It is pretty rare in the sports world these days to find athletes competing in two sports at the major league level.
Most recently, the sports world marveled at both Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders playing football and baseball in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. John Lucas also played in the NBA and competed in World Team Tennis, and in the early days of the NBA, Major League Baseball players would make a few dollars playing basketball in the off-season, a practice that ended in the 1960s.
It has been a long time since an NHL player participated in two sports at the highest level. Perhaps the last was New York Rangers' goaltender Gilles Villemure, who spent his summers during his NHL career in the 1970s as a harness racehorse driver. It was such a well kept secret, despite Villemure openly taking part in the harness circuit, that his boss, Rangers coach and general manager Emile Francis, had no idea that Villemure was a two-sport athlete until Francis decided to attend a night of racing on Long Island.
"I did that in the summertime and played hockey in the wintertime. It was fun," Villemure said. "I raced all over the place, Montreal, Roosevelt, Yonkers, the Meadowlands. You need timing, you need quickness because when you live at the gate in harness racing, you have to time the gate, when you leave from behind the gate, if you have reflexes then you can get out of the gate quick. If you don't have the reflexes, then you lose a couple of steps and as a goaltender you need reflexes, of course. You have to make the right move at the right time.
"(In goaltending), you got to be quick and ready and in harness racing, you have to make the right move at the right time. You also need a little skill to do this.
"I think it did (help), because all summer I was involved in harness racing, it kept me sharp."
Villemure, as a kid growing up in Trois Rivieres, Quebec enjoyed going to the local rink, which happened to be adjacent to a harness track. The young Villemure also began hanging around the track and by the age of 10, was working the horses.
"The race track and the ice rink were side by side. I used to play in the morning and go to the races in the afternoon and night," he said. "I was 16-years-old when I started driving and I was 10-years-old when I started walking horses. You just progress, you train and groom them and all of a sudden you are ready to drive."
Villemure made the NHL as a regular goaltender with the Rangers at the age of 30 in 1970, although he was around the organization and Francis for quite a while and played for the team in 13 games between 1963 and 1969, so Francis knew who Villemure was. He just didn't know his goaltender very well and got to know more about him by accident one summer's night in Nassau County after Villemure finally nailed a spot on the team.
"Yes, I did, (race) when with the Rangers and after the Rangers. (Francis) didn't even know. I didn't tell him," Villemure said. "He said he went to Roosevelt one day and I was driving horses. That's it. He never bothered me at all. He didn't know. But he went to Roosevelt and I was driving horses that night. He never said stop driving, He said nothing."
Villemure didn't drive during the hockey season, but he was around horses all the time. When the Rangers practiced in Long Beach on Long Island , Villemure went to Roosevelt Raceway before practice to help jog and train horses.
Villemure's racing career lasted about 30 years from roughly 1956 to 1986. He was a hockey player first and foremost, but after retiring from the Chicago Blackhawks in 1976-77, he went onto the harness racing circuit. Harness racing is no longer a big deal in the United States. Roosevelt Raceway, which was near the Nassau Coliseum and owned by Villemure's former employers -- Madison Square Garden until 1984 -- closed in 1988.
Villemure was a really good goaltender who probably would have been in the NHL had he come along as a youngster after the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967. He probably could have been a major harness driver, but concentrated on playing hockey.
During his 10-year minor league career, Villemure was the Western Hockey League's rookie of the year in 1963, as a member of the Vancouver Canucks. He was a first team all-star in both the Western and American Hockey League, and in 1968-69, and 1969-70, while a member of the Buffalo Bisons, was the AHL Most Valuable Player and led the AHL both years in allowing the fewest goals against.
When Villemure finally made the NHL in 1970, he got to show his stuff and he was very good. In his rookie year, he shared the Vezina Trophy with Ed Giacomin in 1970-71 and played in the All-Star Game in 1971, 1972 and 1973.