It was in Smiths Falls, Ontario, that Don McKenney was born on this date in 1934 — a Monday, then — which means that the former centreman is 87 today. He made his entrance to the NHL with the Boston Bruins in the 1954-55 season as a 20-year-old, finishing second that year in the voting for the Calder Trophy behind Eddie Litzenberger, who’d split his season between Montreal and the Chicago Black Hawks. McKenney scored 20 or more goals for the Bruins in six consecutive seasons, and that was the source of his nickname, Slip, which the Boston Globe clarified in 1960 referenced his ability to slide pucks past goaltenders. For goals and good graces, he won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1960. McKenney served as the team’s captain for two seasons in the early 1960s. He was the 16th captain in club history, for the record — not, as the Bruins’ faultily maintain, the tenth. His 13 NHL seasons also included stints with the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, and St. Louis Blues.
They played in the first NHL game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens in 1931, and they were there at the last, 68 years later. Red Horner had worked the blueline that opening night for the Leafs, while Mush March was a member of the visiting Chicago Black Hawks, scoring on their behalf the first goal in the history of the rink that Conn Smythe built. On Saturday, February 13, 1999, when the same two teams met for the final game at the Gardens, March and Horner, both 90, were on hand to drop a ceremonial puck. Like them, that was an original, too: March had kept the one he’d scored with in ’31, carrying it with him, back to Toronto, from his home in Illinois.
Also on hand for that final Gardens night were a further hundred or so former Maple Leafs, Gaye Stewart and Fleming Mackell, Ed Litzenberger, Frank Mahovlich, Ron Ellis, Red Kelly among them. (Pointed in their staying away: Dave Keon, still vowing then that he’d never have anything more to do with the team, ever, and Bert Olmstead, miffed that his invitation hadn’t been personalized.)
What else? The 48th Highlanders piped their pipes and drummed their drums. Anne Murray sang “The Maple Leaf(s) Forever,” and Stompin’ Tom Connors struck up with “The Hockey Song.” Michael Burgess took care of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”
Then, hockey. In 1931, Chicago beat the Leafs 2-1. They did it again in ’99, this time by a score of 6-2.
Toronto artist James Paterson later rendered his vision of the evening’s events, with some added Lordly commentaries. In the fall of 1999, the painting was on display at Toronto’s Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery as part of a Paterson show also called “Hockey All The Time.”
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.