.
Perhaps for the first time in his career, Gilles was surrounded by a nice array of talent and did not need to shoulder it all alone. Another rookie, Dino Ciccarelli, exploded for 14-goals in 19-playoff games during Minnesota’s run at a championship. Other assets to the North Stars that season were all-star Bobby Smith, along with Steve Payne, Craig Hartsburg, Al MacAdam, USA Lake Placid Olympic gold medalist Neal Broten.
In the Stanley Cup Finals though, against a powerhouse Islanders offense, Gilles would be in net for two of the five games against New York, suffering losses each time and allowing a staggering 12-goals in the two contests for a 6.00 goals against average. Still, it was a chance for Gilles to play on hockey’s biggest stage. This was truly a momentous occasion in a way, as the playoffs would not come often for Gilles. In 17-seasons, Gilles only saw playoff action in 6 of them…
Having a spot in my heart for Gilles Meloche since my childhood, I always held out hope that someday, somehow he would have his “place in the sun”. Meloche retired from active play in 1988 as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Upon retiring, Gilles would remain with the Penguins as a scout for the team, and, eventually would find the success he so greatly deserved in the game of hockey. Doing his part toward bringing a championship to Pittsburgh, Meloche would get his name on hockey’s “holy grail”, the Stanley Cup, three different times as part of Penguins championship teams; in 1991, 1992 and 2009. So in the end, my wish for my favorite goalie came true; he became a winner and has him name inscribed for all time.