First of three excerpts from “Legends of the Komets” by Blake Sebring. Published by AuthorHouse and available via news-sentinel.com, Komet Kuarters and at Komets home games, the book features the 13 men who have had their numbers retired by the Komets organization: Bob Chase, Colin Chin, Steve Fletcher, Bud Gallmeier, Robbie Irons, Rob Laird, Colin Lister, Eddie Long, Terry Pembroke, Reg Primeau, Lionel Repka, Len Thornson and Ken Ullyot. Also included are the Komets Hall of Fame and a “Where are they now?” of more than 800 Komets. Some of the subjects will be available for autographs at Friday and Saturday's home games.
On June 13, 1968, the Rangers traded Robbie Irons and Camille Henry to the expansion St. Louis Blues for Bill Plager, Don Caley and Wayne Rivers. Blues coach Scotty Bowman was building a goaltending tandem of future Hall of Famers Jacques Plante, 39, and Glenn Hall, 37.
“I met Scotty Bowman in downtown Toronto and he told me he wanted to sign three young goaltenders to back up Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante,” Irons said. “I was all for it. Scotty was always thinking outside the box. He knew he had two older guys and he needed to cut down on the travel time or it was going to wear them out.”
Bowman signed Irons, Gary Edwards and Ted Oimet, sending two of them to play with the Blues' farm team in Kansas City while the other would serve as a practice goalie and back up either Plante or Hall during road games. If the Blues had a weekend road trip to Minnesota and Chicago, Plante or Hall would go straight to Chicago to wait for the team while Irons backed up the other in Minnesota. The season was split into thirds as the third goalies rotated with Irons starting the first third in St. Louis.
Irons, 21, practiced every day and dressed with the Blues for more than 60 games over the next three seasons, wearing either No. 1 or No. 30 depending on whom he was backing up, taking the other goaltender's number.
“You just had to bide your time,” Irons said.
His time came on Nov. 13, 1968, appropriately enough in a game at New York against the Rangers. The Blues and Plante had played the night before in Boston so Hall was in net when the Rangers' Vic Hatfield ripped a long slap shot that dipped under Hall's arm and into the goal. Hall charged out to protest that Hatfield's stick had to be illegal and bumped into the referee to earn a game misconduct.
The referee skated to the St. Louis bench to tell Bowman to get his backup into the game. Bowman walked over to Irons and told him to take his time during the warm-up and then come back to the bench to see him. After a regular warm-up, which was permitted at the time, Irons came to the bench and Bowman instructed him to go with the trainer into the locker room with a supposed leg injury.
“The trainer is messing around when Scotty comes in yelling at the referee, who says, ‘C'mon, let's go, You gotta go,'” Irons said. “I don't really know what's going on other than I'm antsy and the building is jampacked. So finally, out I come and the crowd is going crazy. They finally get me in the net and we get started. I handled the puck a couple of times, and I think I might have made one save. Before I know it, three and a half minutes later I look over and who's standing on the bench dressed but Jacques Plante, who had been sitting in the stands. Scotty calls me over and in Jacques Plante goes. Then they give him a warm-up.”
Bowman came down to the end of the bench and told Irons he did a good job. The Blues won 2-1, but the Rangers started a huge argument with the league office that led to a rule change. After that game, teams were limited to the two goaltenders listed on the lineup card.
“As a young kid, I didn't know how I would handle it, but when I went in, I was shaking in my boots, there's no doubt about it,” Irons said. “The fooling around upset me from the standpoint of ‘C'mon, let's get going, I don't need this Mickey Mouse stuff. If I'm going to play, let's go. If I'm going to fall on my face, fine. Let's get this thing going.' Once I got in there and actually handled the puck, I started to relax and feel OK.”
The next year Irons played three exhibition games with St. Louis, but never got into another NHL game. He holds a record with Christian Soucy and Sean Gauthier for least minutes played in a career by an NHL goaltender with three.