From early on in his career, Mike Palmateer tended goal from the pee-wees to the Toronto Marlboros, right under the noses of Maple Leaf management. Yet, as an NHL prospect, he hardly created a stir in the minds of the club's brass as they reflected on how to spend their hoard of draft picks.
The Leafs did finally bring Palmateer into the chain in 1974. He was promptly dispatched to the minors where he tended goal for the Saginaw Gears of the IHL and the Oklahoma City Blazers of the CHL. It wasn't until early in the 1976-77 campaign that he was brought to Maple Leaf Gardens for an extended stay. Suddenly, fans, analysts, and the club's management were all struck by the little fireball between the Leafs' pipes.
Some described him as a leprechaun in goal pads while others claimed he was brash and overrated and carried a chip on his shoulder. But whether people liked him or not, they couldn't help but be entertained by his dynamic exploits in the crease. He could make saves like a vaudeville dancer falling to the ice and then in an instant, be right back on his feet, ready for the next attack. He was colourful, cantankerous, and cocky while playing his daring game close to the edge.
From 1977 to 1979, with Palmateer in goal, the Leafs fortunes began to rise up from the depths of ineptitude. During the playoffs of 1978, he was a standout as the Leafs ousted the up-and-coming Islanders from the playoffs. But in 1980, Palmateer engaged in a contract dispute with the Leafs. He wanted a three-year deal while the club would offer only two. As a result, he was traded to the Washington Capitals.
In his first season as a Cap, Palmateer was slowed by a series of nagging injuries that included a pulled hamstring, ankle ligament damage, and bone chips in his wrist. Year two got even worse as his action-worn knees began to give way.
He was put on the shelf to have arthroscopic surgery at a local hospital. He was already dressed in hospital linen, on his way into the operating room when an urgent call came through from the Caps. Their other goalie, Wayne Stephenson, had just gone down with an injury. They needed Palmateer, bad knee and all, for the evening's game. So, he was packed back into the ambulance and delivered the stadium in time for the match. His surgery was then completed several days later.
In 1982, with his legs in decline, Palmateer was sold back to the Leafs where he gave his career one last try. But a plethora of operations on his knee failed to give the backstopper the mobility he needed to be effective. He got to the point where he couldn't even cover the right side of the net. As a result, he was forced to hang up his pads at age 30 in 1984.