Born in Riverton, Manitoba, in 1950 on a Sunday in April of this date, Reggie Leach is 70 today. Just why he still hasn’t been voted to hockey’s Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but the oversight does nothing to diminish what he accomplished as a goalscorer in the NHL. Best known as a Flyer, Leach was never better than he was in the spring of 1976, which is when he scored five goals in a decisive Conference-Final game against the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals on his way to notching 19 goals in 16 playoff games. Though Philadelphia fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals, Leach was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, as playoff MVP, the only non-goaltender in NHL history to win the award as a member of the losing team.
With an assist from Randi Druzin, Reggie Leach published a memoir in 2015, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life. I had a chance to talk to him at the time, on assignment for Slapshot Diaries. I asked him about goaltenders; here’s what he told me:
Q: You scored a lot of goals in the NHL. Was there one goaltender who gave you particular problems?
A: You mean one goaltender I couldn’t score on? Gerry Cheevers. I did score some goals on him, but he was one of the hardest goaltenders for me to score on. I couldn’t figure him out.
When I played, I used to watch the warm-ups all the time and practice shooting from different spots. Where I was dangerous was top of the circle, and out farther. I wasn’t that great inside, I don’t think. Kenny Dryden: the easiest goaltender, for me. Yep. Because Kenny was scared of my shot. And I beat him high all the time, always over the shoulder.
Gerry Cheevers, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Boston, I remember going to practice as a rookie and as a rookie you just go all-out, you just shoot it, and I go in there and I put one past Cheevers and I thought, Yeah, I beat him. But Gerry, if you hit him with a puck, he’d chase you down the ice. I hit him one time in his chest, he chased me with his stick, and the guys were all laughing, they didn’t tell me that. Gerry Cheevers would stand, no lie, all he did was stand in net, stand there, wave his stick. Right? And that was his practice. And if you hit him, he’d chase you down the ice.
But goaltenders are really strange. Our thing with Bernie Parent, we’d say, Bernie, you weren’t that goddamn good, you only had 18 shots a game. He was funny. One time in Vancouver he comes in — he always smoked the cigar, right — he’d come in with the cigar and say, Boys, I feel good, give me one goal today, that’s it. And guys would be smiling, great, yeah, we only have to get the one goal. And 99 per cent of the time, that’s all we needed, the one goal. That’s the way he was. And Bernie actually stayed out to practice his angle-shots all the time. I would shoot the puck at him and I’d tell him, Bernie, just move over a bit more, and he’d say, Just shoot the puck, I’ll do the moving. He would have everything all angled out, left-handed shots versus right-handed, he would work on that, the only goaltender I ever saw who worked on something after a practice was Bernie. All the other ones I played with never did.
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 Montreal Canadiens took to the ice at Verdun in January of 1924 for practice: here they are There’s not a whole lot more I can tell you about this photograph with any certainty. That’s Georges Vézina away down in the far net. And the near? Hard to say. Canadiens’ manager Leo Dandurand did sign a new goaltender that year, but not until October: Eugene Decosse, 25, was seen as an understudy and heir to Vézina, who was 37. (As it turned out, Decosse never played an NHL game.) So maybe is it right winger Billy Cameron? He wore number 11 that year, and it’s possible that he donned the pads in Verdun. I’m betting that the tall figure in front of him is captain Sprague Cleghorn. Based on the distinctive hairline, I’d guess that Billy Coutu is the man to his left. Otherwise — I don’t know. Sylvio Mantha is out there, and probably Sprague’s brother Odie, which is a pleasing phrase to say aloud, so here it is again: Sprague’s brother Odie. Could be a coated Dandurand, who also coached the team, off in the far corner, maybe? Is that a capped Aurèle Joliat skating up from the back — or is he bareheaded out on the extreme left? And next to that guy — possibly Howie Morenz, in his first season with Montreal, carrying the puck? The great Joe Malone played his last NHL hockey that year with Montreal, so he could be out there, too.
The record does show that Canadiens had a tough go of it in January of ’24. They would, just a few months later, win the NHL title, which they followed up by beating the WCHL’s Calgary Tigers to take the Stanley Cup.
But to start the year they went 3-7. Billy Coutu broke his wrist that month, and in a game against the Ottawa Senators at the Forum, Montreal’s Gazette noted that Vézina “looked a little off-colour, and caused a little apprehension among Canadiens supporters.” In Hamilton, during a 4-0 loss to the local Tigers, Canadiens’ winger Billy Boucher struck a spectator with his stick. “It might have been an accident,” the Gazettegenerously offers; “fans ran at him from all corners of the rink, but Cleghorn and a few more Montreal players barred the way to the dressing room until Boucher was safe behind locked doors.” They lost a subsequent game in Ottawa by a score of 2-1, despite a valiant showing by Morenz. This I’ve learned, too: “The Habitants plays seemed to made with deliberation and method and they wasted no valuable stamina in headlong rushes.”
Montreal was getting in gear by January 30, also a Wednesday in 1924, when they beat Hamilton 5-2 at the Forum on soft ice. Boucher and Morenz each scored a pair of goals, Joliat one of his own. The crowd was small, about 4,000, and the referee was Mike Rodden. The jeers he got towards the end of the game were “good-natured,” the Gazettesays: “he called back the play three times for offsides and on each occasion the puck had been sent past [Hamilton goaltender Jakie] Forbes.”
(Image: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-049739)
In January of 1957, Boston goaltender Terry Sawchuk announced he was quitting the NHL, for a bit, or maybe for always. He ending up coming back, of course, but at the time that was very much in doubt. “My nerves are shot,” he said, “and I’m just edgy and nervous all the time.”
So that’s what Gump Worsley was talking about, in April, when the New York Rangers’ goaltender was coverboy (along with his eldest son, Lorne Jr.) for Hockey Blueline. Inside, as told to Dave Anderson, he got right down to business: people thought it was funny, now, to wonder about his nerves.
“When are you going to crack up?” they say. First of all, it’s not funny because Sawchuk is a sick guy. Second of all, I’ll never crack up.
I don’t believe all this talk about “nerves” because a goalkeeper is under fire all the time. If that’s the case, I should be the first one to crack. They shoot more at me than any goalkeeper in the National Hockey League.
If the number of shots at a goalkeeper is so important, then why hasn’t Al Rollins cracked up? Or Harry Lumley? They’ve been around longer than me and had a lot of shots taken at them. But they’re all right. Maybe they’re like me. They don’t worry about something they can’t do anything about … a goal.
Worsley, 29, had been in the NHL for three-and-a-half seasons at this point. That was the key to keeping cool as a netminder, he found — failing to worry. “My wife, Doreen,” he confided, “tells me nothing bothers me.” He made a study of this, and always had. Never looked up his goals-against average, paid no attention to rumours that he was destined for the minors.
Some goaltenders worked themselves into such a state that they couldn’t sleep, or eat. Not Gump:
My wife will tell you how I eat before a game. And how I sleep two-and-a-half, three hours. I usually eat a real big meal — two filet mignons, baked potato, green vegetable, salad, toast and tea. And then I take my nap. Sometimes she has trouble waking me.
After a game — win, lose or tie — I come home and eat another big meal. Not a sandwich, a meal.
That’s what worked for him. But while he may have maintained the same appetite at a steady level as his hockey career went on, his worrying evolved. Ten years later, playing for Montreal now, he may have had occasion to recall that old vow. As detailed in They Call Me Gump, his 1975 Tim Moriarty-assisted autobiography, things had changed. “I finally wound up with the goaltender’s occupational disease during the 1968-69 season with the Canadiens,” he’d write. “I suffered a nervous breakdown.”
At the age of 39, he was playing well in the Montreal net, but he was suffering emotionally. He didn’t like flying. That was a big part of it. Also, the Canadiens had changed coaches: Toe Blake was out, replaced by Claude Ruel. The new boss thought Worsley didn’t practice properly, just went through the motions. Blake had tolerated Worsley’s reluctance to extend himself on the understanding that he’d stay in shape and be ready when the games came around. Ruel was different: he liked to “blow his damn whistle and bark orders. … This got under my skin, and by the time the season was a month old we weren’t speaking.”
Fans, too, were taunting the Gump. That was something else. On November 26, 1968, the Canadiens were en route to Los Angeles by way of Chicago. The first leg of the flight was turbulent, and that was enough for Worsley, which is to say too much. At O’Hare Airport, he left the plane, telling Jean Béliveau that he was retiring. He took a train back to Montreal.
As Worsley recounts it, the breakdown wasn’t severe: “I got over it quickly.” Montreal GM Sam Pollock arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, and he did, and they talked about “everything.” Late in December he started skating on his own at the Forum. By January, he was back in the Canadiens goal.
The Globe and Mail reported that he’d conquered his fear of flying. The pudgy goalie, they called him. “There were a lot of things,” he said. “My nerves were gone. “I had a lot of problems, personal things.”
“I didn’t say anything to the guys. I kept it all inside. I guess you could say I was carrying a lot of worries on my shoulder. Perhaps unnecessarily, but that’s the way it was.”