they call me gump, and worse

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.”

vladislav tretiak: no such thing as a bad-tempered goaltender

A birthday today for Vladislav Tretiak, who’s 67 now. Born on this date in 1952 (it was a пятница), in Orud’yevo, north of Moscow, Tretiak nowadays presides as president of Russia’s Ice Hockey Federation, but it’s as a supremely gifted goaltender that he’s best known. Asked in 1979, when he was 27, to say something about his fellow netminders, he shared this: “There is no harder job in sport than ours. I can tell you one thing: I’ve never met a goaltender who wasn’t a good chap. An unbalanced, unreliable, bad-tempered person, whatever sporting talent he might possess, would never be able to defend goal.”

net presence

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.

minder of nets, thwarter of goals

If you follow ‪@CP0031 on Twitter, you’ve seen that he lists his location as “Top of the paint.” His bio there is plain and simple: “Minder of nets — Thwarter of goals — Swatter of pucks.” On the ice last night at Montreal’s Bell Centre, Carey Price was at his unflappable best, turning back 20 shots as the Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 3-1. It was Price’s 315 regular-season win for Montreal, and with that he passed Jacques Plante atop the team’s ledger, which includes the names of 83 men. He Plante still holds the Canadiens mark for total wins, regular-season and playoffs, with 373, with Patrick Roy behind him (with 359) and then Price (with 340). Here, Toronto illustrator Dave Murray has #31 bestriding the nation, from the mountains of his native British Columbia to the precincts of his winter home on the St. Lawrence. For more of Murray’s work, visit http://davemurrayillustration.com/

happy birthday, georges vézina

Toronto had everything, to quote from the local Star: “speed, courage, team play, aggressiveness, and ability.”

No, not the Maple Leafs as they’re currently constituted: they’re clearly snarled in a bit of a mid-season muddle. But a hundred years ago this very night, Toronto was having a very good time of it, quashing the visiting Montreal Canadiens by a score of 11-3, and in so doing (I think it’s fair to assume) souring their goaltender’s birthday. Nowadays, a netminder suffering through such a night would expect, at some point, to be spared further misery, but there was no back-up to relieve the great (and newly 32) Georges Vézina that night, and no mercy from his opponents.

Toronto’s team was the Arenas that season, the NHL’s second, and they were the defending league and Stanley Cup champions. Still, the schedule to date hadn’t been kind so far in 1918-19, and Toronto was stuck in third place, behind Ottawa, who in turn trailed Montreal. That doesn’t sound so bad, I guess, except that the NHL was, that year, a three-team operation. Just ten days earlier, in Montreal, Toronto had been the quashed and Canadiens the quashers. The score that night was 13-4.

This time out, Montreal was missing its captain and star forward, Newsy Lalonde, who stayed home to nurse an injured arm. As Toronto trainer and master of the malapropism Tim Daly assessed it, without Lalonde, Montreal was like Hamlet without the eggs.

And yet manager George Kennedy could still count on a formidable array of talent: the Montreal line-up that night included future Hall-of-Famers in Vézina, Joe Hall, and Didier Pitre alongside the veteran abilities of Bert Corbeau and Odie Cleghorn.

“They might just as well have left their skates home,” said The Toronto Daily Star’s correspondent of those Canadiens who did suit up at the Arena on Mutual Street. Though it’s unbylined, the dispatch that appeared in the next day’s Star has a wry ring to it that could be Lou Marsh’s. He was a sportswriter on the paper at the time, though I suppose it’s unlikely that he would have been writing up the same game that he was working — his other job, of course, was an NHL referee, and he was manning the rulebook that night. Whoever it was who contributed the copy, he kept it light and laughable — just like the hockey itself. Canadiens, the Star’s man wrote, appeared to have no more use for hockey “than a goldfish has for a tenderloin steak.” Throughout, the speedy Arenas made the “weary Frenchmen look like tanks floundering around in the Somme mud.”

Harry Meeking led the way for Toronto with three goals, while Alf Skinner and Jack Adams each added a pair. On the question of whether or not it was right to be running up the score, Toronto manager Charlie Querrie apparently told his players to help themselves. “Go on in and get all you can,” he’s quoted as recommending. “They’d beat you 16-1 in Montreal if they could, so pile it up.”

Canadiens Suffer A Complete Failure was the headline with which La Presse cheered its readers the following day. The Gazette’s was a drowsier Toronto Team Beat Canadiens, with a subhead that seemed almost self-diagnosing: Flying Frenchmen Played Far Below Their Form and in a Listless Manner.

Back in Toronto, if the Star was mostly merry,the rival World was all in a temper. “The Montrealers played as if they didn’t care how soon it was over,” ran the peeved narrative there. Canadiens “lost a lot of local admirers,” who were decidedly “not taken with what was offered by the Frenchies.”

“The game left a bad taste in the mouths of the fans.”

An outraged column that ran alongside the World’s aggrieved game report went further, suggesting that the game had been fixed by gamblers. “Fake hockey,” the World charged, without offering no specifics or indeed anything in the way of positive proof. Nothing came of this charge, so far as I can determine — it seems simply to have drifted away. It doesn’t sound like the newspaper expected anything different. “The World mentions these things because it is the function of a newspaper to do its best to protect the public. Even on a race track a horse showing a performance like the Canadiens last night at the Arena would be ruled off the track. But not so in the National Hockey League.”

“Eleven goals against Vézina is something to talk about,” the World’s hockey reporter wrote. The again: “The Canadiens’ defence opened like a picture album, and everybody who asked had a peek at Vézina unmolested.”

“Vézina did not appear to advantage,” decided The Globe. “The Chicoutimi wizard, however, was given little or no opportunity to save the majority of the goals tallied against him and towards the close of the game grew rather careless.”

This 1919 debacle, I have to report, was only one of Vézina’s worst NHL showings. In 1920, he would twice allow 11 goals in a game. On two further occasions, in 1921 and ’22, he would see ten pucks pass him by.

Vézina’s NHL career spanned nine seasons, from 1917 through to 1925, and during those years he played six times on his birthday. Including the 1919 trouncing, his record in those games was a discouraging 2-4.

 

blazer focus

Face Time: The WHA’s Blazers made a home in Vancouver for two seasons in the early 1970s, neither of which was particularly successful. (Pre-B.C., the franchise played a year in Philadelphia; afterwards, they transformed into the Calgary Cowboys for two final campaigns.) In 1973-74, the four goaltenders who shared the guard of the Vancouver nets included Pete Donnelly and George Gardner. In 1974-75, the man pictured here mostly took over, Don McLeod, playing a league-leading 72 games over the course of the season while allowing 233 goals (also tops among his peers). Nobody’s goals-against numbers were exactly stellar in the high-scoring WHA that year: Ron Grahame of the Houston Aeros led the pack with 3.03 average, while McLeod (3.34) finished tenth-best, just back of Edmonton’s Jacques Plante.

terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.