lumley’s number one

Harry Lumley, already fluey, chases hard after this fella because there’s no-one else. And when fluey Harry Lumley falls — because, of course, he’s in his goalie gear — we have to laugh.

I make it sound like I was there, which I wasn’t. This is a charity game, in January of 1950, the first-place Detroit Red Wings are taking on a team of International League all-stars to raise money for the lesser league’s fund for injured players, which is kind of ironic, as we all make sure to say at the time. A comedy game the papers call it. Old Apple Cheeks, as we call Lumley, AC for short, old AC will sometimes take a regular stick and move up out of his net for face-offs down at the far end, which he does in this case we’re talking about here, he’s up when the puck gets by him, and so he has chase because the net is empty. Go AC, we call, ha, ha, watch out  — oh, no, Harry.

Sorry. That’s awful. Let me be clear: I wasn’t there. Nowhere close. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Apple Cheeks is true enough; they did call him that. And the charity game, and the chase. Here’s what Lumley recalled:

Well, the puck got past me and I ended up trying to chase this fella who was about to shoot into the open net. I tripped and fell and sprained my ankle. It was a bad sprain, too!

Actually, he got up and played on. Later in the game he was off again down the ice, trying to score. He was in on the All-Stars’ net, about to shoot when he, fffump, fell down. The trainers helped him to the dressing room. From there he went to Detroit’s Harper Hospital. The x-rays showed no fracture, just the sprain.

This was the Thursday. Did I mention the Red Wings won the comedy game? 17-10. Sunday they had Boston coming in. When Lumley couldn’t play, the Wings called up young Terry Sawchuk, who’d been starring in Indianapolis for the AHL Capitals. Sawchuk, who’d already been up before, in December, when Lumley’s flu was bad, was 20. Old Apple Cheeks, I said, but Lumley was only 23.

Anyway, the Boston game. The Sawchuk biographies, of which there are two, both frame the scene from the dressing room, before the game where Sawchuk struggles into Lumley’s number 1 sweater.

Brian Kendall in Shutout: The Legend of Terry Sawchuk (1996): “Terry squeezed into Lumley’s too-tight jersey …”

David Dupuis, Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of The World’s Greatest Goalie (1998): “Terry Sawchuk stretched Lumley’s sweater over his beefy frame …”

Which seems strange, given Lumley’s listed dimensions (six feet tall, 195 pounds) versus Sawchuk’s (5’11”, 190 pounds). Poet Randall Maggs thinks the problem through in “The Question For Harry,” from his luminous 2008 collection, Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems:

You hardly thought of Harry Lumley as a little guy,
but Terry was having trouble getting his sweater
over his head.

It’s not really a poem about getting dressed. Or it is and it isn’t. Maggs has Lumley standing there, in the room, on his crutches — it’s his knee that’s hurt, in the poem — and when no-one else steps up to help Sawchuk, he’s the one who reaches out:

One-handed, he gripped he sweater near the number,
his number, hauling it down, something welling, as always,
helping a team-mate into his armour. Big as Harry was, though,
how would he really feel if the kid fell flat? Friend or foe,
for goalies it got fuzzy here. He felt the shallow
breathing under his hand. “You get that first shot, Kid,
“you’ll be okay.” He tugged out the wrinkles
and flattened the number.

For goaltenders in the old NHL, there were only six jobs, and here was Lumley watching his own sweater head out to play without him. That’s what the poem’s about: one great goaltender giving way to another who would be greater. There were a few more stages to the succession, it’s true. Sawchuk was a loser in that first game, 3-4 to the Bruins, though by all accounts he played well, was unlucky, with Detroit defenceman Clare Martin twice deflecting Boston shots into his own net. And a few nights later Boston beat him again. But before Lumley returned, Sawchuk’s record for seven games of replacement was 4-3, and he conceded just 16 goals. After he shutout New York, Rangers’ coach Lynn Patrick said, “There are only three big-league goalies right now and one of them is in the minors.”

Detroit manager Jack Adams wasn’t far behind in his thinking. Harry Lumley claimed his sweater back to finish the season and was in the Detroit net that April when the Red Wings beat the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup. By mid-July, he was gone to last-place Chicago as part of a nine-player deal that cleared the crease for Sawchuk. In David Dupuis’ Sawchuk, Lumley recalled hearing the news while he was driving from Owen Sound, Ontario to a softball game in Goderich.

I was coming to a washout in the road and was about to slow down for it, when all of a sudden, at that precise moment, I hear on the car radio that I’ve been traded to Chicago. It was such a shock that, instead of braking, my foot hit the gas pedal! I hit the washout at full speed and put the fan through the radiator!

I did not have a clue that the trade was coming. I mean, after all, we had just won the Stanley cup. Plus it was upsetting to go from a first-place club to a last-place club. I called Jack Stewart who was going with me and we had quite a talk. I hated every minute in Chicago. I would have sooner gone to fight in the Korean War!

In the season that followed. Chicago finished at the bottom of the standings again, while Detroit held on to first. They lost in the playoffs to Montreal, who duly fell to Toronto in the finals. Sawchuk won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Above, the two former teammates share smiles the season after that, 1951-52, when Detroit regained the Stanley Cup, with Sawchuk winning the Vezina Trophy. Chicago? Last again.