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AHL great Mayer loves reminiscing about his playing days

April 10, 2011

LINCOLN – Marielle Mayer will have been married to Gilles Mayer – she calls him simply Gil – for 60 years on May 5, and she honestly can't recall her husband ever being so confident.
Better make that overconfident.
When their adult son, Andre, mentioned that his dad and former American Hockey League great Johnny Bower used to compete for Goalie of the Year honors, and that they still see each other at Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society events, a scribe asked the elder Mayer who won the laurel more often.
“He knew I was better, so he won't argue,” Gilles grinned.
Chuckled Marielle: “He's never been the aggressive type. You know, he's the easiest man to live with – except maybe now. I've never seen him so full of himself.”
She couldn't say she was surprised, however. When it comes to talking hockey, Mayer can't get enough.
Now 81, the former AHL standout doesn't get out much anymore.
Instead, he prefers to lounge around the gorgeous sunroom he added himself to his Woodland Street abode several years ago, or watch the Bruins and Red Sox on NESN, or watch golf, or just the typical weeknight game shows.
But Mayer can't wait to attend the society's monthly meeting/luncheon at Chelo's in East Providence this Tuesday, or the society's annual picnic, slated for Aug. 7 in Warwick's Goddard Park.
“I like to go and see guys who played for the Reds, like Willie Marshall, who I played with in Pittsburgh and Hershey, Chuck Scherza, Bobby Leduc, Serg Boudreault and Buster Clegg,” he explained. “It's a lot of fun. It's a great organization.”
Mayer enjoys reminiscing about the good ol' days of pro hockey, when goalies didn't use masks because they hadn't been “invented” yet, and when AHL squads played in smoke-filled arenas.
Fact is, he was pretty good.
A story on www.ahlhalloffame.com revealed such: “A workhorse between the pipes despite his small size, few goaltenders in professional hockey had the success that Gil Mayer did in the American Hockey League.
“An Ottawa native, Mayer was nicknamed “The Needle” because of his 5-foot-6, 135-pound frame, making him just about the smallest player in the league at the time. But he made up for his diminutive stature with quickness and agility, and would be credited with winning 346 games over 14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Hornets, Hershey Bears, Cleveland Barons and Rhode Island Reds from 1946-63. (His victory total is actually slightly higher, but statistics from the 1958-59 season remain incomplete).
“Mayer posted 30 wins in a season seven different times, including a memorable 46-19-3 campaign in 1951-52 (while with the Hornets). He led the Hornets to Calder Cup championships in 1952 and 1955, and, along the way, was recalled to see action in nine games in the National Hockey League with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“When the Hornets folded following the 1955-56 season, Mayer (who was inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame in 2007) joined future Hall of Famers Frank Mathers and Willie Marshall in making the move from Pittsburgh to Hershey. He spent three seasons with the Bears, (playing) on teams that went on to win the Calder Cup in 1958 and 1959, although he did not see any post-season action either year.”
Mayer played in Cleveland from 1959-61, and in Providence the following two before retiring in 1963. At the time, he trailed only the famed Bower in all-time AHL victories and shutouts (41).
During his career, Mayer snared several individual accolades, among them earning three first-team AHL All-Star placements and two second-team nods. And five times in a six-year span, beginning in 1950-51, he captured the Harry “Hap” Holmes Award, then presented to the league leader in goals-against average.
He took to the pipes in 680 regular-season tilts during his tenure, and compiled a 346-258-57 mark, good for a career 2.89 GAA. In 63 playoff games, he finished 37-26 with a 2.27 GAA.

**

Ask Mayer how he got involved in hockey, and he can't quite recall, except “I grew up in Gatineau (in the Quebec province), about six miles from Ottawa. I picked up a stick when I was about five, and we used to play on ponds or street hockey in summertime. I played in grade school on an outdoor rink, and for a team called Hull Volant.”
Andre admitted his dad initially was a forward, but decided suddenly to move to goalkeeping.
“The story I heard was he had gone into the boards, and speared himself in the stomach with his stick,” he laughed. “I guess he said, 'That hurt. The heck with this!' and went to goalie.”
Mayer indicated he hated the idea of taking shifts.
“I didn't want to sit; I wanted to play the whole game,” he noted. “I always played goal because I liked stopping pucks, and because I was good at it … My brother, Raymond, was three years older, and he signed with the Detroit Red Wings. We went together to Detroit when I was 17, but my father told me I was too young to be playing so far away.”
He spent the 1946-47 season with the Lake Placid Roamers, an Independent team, then jumped to Junior Hockey in 1949, representing the Barrie Flyers. He actually had been in net when the Flyers lost the Eastern Canada championship final series, 5-4, to the Montreal Royals.
On Dec. 1, 1949, the NHL's Maple Leafs called him up from the Hornets, as Toronto's starting keeper, Turk Broda, had been suspended for weighing 197 pounds. The league's weight limit back then was 190, and it became Mayer's first NHL start.
According to Wikipedia, “Mayer had a natural weight of 127 pounds, but tipped the scales at 166 wearing all of his equipment. The 38 pounds of steel, wood, leather and wool costs $300 and requires 30 minutes for dressing and removal.”
He gave up two goals in the loss.
Still, in 1950, Mayer received the famed Dapper Dan Award for achievement in hockey, and the plaque reads, “To Gil Mayer, the Hornet's star goalie whose sensational game has made him an American League standout.”
“The award is presented to the most popular and premier athlete in the Pittsburgh area for all professional sports,” Andre explained proudly.
“That means the most to me,” Mayer stated. “There were so many pro athletes in Pittsburgh then, with the Pirates, the Steelers and hockey as well. To think I won, wow! It's unbelievable.”
He's known Marielle since they were toddlers, as they grew up on Oak Street in Gatineau with only a house separating their families' homesteads. Both spoke only French back then.
“I remember the first time he asked me out; I was a junior in high school,” Marielle stated. “He took me to a county fair, and we had fun. He asked me out again, and I figured, 'Well, OK.'”
Added Mayer: “She used to be out hanging laundry on the clothesline, and she'd wave to me all the time. If I saw her outside, I'd go out and work on my bicycle to catch a glimpse of her. My bike was always broken.”
They married on May 5, 1951, and Marielle admitted she didn't much like hockey back then.
“It was too scary for me,” she offered. “I'd see the pucks moving so fast and hitting his head and body. There were no masks then, so I worried about him. He was very handsome and kind, still is. He's a very gentle soul. That's why I was scared.”
Andre, 56, recalled two humorous stories about watching his father play.
“I knew he was good, but he was just 'Dad' to me,” he said. “I remember going to see him with Mom in Hershey, and everyone would get up after the first period to get sodas, beers, popcorn. She'd look at me and say, 'Well, game's over. I need to get you to bed.'
“As I got older, I noticed that when we left, the score might be 3-2, and the next morning, the final was 5-4,” he giggled. “I caught on to Mom's ploy.”
When the couple moved to Pawtucket's Lafayette Street in 1961, Mayer used to walk to the old Rhode Island Auditorium.
“One night, Mom and I were sitting in the stands, and I heard some guy yell, 'Hey, Mayer! You're a bum!'” Andre said. “I was about seven, and I turned around and yelled back, 'Shut up! He's my daddy!'
You know what's great? He didn't say another word.”

**

Mayer suffered his fair share of injuries over the years.
While representing the Hornets against host Syracuse on Feb. 6, 1952, Mayer was hit in the face by a puck, and his nose hemorrhaged, but he returned to the contest 30 minutes later. The Warriors reigned, 4-2, but a newspaper account stated he made “several stellar saves.”
During a Cleveland practice in 1959, he sustained a broken jaw after being struck by a slapshot, and he needed four sutures. Doctors reset the jaw at Lakewood Hospital, but he missed three weeks. His replacement just happened to be Don Rigazio, a goalie for the 1956 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Not long after, Mayer became the first goalie in the AHL to don a mask. The next year, Quebec Aces' keeper Gerry McNeil followed suit.
His fondest memory is easy.
“I was playing for the Maple Leafs against the Canadiens at the old Montreal Forum, and it was late in the game,” Mayer reminisced. “(Maurice) Rocket Richard was steaming in on me. He turned to juke me, but I stopped the shot. He said, 'Next time, I'm gonna take your head off, you little b------!' I just said, “Go ahead and try, you old b------!'”
His most recent noteworthy honor occurred just last Aug. 1, when he garnered the society's prestigious “TOPS” Award, named in memory of Zellio Toppazzini, the Reds' “Player of the Century.”
The plaque read, “Presented to Gil Mayer, acknowledging your outstanding service as among the greatest goaltenders in American Hockey League history and outstanding two-year contributions with the Rhode Island Reds before retiring from hockey … Moreover, for your dedicated efforts the past 10 years as a good will ambassador in support of the many goals of the Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society.”
That honor truly touched Mayer.
“You know, he's the only goalie to wear the number 'Zero?'” Andre asked. “It started in Pittsburgh, and it was because he had so many shutouts in a row. He used to wear No. 1.”
After his career, he worked as a painter, then became a state building inspector. He retired at age 65 in 1995.
As for Mayer's thoughts about hockey nowadays, he stated, “I think all the fighting is crazy. We didn't fight, or it was seldom, like if someone got slashed. I enjoy the game, except for the fights.”
Marielle still can't believe she's been married to a pro goalie for 60 years.
“When I look back on it, I think, 'How did he do all that?' I don't know,” she said. “He doesn't remember as much as he used to. I thought he knew everything about his career, so I'm a little surprised by his lapses. His playing did scare me, but it didn't take me that long to get to like it.
“It's who he is, and I'm really proud of him.”

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