headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

fellows wrestle to the ice, time after time, in hockey, with no one hurt (though not this time)

Sling Shot: Toronto captain Ted Kennedy on a call at Boston’s Hotel Sheraton Plaza on January 2, 1953, the day after his run-in with with Bruins’ counterpart Milt Schmidt.

Milt Schmidt had his version of what happened, and the gist of it was this: not his fault.

New Year’s Day, 1953, Toronto was in Boston. The Leafs ended up yielding to the Bruins by a score of 5-1. “A sprightly display,” one of the local papers decreed, despite a couple of “accidents.” The view from Toronto wasn’t so bright. “One of the most vicious games at the Garden in years,” The Toronto Daily Star assessed it. Some in Boston concurred: a local columnist declared that the Garden hadn’t seen a brawl so wild since October 15, 1950.

This time, for Boston, the win cost them centreman Dave Creighton, whose fibula broke under duress from Leaf defenceman Fern Flaman.

Toronto captain Teeder Kennedy, 27, was gunning, in the parlance, for his 200th NHL goal. He’d have to wait. In the second period, he met up with his Boston counterpart, Milt Schmidt, at the Toronto blueline, and what the Star called a fracas ensued.

While Schmidt punched Kennedy’s face, Boston’s Leo Labine and Warren Godfrey wrestled Leafs Jimmy Thomson and Ron Stewart, respectively.

Schmidt and Kennedy were separated once but clashed again when Toronto defenceman Tim Horton came to his captain’s aid. The Star:

The powerful Bruins’ leader, with a half-swing, half-flip, threw Kennedy to the ice. Ted’s head hit the ice and he was knocked cold.

Back in Toronto next morning, this all showed up on the paper’s front page. Suffering from a broken collarbone and torn ligaments as well as a “slight” concussion, Kennedy was said to be ruled out for at least five weeks. Creighton was gone, the thinking was, for the rest of the season.

While the Leafs headed back to Toronto on the train, Kennedy rested in hospital. Kennedy, who didn’t drink, downed the brandy they gave him there (“made me woozy,” he said later) before flying home next day to Toronto for surgery in the company of the team’s own Dr. Hugh Smythe, and Mrs. Smythe, too.

“It was one of those things,” Kennedy told reporters. “I don’t remember too much about it, except that Schmidt and I tussled, were separated, and were squaring off again.” Next thing he knew, Leafs’ trainer Bill Smith was waving smelling salts in his face. “And I had a sore shoulder and a sore head.”

Milt Schmidt? Kennedy absolved him. “They tell me Milt began calling for a doctor, and made no attempt to hit me after we landed on the ice. I certainly appreciate that, because I can think of a number of others in the league who would have taken advantage of a situation like that to get in some licks. I certainly don’t bear any grudge or animosity towards Schmidt.”

The Bruins’ captain was relieved to hear it. “It was one of those things,” he told The Toronto Star. “Fellows wrestle to the ice, time after time, in hockey, with no one hurt. This time, unfortunately, Kennedy had tough luck. It could have been me just as easily. I’m sorry it had to be a great competitor like Teeder.”

Schmidt’s account of what happened went like this: “We were throwing some leather, were separated, and the next thing I knew we were at it again.”

“Kennedy had his arm around my neck, which, by the way, was sore before we started. I had to get out from the headlock, twisted, and grabbed him, and we fell to the ice with him on top. His head hit the ice and he went limp. I got an awful scare, because the whites of his eyes were showing. I lifted his head and called for a doctor.”

Doreen Kennedy was on hand to meet her husband’s plane when it landed at Malton Airport. Even with a stopover in Buffalo, the flight beat the Leaf-laden locomotive back to Toronto by half-an-hour. Kennedy sported a cast on his shoulder, and a slight bump on the head, under his fedora.

“It’s the rub of the green,” he reiterated to the reporters who were waiting. “There was nothing dirty about it. Schmidt and I were battling, and they tell me I landed heavily on the ice on my shoulder and side of my head. They also told me Milt took one look and called for aid from the Leaf bench. It could have happened to him, instead of me.”

“This is the first such injury I’ve had in hockey,” Kennedy said, “and also the first liquor I’ve had. I don’t think much of either.”

The captain was the third Leafs’ center to go down, joining Max Bentley (lower back strain or, as one report put it, “twisted spine”) and Rudy Migay (torn knee ligaments) on the sidelines. Kennedy didn’t think his absence would affect the team’s playoff hopes. “We have other players,” he said. He was right about that, but wrong about the playoffs: for the first time in seven years, the Leafs would end the regular season on the outside looking in.

Back in Boston, Milt Schmidt was giving the local Daily Globe a slightly different version of events from the one Toronto readers were seeing.

The truth? It was all Tim Horton’s fault.

“He hit me with his elbow and I went back at him,” was Schmidt’s version of how he and Kennedy had come to blows in the first place. Score settled, they’d separated. But before the peace could take hold, Horton, boisterous Leaf rookie, riled it all up again.

“The fight was all broken up,” Schmidt explained, “when that fresh little mug stuck in his two cents worth. That started it all over again. I’d have punched him in the face except that he wears contact lenses.”

waiting on gary bettman

Pre-Authorized: Ken Dryden back before he went into the book business, circa 1971.

“It is so extremely doable.”

That was Ken Dryden talking in December when I met him near his home in Toronto to discuss his book Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey. He was talking, as he was across Canada all through the fall, about the necessity of shifting the culture of hockey to eliminate hits to the head. An account of our conversation appears on the page in today’s New York Times — the online version is over here.

What’s not included in that exchange is a wider discussion of why Game Change and its careful reasoned, and eminently reasonable argument for urgent action isn’t at the fore and the front of the hockey conversation this winter. That’s not to say the book and its powerful message has been ignored: it’s been prominently amplified in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s along with plenty of other Canadian media, and Game Change finished the year well up the list of national bestsellers. Others, too — TSN’s Rick Westhead is a notable and necessary follow, for one — are working hard to track hockey’s concussion crisis. But because the NHL continues to carry on as if all that were someone else’s business, it’s entirely possible that you could follow the league, with all the colour and excitement and history it broadcasts across all its many platforms, without hearing a serious mention of any of this. As Ken Dryden says, it all comes down to one man. Over to you, Gary Bettman.

 

concussion number one

No-one was spotting for concussions when the NHL first skated into being a hundred years ago: that’s not how hockey worked in 1917. But just because nobody was keeping track back then doesn’t mean that hockey-player brains weren’t being jarred with as frightening a regularity then as now. Hockey history doesn’t have much to say about early head injuries, beyond a few, famous, frightening incidents, like the night in 1933 that Toronto’s Ace Bailey nearly lost his life. For all we’ve read about the NHL’s inaugural two games on December 19, 1917, and about the first goal scored in league history (Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers got it), have you ever seen a reference to the league’s maiden concussion? I wondered about that, and about who might have been first. As I wrote for The Toronto Star over the weekend — the article’s online here — the best evidence we have points to Harry Hyland’s head. The Wanderers’ winger scored the NHL’s first hattrick that night, and ended up with a total of five goals in Montreal’s 10-9 win over Toronto. But the puck wasn’t going his way all night, as it happened: late in the game the Montreal-born future-Hall-of-Famer would also feel its bite.

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

reggie-f-helm

Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967—that, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

•••

If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, and (almost certainly) many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

reggie-f-egg

Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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gump agonistes

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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.

Also? Gump.

That one, of course, 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 old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not all 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.

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Worsley Out: Montreal teammates Ted Harris and Bob Rousseau aid training staff in getting Gump off the ice in Chicago in April of 1968 after he hit his head on a goalpost.

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joe klukay and the dying swan

fonds 1266, Globe and Mail fondsToronto would win the Stanley Cup that year — a strange sentence to write and believe in, today. This was 1947, April. The Canadiens were the defending champions, and they started the Finals strongly enough, prevailing at home by a score of 6-0. The Leafs rallied themselves to win four of the next five games, including the one depicted here, a 2-1 victory secured at Maple Leaf Gardens by a Syl Apps goal in overtime. “The game started off on a hectic note,” Jim Vipond accounted next day in The Globe and Mail, “and Referee Bill Chadwick, who handled a competent game, had his work cut out to prevent a riot.” In the moments before the camera found its focus, Kenny Reardon, ebullient Montreal defenceman, boarded Toronto’s rookie left winger Joe Klukay, “qui s’est frappé (La Patrie reported) violemment sur la clôture.” That’s him on the stretcher — you can just spy his nose through the arms of an attendant teammate. He was knocked out, Montreal and Toronto reporters mostly agreed, and his scalp wanted stitching.

“The fans screamed for a major penalty,” Vipond wrote, “and an electric tenseness seemed to fill the big Carlton Street sports palace. The game was less than five minutes old.” Reardon went to serve a minor; Klukay was carried from the ice.

Neither man was gone long. The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll took a slightly more jaded view than some others: Klukay responded to Reardon’s hit, he wrote, with “the dying swan act and … he was back before the period was over.”

Also putting in an appearance above are Montreal’s Butch Bouchard (leaning over the patient) along with Toe Blake (observing, glove on stick), Glen Harmon (8), and Buddy O’Connor (10).

Apps’ winning goal came after 16 minutes and 36 seconds of overtime. Jim Vipond circulated through the Leafs’ dressing room afterwards, where he saw an exhausted Toronto coach, Hap Day, and a happy, Coke-drinking Conn Smythe. “It isn’t funny,” Day told, with no further explanation. “I’m proud of the whole team,” Smythe said.

Klukay was in the shower. Vipond hollered in to ask about his injury and Klukay hollered back out. “Nothing to it,” he said, “just my head.”

The Montreal room was more subdued. With the extra period, they should have missed their train home, but the 11.10 to Montreal was holding for them. The Canadiens dressed quickly and headed for Union Station.

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