John Vanbiesbrouck won the Vezina Trophy and led the New York Rangers to seven postseason appearances during his nine years with the Broadway Blue Shirts. But it was his experiences with the fans of an expansion team that highlighted his illustrious career.
Vanbiesbrouck arrived in the NHL as an emergency backup for the Rangers in 1981 and started one game — a win against the Colorado Rockies. He was sent back to his Junior team and didn’t return to New York for good until the 1984-85 season.
The Beezer was the No. 1 goalie for five seasons in New York, until he joined forces with fellow American Mike Richter to create the premier goaltending duo in the league at the start of the 1990-91 season. The pair split goaltending duties for three seasons, until the Florida Panthers plucked Vanbiesbrouck with the first pick in the 1993 NHL expansion draft.
“I remember playing an exhibition game there with the New York Rangers when the ice melted, and we were joking that hockey would never take in Florida,” recalls the Detroit native. “Expansion came in 1993 and not only did we have hockey in Florida, but we had an identity in Florida, and it propelled to the fact that the identity then moved to a relationship that players had with fans.”
One of his most cherished moments in the league was being part of the expansion team in Florida.
“To me, that was a highlight because that’s why we do it,” Vanbiesbrouck says. “You don’t do it for selfish reasons. You do it so fans can watch you and appreciate your skill and talent.”
Selecting Vanbiesbrouck in the expansion draft not only legitimatized an upstart team, but also breathed new life into The Beezer, who would return to his role as No. 1 goalie.
The Panthers contended until the end of the season and just missed the postseason in its expansion year, as Vanbiesbrouck’s former team hoisted the Cup in New York’s Madison Square Garden. It would be two seasons later when Vanbiesbrouck would lead the Panthers on a chase for the Stanley Cup.
They made an improbable run through the playoffs, eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference finals, but lost to the Colorado Avalanche in four hard-fought games.
“If you can do something that connects with fans, that’s winning the Stanley Cup,” Vanbiesbrouck says. “If you can turn on new markets and raise the attention of the game — which we did — that to me is the bonus of realizing my potential as a hockey player.”
Vanbiesbrouck’s tenure with the Panthers ended in 1998 and he played three more seasons with the Philadelphia
Flyers and New York Islanders. He retired in 2002 as the all-time leader in wins for an American-born goalie, and will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Oct. 12.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Five years after backstopping the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team to a silver medal in Salt Lake City, Sara DeCosta-Hayes is still on the go. The mother of three may have put away her goalie pads but she still keeps busy taking care of 3-year-old daughter Kiley and 1-year-old twins, Cam and Connor. DeCosta, a native of Warwick, R.I., will be imparting her considerable knowledge of stopping pucks this season as the goaltending coach at Harvard University.