Mike Palmateer Interview

Mike Palmateer was the most entertaining goalie (apologies to Johnny Bower) to wear the blue and white.

Mike Palmateer was the most entertaining goalie (apologies to Johnny Bower) to wear the blue and white.

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.

King Clancy and Harold Ballard in muppet form?  Palmateer's not saying.

King Clancy and Harold Ballard in muppet form? Palmateer's not saying.

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.

One of the best masks in NHL history was designed by a 10yr old!

One of the best masks in NHL history was designed by a 10yr old!

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?

Palmateer eventually switched to a helmet/cage combo because his other mask was stolen.

Palmateer eventually switched to a helmet/cage combo because his other mask was stolen.

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.

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12 Comments

  1. Great interview!

    My favo(u)rite Mike Palmateer memory is getting greys for a Marlies game when Palmateer was coming back from injury. Rumor had it #29 was going to suit up for the Marlies.

    Palmateer didn’t start – I think he was on the bench – so we bided our time. We bought as much unshelled peanuts as we could afford, saving money for video games and a trip to Sam’s – and whenever the Marlies scored (7 times, if I recall) – we’d fling handfuls of peanuts as far as we could into to seats below.

    Palmateer never got in the game. Maybe he wasn’t even on the bench (did he ever suit up for the Marlies?). I guess my Palmateer memory isn’t a Palmateer memory at all. But I do remember he was wildly popular and we all thought he was the greatest.

    The greatest in Toronto, anyway. No one would ever be greater than Dryden.

    Kenny

  2. Mike Palmateer-Still fun to watch after all these years! A true legend!

  3. I made Mike’s mask.
    I’ve contacted THN because of some incorrect info…
    RH

  4. Mike Palmateer was the most fun goalie to watch from any era in my view and he holds the record for that too. I started watching the Leafs at the end of the fifties. I enjoyed Johnny Bower immensely but no one ever made even easy saves look impossible like Mike did. The best save I’ve seen to this day was when Mike was flat on his back in the net, completely beat. The shooter had the whole net over his prone body to shoot at and plenty of time. He put it dead centre. Just as the puck was going to enter the net, up comes Mike’s stick and the puck hit it and bounced clear. The shooter, the fans and the entire TV audience was dumbfounded. You could call that luck but I played a lot of road hockey as a goalie so I know your luck is only as good as your hand to eye coordination.

    Another thing I like about Mike’s style was that he was difficult to predict in a game situation*. I tend to enjoy players who will give that last little bit and then some to make the play even if it means diving headfirst into a certain injury.

    As for the comparison between Mike and Ken Dryden, I don’t think that any comparison can be entirely fair when you consider the size difference. Big guys cover a lot of acreage and that makes it extremely easy to cut down the angles. If the big goalie is also quick, that works in his favour in ways that a smaller player can’t hope to emulate.

    The comments about Justin Pogge give a clue as to why he isn’t doing as well now as expected. The Leaf organization seems to be trying to make Pogge a stand up goalie when the guy’s real instincts are to be a Palmateer style goalie. When you go against a person’s natural instincts like that, you always get a second rate effort no matter how hard the individual tries because he’s always second guessing his nature. Try using your left hand only for a couple of weeks if you are right handed. That’s the equivalent. A stand-up goalie is going to be more durable due to less wear and tear on the knees even with lighter equipment but the butterfly style would suit Pogge much better in my opinion.

    Johnny Bower was no stand up goalie. He didn’t do the acrobatics Mike did but Bower was flat on the ice a lot. Most goals are scored close to the ice surface and Bower used his head intentionally to stop pucks more than once. I learned that even playing road hockey, if you can block the surface of the ice (road) and have a quick pair of hands, not much is going to get by you. Handball, Racquetball and Squash along with baseball all give you the hand quickness – especially if you learn to play with both hands in all sports as I did. After that all you need are great reflexes and Dryden was the first to admit, his wife’s reflexes were faster than his. So maybe she should have played net for the Habs.

    I watched the video and with guys shooting and trying different things for an extended period it doesn’t take long to find a goalie’s weaknesses. The goalie doesn’t get a break or coaching to be able to make correction during that session. It doesn’t matter who the goalie is, even Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur, after a while the puck is going to start going in. So while that sort of event can make the shooters look good after a while, the goalie has to be really resourceful to withstand that sort of assault from skilled shooters.

    I think the reason teams are looking for stand up goalies now more than ever is because the rebounds are more predictable. It’s also a more boring style to watch. The thing is, predictable rebounds are predictable for both sides. Unpredictable rebounds catch everyone by surprise. But the team with the unpredictable goalie has an advantage in that they over time get used to the style and can work around it. That often worked to the Leafs advantage when Salming and Turnbull were playing.

    I believe the Leafs would have gone all the way in that series but for one thing – LeClair and up and coming defenceman who was having a terrific series broke his ankle. The Leafs didn’t have the depth to recover from that and his loss lead directly to the Leafs being eliminated.

    Thank you Mike for every game you played. Other players were skilled. You brought grace, art, drama and humour to the sport that seeped right through the TV screen. You were electrifying.

    The reason I’m actually on this site was to get a reference of the goalie pads and the face mask for a Fantasy painting I’m working on. It’s titled LEAF FANS ARE EVERYWHERE. It’s based on a book titled ‘The Voyage of the Basset’ by James C. Christensen and all the fabulous paintings in the book are his as well. My painting is a spoof on his book and the Fantasy genre in general.

    The characters (midgets) in his book dress up in four or five ornate, bejeweled and very bulky outfits all at the same time, one over the other. In my painting they’re also wearing Maple Leaf equipment and parts of the uniform along with everything else. One guy has a black eye, another is missing his front teeth. It’s a pretty amazing piece and Mike’s puckish character via his number and mask seemed the perfect one to personify how humour can be present in all things and in most unexpected places. It’s not always about winning, it’s how you play the game and how you approach your life.

    I’d post it here if there was a way to do it.

  5. I was 10 years old when I started to follow the Leafs and that was back in 82-83.The first NHL hockey game I saw was at a family friend’s place and the Leafs were hosting the Islanders. In that game, I saw a goalie doing everything to make a save and he was playing for the Leafs. I was so impressed at his floppy style, I asked a friend who that individual was? He said, “Mike Palmateer.” From that point onwards, I followed every game
    that the Leafs played until the player’s strike in the mid 90′s.
    I was so enamored how Mike played his game. He made saves that most goalies could not make look easy.He had lightning fast reflexes, even though his knees were wearing down.Especially his glove hand. In fact, I remember watching a game where the Leafs were playing the Flyers. Bobby Clarke was just a couple of feet away from Palmateer’s net and he one timed the shot. What unfolded after that one timer was unbelievable. Mike just shot up his glove hand and robbed Bobby Clarke. The fans were astounded and gave Mike Palmateer a long standing ovation!!It was because of Mike’s heroics that the leafs did not lose the game as they tied the Flyers 2-2.That is one save that I still have in my mind today.
    Two seasons later, the Leafs did not want him and paid his $275 000 US salary, to sit out. That season, the Leafs had their worst record in franchise history and many believed it was because they let go of Palmy. I agree totally with that. They needed a veteran presence to help bring up the two rookie goalies and that was Allan Bester and Ken Wregget. Mind you, Bester and Wregget were good goalies but if they had Mike’s presence, they would have even been better.It was a sad day when the Leafs decided to cut him out.
    It was not until Felix Potvin that we had an entertaining goalie, who had the same kind of reflexes as Palmateer.
    The next time Palmateer played was during the Maple Leafs alumni game during the 93 season. When he played in that alumni game, it brought so many memories of how amazing he was.The alumni game featured the Habs vs Leafs. Mike was at his finest. He still seem to have his acrobatic style and again, if it wasn’t for him, the Leafs would have not won the game like they did. The score was 5-2, Leafs.
    So in closing, Mike, you were one of kind and there hasn’t been an entertaining goalie since you left the NHL! We all miss you and I hope that you get what you truly deservr and that is to be inducted in the hockey hall of fame and possibly the Leafs should retire your number 29!!

    All the best Mike

  6. This is the type of comment that keeps me plugging away at TendersLounge. It may not be as frequent as I’d like but I love seeing the memories and reaction triggered by the Palmateer interview! Thanks for taking the time to read TL and even more thanks for sharing your Palmateer memories with other goalies here!

  7. Thanks for the interview. Palmateer was my idol when I was a kid, and in some ways still is.

  8. Palmateer is my all time favorite Leaf goalie. I always felt we had a chance to win with him between the pipes. I remember that oldtimers game, Palmateer had a shutout. At the 1/2 mark, Favell went in net for the Leafs and let in 2. Met him once and he was really nice.

  9. One more thing. The quarter final series against the Islanders was all Palmateer. Remember in game 7, nearing the end of the game (tied), the Leafs were 2 men short and Palmateer held the fort. He was bombarded. There was no better goalie in that years playoffs. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t playing for a better organization.

  10. Just re-watched Leafs/Canadians ’79 playoff series on dvd … can Mike confirm why he didn’t return to game 4 at the Gardens after the double-overtime loss (where he was spectacular) … Jim Gregory was on with Dave Hodge and said his arm swelled to a point where a doctor had to cut the muscle to relieve the pressure…is this true?? I would perfectly understand if Mike was overcome with emotion and literally could not play 19 hours later. I’ve been wondering about this for 32 years! Kind thanks.

  11. To: Mark de Valk.

    I remember that period of time and if memory serves me correctly, Mike was “injured” and attributed it to “hanging drapes at his home at about 1-2 am”. Make your own conclusions about what really happened and I clearly remembering that explanation and laughing at the time which seemed to be the sentiments of most people at the time. Never did like the Leafs after they cut him and still to this day enjoy reading articles about him.

    I also remember meeting him at an autograph signing and showed him some articles and the weekend article about him to which he laughed, showed his counterpart and stated that his mother saved every article about him and he stated, “I can’t believe some of the stuff I said back then!”

  12. Mike played golf the same way. I was lucky enough to play a few rounds with Mike in Oklahoma City in the seventies while in the military and we had a great time with Pat Boutette, Scot Garland, Bob Sykes and others Leafs. Mike was the fastest goalie I have ever seen, cat quick and all over the ice. I had no doubt he would make it. Still going to hockey in OKC and never seen anyone better or more entertaining than Mike Palmateer.


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