origin story: cooney weiland and the stolen stick

In The O-Zone: After four seasons with Boston, Cooney Weiland was traded in 1932 to Ottawa’s (original) Senators in exchange for Joe Lamb and $700. He played two seasons with Ottawa before finding his way to Detroit and from there, eventually, back to Boston.

Here’s how the story goes. There was a river in Egmondville, and a winter, but no hockey. How that’s possible, in southern Ontario, in the early years of the new, 20thcentury, I don’t know, but that’s the story. So it was that young Ralph Weiland, our young hero, had only read about hockey, he’d never seen it, let alone played: hockey, to him, was all on the page. How to get from here to there? This elsewhere hockey dogged the boy’s imagination until finally it burst those bounds. So (in the story), Ralph and an unnamed friend jumped a freight train in their desperation for discovery.

If they’d travelled southeast just 20 kilometres down the line they might have run into a tyro Howie Morenz, whose childhood was underway in nearby Mitchell. Instead, the boys went north, ended up in Seaforth. If you study your Ontario map over towards Lake Huron, you’ll notice that Egmondville is actually right up alongside Seaforth, with just a few kilometres between the two — but the story says the boys took a train, so we’ll stick with the train. In Seaforth, one winter’s night, they found what they were searching for in the arena, which they snuck into with the help of a friendly ticket-taker.

I don’t know about the friend, but the hockey was all that Ralph, anyway, had hoped for. He was apparently so thoroughly puckstruck by the time the game was over that he stole a stick before legging it for home.

The friend here departs the narrative: back home, Ralph alone tries out his new pilfered prize, stickhandling a stone. That’s no good, obviously. He has the bright idea, then, of prying off the rubber heel from one of his father’s Sunday-best boots — much better. If you were expecting a Dickensian conclusion here, wherein the boy is cast out for his crime, has to make his way in the world alone thereafter, bravely facing up all its trials and troubles as stoutly as David Copperfield himself — sorry. In Ralph’s case, his father is fine when he finds out about the thieving and the vandalism, and our intrepid hero is launched on his hockey way.

That’s the way it goes, anyway, in a freewheeling Minneapolis Starfeature dating to the later 1920s, by which time Ralph had aged and prospered and was widely known as Cooney Weiland. He was stopping in Minnesota to play for the AHA Millers; in just a few more years he’d make his NHL debut. I’m not saying that the story isn’t true, but I will suggest that, categorically, it might be worth shelving it as close to the fairytales as to the annals of history.

The fact is, nevertheless, that November 5 is the day Cooney Weiland was born in Egmondville in 1904 (it was a Saturday, then). A centreman, Weiland did get back to Seaforth to play as a junior with the local Highlanders. He subsequently made a move up to Owen Sound, where he helped the Greys win the 1924 Memorial Cup.

Weiland would go on to star with the Boston Bruins, playing middleman to wingers Dutch Gainor and Dit Clapper on the Dynamite Line in the late 1920s, winning two Stanley Cups, and topping the NHL’s scoring chart in 1930. Trades took him to the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings in the ’30s before he made a return to Boston. He was named captain of the team in 1937. Later, he coached the Bruins, steering them to a 1941 championship. He ended up across the Charles River, coaching the Harvard hockey team from 1950 to 1971. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in ’71.

One of the All-Americans Weiland oversaw during his time with the Crimson was a defenceman named David Johnston, who revered him, and went on to serve as Canada’s 28th Governor-General. Johnston gave a eulogy at his old coach’s funeral when Weiland died in 1985 at the age of 80. During his time in office, the Right Honourable GG kept a reminder of his mentor in his Rideau Hall office in Ottawa: an ornately carved chair that had been awarded to Weiland for his conspicuous Harvard career.

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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 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.

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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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bung for beadle

Charles Dickens’ birthday this week, so happy 200th to Boz. If he’s not remembered as one of the great hockey novelists, hockey doesn’t mind, too much. Lots of famous novelists have overlooked the game and they continue to do it in such numbers that hockey takes it as a bit of a badge of honour. Or, at least, it’s what hockey’s used to. If all the novelists suddenly started plotting novels on the ice, hockey isn’t sure it would feel comfortable with all the attention.

Dickens had a lot on his plate, too. There’s that. Also, hockey was still just getting it together at the time that Dickens was doing his novel-writing — which is to say for most of the 19th-century. Not to say that it was unknown in Dickensian Britain: as Swedish hockey historians Patrick Houda and Dr. Carl Giden have exhaustively catalogued, hockey-like stick-and-ball games were rampant throughout the British Isles, on and off the ice, pre-, post-, and during Dickens’ lifetime. Continue reading