He led the Montreal Canadiens (NHL) to the Stanley Cup Finals all four seasons (1950 to ’54) in which he was their number one goalie. (This stretch was the first four of ten consecutive appearances in the Cup Finals for the Habs, 1951-60.) He won the Cup with a shutout in overtime in 1953, the night before his 27th birthday. McNeil first signed with the Canadiens in 1943 when he was only 17, and while playing with their farm team, the Montreal Royals, he practiced with the Habs whenever they were in Montreal. (Teams dressed only one goalie for games at this time but obviously need two for scrimmages.) The Royals were part of the Quebec Senior Hockey League (QSHL). McNeil won the Byng of Vimy award for the most valuable player three times in the QSHL, and the Royals won the Allan Cup in 1947.
McNeil was called up from Cincinnati in March 1950 when Bill Durnan was hit in the head with a skate blade. Goalies did not wear masks at the time and were expected to play every minute of every game. McNeil recorded a 1.50 GAA (goals against average) over six games and preserved Durnan’s sixth and final Vezina Trophy (then awarded to the goalie of the team with the fewest goals against). This rookie performance earned him “the Schaefer player of the week” award. Durnan returned but felt he had lost his edge, so he announced that he would not suit up for a playoff game against the Rangers. At first McNeil refused to take what he considered to be “Bill’s spot,” so Durnan was asked to talk to his understudy in a private part of the Forum dressing room. Both men shed tears, as the “torch” was passed down. McNeil then succeeded Durnan as the Habs goalie.
McNeil actually played every game for the Habs from March 1950 to November 1952 (this streak included two entire 70-game seasons, 1950–51 and 1951–52). In the ’51 playoffs, McNeil went 214 minutes of shutout hockey against the powerful Red Wings in a stretch that included two marathon overtime games—both at the Detroit Olympia. Thirty eight of his sixty two saves in Game One were made in extra time, a performance that prompted Jack Adams, the manager of the Red Wings, to remark, “It was like running into one-hit pitching your first time out. The greatest goalkeeping this team ever faced.” The Canadiens managed to win both games on overtime goals by Maurice Richard and a stellar performance by McNeil, who was dubbed by the Detroit press, “the magician.” When the Canadiens went on to eliminate the heavily favored Red Wings, their coach, Tommy Ivan, remarked, “Gerry McNeil was the difference. He was terrific in their net.”
McNeil recorded 10 shutouts in the 1952-53 season. He had to be good for the Habs to succeed since they only scored 155 goals in 70 games (or 2.21 GPG). The last game of the regular season was against Detroit at the Olympia, and with 49 goals, Gordie Howe was set to match and perhaps beat Richard’s record of 50 in a season (actually 50 in 50 games in 1943-44). Howe had five shots against McNeil that night but he couldn’t beat the Hab goalie who was heard telling Richard when the game ended, “well Rock, he’ll have to start over at one again.” McNeil’s Stanley Cup victory a few weeks later was immortalized in Wayne Johnston’s novel, The Divine Ryans.
The 1951 Finals remain the only best-of-seven series in which every game had to be decided in overtime. Barilko’s goal became famous due to the Turofsky picture (see below) and the fact that Barilko would die in a small-plane accident the following summer. In 1954 McNeil suffered another overtime loss; this time in game seven when the puck was deflected past him by his teammate Doug Harvey. He retired that summer but returned to professional hockey a year later, filling in for an asthmatic Plante at the beginning of the 1956-57 season.