They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just the one name will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, though we also have a prime minister now, Justin, with whom we’re first-name familiar. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.
That one is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery of old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not only the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.
Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.
John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.
That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:
He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”
He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.
It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.
If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.
I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”
Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.
The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:
[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.
Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”
That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.
Did Gump, for his part, sustain more concussions than his contemporaries? Hard to say. He does seem to have been at more risk from goalposts than any other goaltender I can think of. Other than that, all I can confirm here is Gump Worsley did, over the course of his 22 NHL seasons, suffer a great many concussions. A quick and non-definitive turn through the archives yields these exemplars:
1, 2, 3
Gump was minding the Springfield Indians net in the AHL in a game against Quebec’s Aces in 1959 when he collided with teammate Kent Douglas, cracked his head (as the AP reported). He departed the ice, then, on a stretcher — before returning with 15 minutes left in the game to finish up the 3-1 win.
He was back in the AHL in 1964, playing with the Aces this time. His two (documented) concussions that year came in January, when he had to leave a game with the Baltimore Clippers (Gill Banville replaced him), and then again in October. Quebec walloped the Providence Reds 8-3, that time, though Worsley didn’t see the end of it: during a scramble in front, he was knocked against the cage. A 17-year-old back-up replaced him that night, Michel Beaulieu.
In 1961, Gump left his net to rush at the Red Wings’ Ed Litzenberger in Detroit and when Litzenberger shot he did indeed stop the puck — with his forehead. When he fell, the back of his head struck the ice. Again he left on a stretcher, and was replaced in the New York net by the Red Wings assistant trainer, Danny Olesevich, who I’m sure did his best, and only let Gordie Howe and Al Johnson score. The game ended in a 4-4 tie. Worsley didn’t regain consciousness until the ambulance got him to Detroit’s Osteopathic Hospital. Dr. Charles Karibo’s diagnosis: “severe concussion.”
Gump was playing for Montreal by 1968 when the Canadiens met the Black Hawks in a Stanley Cup semi-final. Bobby Hull skated into him as on his way to scoring Chicago’s opening goal. The Canadian Press:
Worsley whacked his neck on the goal post and was removed from the game on a stretcher. He was taken to hospital for preliminary examination, but was released to catch the train to Montreal with the team.
“There’s nothing broken or anything like that,” Worsley was pleased to report. “I hope to play, but it’s too soon to tell if I’ll be able.”
“He beat me with a shot from close range that put me in the hospital. Attempting to make the save, I hit my head on the crossbar and was knocked unconscious. But all I wound up with was a sprained neck.”
February of 1969, Montreal at Toronto. In the first period, Canadiens’ defenceman Jacques Laperriere crosschecked Toronto’s Bob Pulford near Worsley’s crease, and as the dominoes fell (as the Montreal Gazette logged it), “Gump’s head hit the crossbar.”
“He was out cold as a mackerel,” said Dr. Hugh Smythe, the Leafs’ physician who was on the scene. “He has gone to hospital,” Dr. Smythe said, “but I don’t believe there’s grave cause for concern.” Rogie Vachon came in to finish the game, a 5-1 Toronto win. Vachon started the next night, when the teams met again in Montreal (Canadiens prevailed 3-1), but Gump was back in for the next game, a 4-1 win over Philadelphia.
He was 42 in the spring of 1972, playing for the Minnesota. The North Stars, leading the series three games to two, were in St. Louis to play the Blues in a Stanley Cup quarter-final. The Blues’ Gerry Odrowski took a shot, which Gump saved, but when Bob Plager chased the rebound his knee hit Gump’s forehead and knocked him out.
Gump came to a few minutes after he was stretchered off the ice. He was taken to Jewish Hospital in St. Louis for X-rays before being released (skull unfractured) into the care of Minnesota’s Dr. Charles Kelly. With Cesare Maniago in the net, Minnesota had lost the game, and there was some talk that Gump would be back for the game seven. It didn’t work out, and the North Star were eliminated.
Gump’s most famous concussion — that “mild” one from 1967 he talks about in his book — came during a Sunday afternoon game at Madison Square Garden. It ended in a 2-2, but Gump had to cede the net to Vachon midway through the first period after a fan tossed an egg from an upper balcony.
The Rangers’ Jean Ratelle had just scored. “That egg didn’t only hurt Worsley,” New York coach Emile Francis grumbled, “it cut down our momentum.”
Garden police nabbed his assailant, a man in his 20s (according to The New York Times), who was apprehended with a “bagful of eggs.” Worsley says he was a high-school kid, and scared, which is why, when policemen brought him to the Canadiens’ dressing room and invited Gump to, quote, lay one on him, he turned them down.
He didn’t want charges pressed, either, according to Montreal’s Gazette:
“What will it get me? Nothing. The kid might wind up in jail which won’t do him any good. I think he learned his lesson about throwing things and maybe he won’t get back into the rink again.”
Gump said he was relieved the egg hadn’t been hard-boiled. “I didn’t know it was an egg,” he said, “until I felt the gook.”
(Top image courtesy of the Vancouver artist known as Wafflebored. For more of his wonderful work, follow @wafflebored and visit https://wafflebored.wordpress.com.)