Born in Montreal on a Tuesday 90 years ago today, Gump Worsley guarded goals for the New York Rangers, Montreal’s Canadiens, and the Minnesota North Stars, collecting four Stanley Cups, a Calder Trophy, and two Vézinas during his 21-year Hall-of-Fame NHL career. He died in 2007 at the age of 77.
“The basketball-shaped goalie,” Roger Angell called him, not so charitably. It’s the case, too, that when Worsley was dissuading pucks for the not-very-good Rangers in the late 1950s, his coach accused him of “jeopardizing” the team’s playoff chances by failing to stay in shape. “You can’t play goal with a beer-barrel belly,” Phil Watson was reported to have (quote) screamed at Worsley in the winter of 1957 after the Chicago Black Hawks put three third-period goals past him to earn a 6-6 tie. “Every time I hop on this fellow,” Watson raged, “everybody accuses me of unjustly attacking him. But the same guys who go in after a game and pat him on the back are the guys who are buying him beer. Worsley is the most uncooperative player on the club during practice. He refuses to work, even though he knows he’s overweight. He should weigh 165 pounds, but he’s over 170 now.” Asked whether he planned to discipline his goaltender, Watson (UPI reported) “tugged violently at his necktie,” barking, “I’m not going to fine him I’m not going to replace him. But I’ll tell you this, brother, I’m going to ride hard the rest of the season.”
Worsley’s response? “I just stunk up the place,” he said. “It was probably my worst game of the season. But I’ve only gained two pounds recently.”
Also: “From me to Phil, here’s a quote: tell him he’s full of baloney.”
The Rangers did clamber into the post-season in ’57, clinching the fourth and final playoff berth ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rewarded with a meeting with the Montreal Canadiens, the Rangers succumbed in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. It was Maurice Richard who scored the overtime goal that sealed the series for Canadiens. New York reporters who tracked Watson down a day before that puck went in to put the Rangers out mentioned to the coach that they’d been talking to Richard. “The Rocket was real nice,” Dave Anderson of the New York Journal-American told Watson, “and said you were a pretty good fellow, and he also praised Worsley. He said of Worsley, ‘I love that little Gump.’”
Watson: “Why the hell shouldn’t he say he loves Worsley? He’s scored 150 goals against him in his career. If I scored 150 goals against a goalie, I’d love him, too.”
The best hockey team that money could buy in 1910 played their home games in the little Ottawa Valley town of Renfrew, Ontario. The lumber baron and railway magnate M. J. O’Brien was the man with the cash, and it was his son Ambrose who launched the National Hockey Association in the winter of 1909. The league that would lay the groundwork for the NHL started with four teams, but quickly grew to seven, including Les Canadiens from Montreal. By the time the NHA schedule got going in early January of 1910, the roster of the Renfrew Creamery Kings was studded with stars, including the inimitable Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, and the brothers Patrick, Frank and Lester, from the west coast. In goal, they counted on Bert Lindsay, a Hall-of-Famer in his own right whose son, Red Wings’ legend Ted, would also make a name for himself. Dubbed the Millionaires, Renfrew added Newsy Lalonde to their line-up before the season was out. He led the league in goals, but prowess around the net couldn’t, in the end, propel Renfrew to the top of the NHA standings. Montreal’s Wanderers ended up there, thereby inheriting the Stanley Cup from the Ottawa Hockey Club. In March, Wanderers accepted a challenge from Berlin, champions of the Ontario Professional Hockey League, which Montreal won by a score of 7-3. Small solace though it might have been, Renfrew did prevail, later in March, in an exhibition game played at New York’s St. Nicholas Rink. Icing the line-up seen in the illustration above, the Creamery Kings defeated a combined Wanderers/Ottawa team 9-4.
(Image: Classic Auctions)
The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.
Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.
Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.
Georges Vézina died 93 years ago, early in the morning of Saturday, March 27, 1926, at the hospital in his hometown, Chicoutimi. It was just four months since Vézina, who was 39, had tended goal for the last time for the Montreal Canadiens, departing the ice after a period in Montreal’s season-opening game in November of 1925 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, never to return.
Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Montreal for Chicoutimi in early December, he spent his last days in the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. His Canadiens teammates planned to visit, but it’s not clear that they made it before he died; Montreal manager and coach Leo Dandurand — a close friend of the goaltender’s — does seem to have made the journey.
A Montreal reporter who visited Vézina in early March found him in a bad way, pale and weak, though peaceful enough under the watch of his wife of 20 years, Marie, and in the care of Drs. Riverin and Tremblay. The paper held off running of a photograph of the stricken goaltender until after this death — more on that here — but did publish a long, heartbreaking, and quite remarkable dispatch from Chicoutimi a week before the end.
“His case is desperate,” one of the doctors confided; it didn’t seem likely that he would survive the month.
“Formerly, he was always calm in his goal,” the reporter reported. “Neither the most exciting phases of a game nor the most distressing moments could deprive him of this firm, concentrated attitude. It’s still the same.”
“Georges knows he is going to die and he is resigned.”
The piece continues at some length, not only including (as you might expect) a detailed biographical sketch of the legendary goaltender, but also (as you might not) an itemized accounting of the family’s finances. There’s this exchange, too, from the hospital:
Georges has his full knowledge and a perfect clarity of spirit. At times, his face writhes horribly. As we approached his bed, he looked up. We looked at him and he asked:
Georges gathered his strength and asked us clearly:
“Tell Leo,” he said in a low voice, “that I want to see him, absolutely. That he should come with all the players, all my comrades. I want to speak to them.”
As these few words exhausted him, we were about to retire when he signaled us to stay. His eyes lit up a little. Gathering all his strength, he asked us in a very low voice:
“Did the Canadiens win last night?”
The Canadiens had lost. But how to say this to Georges when he was there, on his bed of suffering, waiting with a tragic anxiety, and almost begging an answer in the affirmative answer?
We told a virtuous lie: “Yes, the Canadiens won!”
Georges smiled and gave a sigh of relief. His face flushed. But the gaiety soon disappeared, driven away by a fit of grief.
“What score?” he asked.
“Four to two.”
“If you knew how tired I am,” he said in a whisper.
Georges no doubt meant that the many defeats of the Canadiens weighed heavily on him.
As he was exhausted, we left him.
The game in question here did end 4-2 for Montreal — but it was the Maroons who prevailed at the Forum on the night of March 13, 1926, handing Canadiens their 12th loss in a row. Back in November, Frenchy Lacroix had replaced the irreplaceable Vézina, but he had subsequently given way in Montreal’s net to Herb Rheaume.