gump agonistes

image1-version-2

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.

gump-ko-pkstrk

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.

Continue reading

bussboys

Embed from Getty Images

Above: Behn Wilson of the Chicago Blackhawks gives his stick a
smack during a game at New York’s Madison Square Garden in
January of 1988. (Photo: Bruce Bennett)

The first of the two goals that Alexander Ovechkin scored last night in Washington’s 7-1 romp over Ottawa was a momentous one, of course, the 500th of his career. The Washington Post has a useful review of how and when he’s scored all those goals, and where Ovechkin fits into NHL goalscoring history. As for the goal itself, here’s a quick look at how it’s being worded in the hours since it went in.

The Canadian Press:

The landmark score was vintage Ovechkin. Posted up just beyond the left hashes during a power play, he fielded a feed from Jason Chimera and then whizzed a shot past the head of goalie Andrew Hammond just under the crossbar for a 5-1 lead.

Des Bieler in The Washington Post:

Ovechkin got his goal in classic fashion, sending a wrister past goalie Andrew Hammond from his favorite spot at the left circle.

Alex Prewitt in Sports Illustrated:

The milestone goal had been roofed past goaltender Andrew Hammond, a slingshot from Ovechkin’s usual office on the power play.

If you watched the game from the start, or saw the highlights, later, you may have noted the quick kiss that Ovechkin bestowed on the right-curving blade of his Bauer Supreme Totalone MX3. For luck? For thanks? Could he have scored without it? Just because we don’t know any of the answers to those questions doesn’t mean we can’t take a moment to commemorate a few other select hockey busses from years gone by. Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs well remember Don Cherry’s lips meeting Doug Gilmour’s cheek on Hockey Night in Canada circa 1993 (there was also a 2013 reprise, featuring Nazem Kadri), but the timely hockey kiss goes back further still:

Anatoli Tarasov, 1960

“Imagine me getting kissed by the Russian coach,” said Jack Riley, whose U.S. hockey teamed zoomed to the top of the Olympic hockey tournament by upsetting Canada 2-1.

Russian coach Anatoli Tarasov of the once-tied, second-place Soviets hugged and kissed Riley in the bedlam that followed the Americans’ stunning conquest of the high-powered Canadians Thursday in the Winter Games hockey tourney.

• Patrick McNulty, The Associated Press, Ellensburg Daily Record, February 26, 1960

Glenn Resch, 1975

Glenn Resch is edgy and he admits it.

“I’ll let the pressure take its course,” the friendly New York Islanders goaltender said Thursday night. “If I get sick, I get sick. My nerves are super-jumpy.”

Of course, it didn’t show Thursday night when Resch led New York to a 4-1 playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. It didn’t show, either, when Resch kissed the goalpost behind him in the first period; he was wearing his painted facemask at the time.

Shots by Pittsburgh forwards hit the post twice in the period. “I literally kissed the post,” he recalled. “It’s my best friend. I get along with it just like my wife.”

• Frank Brown, The Associated Press, Lewiston Evening Journal, April 24, 1975

Brendan Shanahan, 1987

His composure and efficiency under pressure are dazzling for an 18-year-old rookie, but Brendan Shanahan of the Devils wants to do much more before he is satisfied with himself.

Since his arrival in New Jersey as the second overall choice in the draft last summer, Shanahan’s flamboyant looks, articulate speech and expressions of affection for teammates — he kissed Claude Loiselle, who assisted on Shanahan’s first goal — have captivated fans of the Devils.

“Some people like to keep their feelings inside,” Shanahan said before practice here today. “I just like to let them out, especially when I’m excited.”

“I kissed Claudie,” Shanahan said of Loiselle, who assisted on the goal that gave the Devils a 3-2 triumph over the Rangers a week ago. “I knew I was going to kiss the guy who assisted me. I don’t know if he noticed it.”

• Alex Yannis, The New York Times, November 17, 1987

Pat LaFontaine, 1990

After the 4-4 tie between the Islanders and the Devils at Nassau Coliseum today, the Islanders’ Pat LaFontaine, following an appropriate dictum, stepped from the locker room to the corridor — and kissed his sister.

There was only one problem. His chin was still dripping blood from a fresh, six-stitch gash caused by a speeding puck. “I dripped blood over her blouse,” LaFontaine said. “Sorry about that.”

• Joe Lapointe, The New York Times, January 29, 1990

Esa Tikkanen, 1994

How embarrassing was it for Washington? Consider the altercation between Keith Jones of the Capitals and Esa Tikkanen of the Rangers, two rough, tough, gritty players. Trying to inspire his team, Jones played a mean game, bumping, hacking and slashing whenever possible, taking three minor penalties.

After one confrontation, Tikkanen got close to Jones. He got in his face, boy, did he ever. And then Tikkanen, well, he, yes, he, uh, why he kissed him. That’s what he did. He kissed him right on the nose. And there is no penalty, minor or major, for that.

“He’s trying to be a tough guy, trying to stir the pot,” Tikkanen said of Jones. “We’ve got to turn around and skate away.” Shoot, nowadays, if you want to see a good fight, you’ve got to watch the National Basketball Association playoffs or maybe a major league baseball game.

• Joe Lapointe, The New York Times, May 6, 1994