Mike Palmateer was the most acrobatic NHL goalie of the late 70’s and early 80’s, and to this day is still a favorite of Leafs fans. Mike was kind enough to talk to me during a rare day off from his current job of being an amateur scout for the Leafs. I caught up with him after his last fishing trip of the year so he was kind of sad about finally having to put his boat away for the winter. I started our conversation by telling him one my favorite memories, getting to meet him and Rick Vaive after a Leafs practice when I was 12 or 13 years old and then having lunch at the Hot Stove Lounge at the old Maple Leaf Gardens. To this day it’s one of the best days of my life. He actually had a similar memory of getting to go to the Hot Stove Lounge with his dad when he was a kid. When I told him about how he had come out of the locker room to meet me he asked if I was playing in goal back then. I told him I was and that I had first become a goalie at the age of four because I couldn’t skate so I thought I could hang onto the posts. That got a laugh out of him and the best thing overall about the interview is that he laughed a lot. He talked about how he became the Popcorn Kid, the ’78 Leafs, his somewhat-recurring role on a TV sitcom and how he ended up with the famous design on his mask.
TendersLounge: The first question actually comes from my dad: which rink had the best popcorn?”
Mike Palmateer: (laughing) Someone came to interview me in junior and saw me eating popcorn before a game. We used to get to the rink two hours early and would be kind of hungry and the only thing we could get at the concessions was popcorn. They weren’t even open yet but we’d knock on the back door and they’d give us some popcorn. So the reporter asked me if I ate popcorn before every game and I said ‘Not really’. But when the article came out the next day he called me The Popcorn Kid. The best popcorn was the London Gardens, but I didn’t really eat it every game. To be honest though most of the time when I go to games today I end up getting popcorn. But when I’m in Quebec I get a hot dog because they’re good.
TL: I watched a YouTube video of you playing in the Showdown Series and realized just how acrobatic of a style you had. It even seemed to me that you were Dominek Hasek before Hasek even arrived. (ironically in this video you see Palmateer facing Robert Picard, the guy he was traded for)
MP: Yeah, I did a lot of things differently from other goaltenders. They’d all try to get a guy to make the first move but I’d give him something and then take it away. I wasn’t afraid to make the first move…. I was fairly aggressive. I was butterflying and flopping sometimes when other goalies were still stand-up goalies. Growing up I watched Glenn Hall and Roger Crozier and Eddie Giacomin and they all played the butterfly. Guys like Ricky Vaive would come down the wing and score a ton of goals on stand-up goalies because they couldn’t cover the bottom corners. Not many guys would beat me that way because I already had my legs out. My thinking was if everyone was trying to pick the corner I’d give myself an advantage by getting my legs out there first. Every once in a while I’d give up one between the legs but it was a good tradeoff for all the other saves I made that other goalies couldn’t make. We just didn’t have the equipment to cover the five-hole the way they do now.
TL: Speaking of that, what do you think of the size of the equipment goalies are wearing today?
MP: It’s too big in my opinion. I guess they reduced it a little but they need to do more. I see a guy today who’s the same size as me and the only thing you see is a little pea sitting on top of his shoulders. The pads are too long and the pants are really wide but the real problem is the shoulder pads. Guys are just so wide now… you don’t need to be that wide to protect yourself. If you look at goalies today compared to 10 years ago and 10 years before that the guys are getting bigger and bigger but the nets are staying the same size. (this is where I should have asked if the nets should be made bigger but I didn’t think of it at the time; see more on size of equipment here). It’s all too big today but what we wore was just as ridiculous the other way. When I played, practicing was just about trying to survive… trying to get out of the practice without getting hurt. But now goalies can actually practice because they don’t get hurt from the shots. There’s a fine line and I think they need to do some more work on tapering it down and that’ll be good for the game.
TL: Would today’s equipment have prevented some of the big injuries at the end of your career?
MP: I would have avoided some of the injuries that kept me out but most of my problems were my knees. I would have lasted longer if the pads had been lighter but my knee problems started in midget. I retired with 14 knee operations and have since had 6 more. It’s my only NHL record… most knee operations!
TL: The Leafs made a great run in the 1978 playoffs (losing to Montreal in the semi finals), how good could that team have become if it had been kept together?
MP: We really had a good group of core guys. We were just a couple guys away from really competing. But there were a couple dynasties back then. We always had to face the Habs and they had one of the greatest teams of all time and then the Islanders were just coming up to start their dynasty. We were always really competitive but they were just a tiny bit better than us. So one or two guys probably would have made the difference for us but pretty much any team could have said the same thing!
I asked Palmateer about the Leafs’ infamous owner Harold Ballard but he very respectfully referred to Ballard and King Clancy as OK guys and that he was “just a young kid and just wanted to play hockey”, so I decided not to push any more Ballard questions. That means I didn’t ask if Ballard really called Palmateer a Junior B goalie… or why Darryl Sittler ripped the C off his jersey. But I did make an observation about Ballard and Clancy looking like Statler and Waldorf, the old guys from the Muppets, hanging over the ice heckling their own players. That generated a laugh but no further comment.
TL: You and Felix Potvin are the only goalies to lead the Leafs to the Stanley Cup semi finals since the ’67 Leafs won the Cup so should any other Leaf goalie be allowed to wear number 29?
MP: (laughing) No, whatever number a goalie wants to wear that’s great. The only reason I wore 29 is because when I was called up they gave me #33 and Doug Favell had worn that number so I said “I don’t want to wear his number, give me something else. So they gave me 29.
TL: Justin Pogge is wearing 29 now, what’s your take on him?
MP: Justin is a stand-up kid with good athletic ability. It’s not easy to be a goalie in the NHL and he’s doing a good job with the Marlies. If he keeps getting that ice-time he’ll continue to progress. I like him, he’s got good size… he’ll make it.
TL: You had one of the best masks of that era.
MP: Yeah, it was a cool mask. Somebody just told me the other day they saw it featured in The Hockey News (it’s true, you can buy it here). There’s a good story to it too… a young kid about 10 years old sent me a drawing of what he thought my mask should look like so I gave it to the guy making my mask and said “here, put this design on it.
TL: There’s a big difference in the artwork of today’s masks… what do you think of the masks today?
MP: Well first of all, the masks today have padding in them so that’s kind of nice! The masks I wore didn’t even have a piece of felt in them. As for today’s paint jobs, I guess they can afford whatever they want. Back then you’d buy your mask for a couple hundred bucks and then you couldn’t afford to buy another one for a couple years. I don’t remember the team paying for it, especially not for the paint job!
TL: How would you get a new mask painted today?
MP: Same way, I’d have kids send me pictures and pick a cool one.
TL: Why did you switch to the helmet/cage combo for your second stint in Toronto?
MP: I had been wearing the helmet for practice because it was better protection and then just before I went from Washington back to Toronto somebody stole my mask. So when I got to Toronto I didn’t have a mask so I just started wearing the helmet. I didn’t really like the wires in front of me so I got another one made. They were just starting to make the fiberglass/cage combo that guys wear today but I just didn’t get comfortable with it.
TL: I heard that you were pulled off the gurney in Washington to be an emergency replacement?
MP: Yeah, that’s true. I was going in for knee surgery in the afternoon and had already been given some drugs to slow me down. I guess Wayne Stephenson took a shot off the collarbone in the morning skate so the nurse came in and told the doctor “he has to get dressed and play tonight”. I couldn’t drive because I was so groggy so my wife came to pick me up and took me to the rink. The drugs still hadn’t worn off when the game started but I guess they figured I was still a better option than the guy they called up from the minors! And then I had the surgery the next day. Probably didn’t help prolong my career! (Palmateer had terrible luck with knee injuries and didn’t have a great time with the Caps yet he still laughs when he tells this story)
TL: What are you doing these days?
MP: This is my 7th season as a full time scout with the Leafs. I go everywhere looking at players… a lot of Jr. A games, a lot of high school and college games. I cover all the leagues and travel a lot. If you call the house after September my wife will tell you to call back in May!
TL: Do any of the kids you’re scouting know who Mike Palmateer is?
MP: (Laughing) I don’t think so. You were a Toronto boy so for you it was always Wednesday night and Saturday night hockey and it was always the Leafs. And if the Leafs weren’t on then you didn’t watch hockey. Now you can watch every game every night so kids don’t grow up tied to one team the way they used to. (this statement is 100% true and I think a simple but astute observation of the differences in team/player loyalty between then and now. staying up to watch the Wednesday games were special for me because it was a school night)
TL: If you were starting a team today and could pick any two goalies who would they be?
MP: Certainly Luongo is one of the best, but I’ve always been a fan of Brodeur. He’s a goaltender who has great instincts and that’s what separates him from other goalies. Most of the goalies have become fairly robotic but Brodeur has a real feel for the game. He can make a save five different ways if he has to. And he’s a clutch player. But I’ll tell you, the guy we have now, Toskala is a really good goaltender. Definitely a good trade to give up a first rounder for him… he gives the Leafs a lot of stability. And that will allow Pogge to get the games he needs in the minors so we don’t have to bring him up too early.
TL: Last question… how do you like being a TV sitcom star?
MP: Rent-A-Goalie is some off the wall Canadian humor. It’s kind of like Trailer Park Boys. They had me on playing myself, and they had Tony Esposito, Darryl Sittler, Tiger Williams. When they invited me on they sent me some tapes to watch… the language was a little strong the first season but they’ve toned it down a bit the last couple seasons.
What a great thrill for me to interview the goalie I watched every Saturday (and Wednesday) night when I was a kid. I hope it brings back memories for Leaf fans and goalies of all ages.
The final note, or tribute, for this interview is the last photo you see here which was given to me the night of my bachelor party. No other photos exist of that evening (at least they’d better not) but I love this photo because it shows that my best friends today know who I watched when I was a kid.