Les Binkley traveled a long route to the NHL, but he finally made it thanks to NHL expansion in 1967
After playing junior and senior hockey in southern Ontario where he grew up, Binkley never had the fortune of being sponsored by a NHL team. So he had to make his own ways into pro hockey. He ended up laying in the lowly EHL and IHL during much of the 1950s before he got a surprise call in 1961.
"I had been playing for Toledo in the old International Hockey League," recalled Binkley. "One day I got a call from the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League. It seems as though the goalie that was supposed to report to the team had been in fogged in at Toronto. They wanted to know if I would drive up and play the game for them. So I went up and played a good game for them, and the following year they invited me to training camp."
Cleveland did offer him a job, though it was hardly the job he was looking for. Remember, this was still in the day where one goalie would play the entire season for a team.
"To my surprise, Cleveland general manager Jim Heady offered me a contract. But the offer was to be the team's spare goalie and a trainer. I told Heady that I didn't know a thing about being a trainer. He told me not to worry about that."
In spite of the early inhibitions, Binkley enjoyed his job.
"The job really worked out well for me. I would usually miss all the hard warm-ups, because as a trainer I had to get all the hockey equipment out on the ice for the rest of the players. But by the end of my first season with the team I got my big break when (starting goalie) Gil Mayer got hurt and I played in the last 8 games of the season."
Binkley had a great finish, going 4-1-1 with a tiny 1.47 GAA.
"From then on I was a regular goalie."
And he was a good one too. For the next 5 years he was a standout in the AHL, winning rookie of the year in 1962, two all star nominations in 1964 and 1966 and winning the Hap Holmes award in 1966 for allowing the fewest goals against.
Despite this, Binkley still never had a shot at NHL employment.
"you have to remember that those were the years of the old six team NHL," said Binkley. "There were only six goalies playing in the NHL and most of them were pretty solid. Four of those guys, Bower, Hall, Plante and Sawchuk, played in the NHL during my duration in the minors."
Binkley also felt there was another reason why he was being ignored by the big leagues.
"I was the first goalie to wear contact lenses in pro hockey," he claims. "I think a lot of teams wouldn't take the chance on me because they didn't know how well I could see."
Binkley could see just fine, and once the NHL double in size due to its 1967 expansion, the rest of the NHL world would see just how good Binkley was. He became the first number one goal keeper in the history of Pittsburgh Penguins.
Binkley spent 5 seasons with the Pens, posting respectable numbers for a less than great team during that time. By 1972 though, Binkley left the Pens to jump to the WHA. He is quite honest as to why he left the Pens.
"I did it for the money!" he laughs. Obviously the Ottawa Nationals offered him more money than the Penguins did. And after 12 seasons in the minors, you can't really blame Binkley for wanting to cash in.
Binkley has found memories of the WHA.
"I found it to be one of the toughest leagues, if not the toughest, that I ever played in, and that includes the NHL. And I'm an expert in leagues because I played in almost every pro league in the minors and majors, except for the Central.
"The reason I found it tougher is because they had a lot of good talent and it was a very wide-open league as far as play went. And that kind of play always makes life interesting for a goalie. And we lead very interesting lives."