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.”

harry howell, 1932—2019

Harry Howell’s adjectives as a Hall-of-Fame NHL defenceman included smart and steady, efficient, and unostentatious, but it’s Roger Angell’s description of his late-career blueline style in 1967 that I hold dear: “Howell,” he wrote in The New Yorker, “has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic.”

Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1932, Howell died on Saturday at the age of 86. Appreciations of his life and times that you might want to attend: Scott Radley’s for The Hamilton Spectator and, at NHL.com, this one by Dave Stubbs.

Howell was 20 when he joined the New York Rangers in 1952. Three years later, he was appointed captain of the team, though he relinquished the role after two seasons, handing the C to Red Sullivan. “Handsome Harry voluntarily gave up the post,” The New York Daily News reported at the time, “agreeing that the weight of the job had affected his play.” It couldn’t have helped that the fans in New York had started to boo him and his relentless (if not exactly electrifying) competence.

“It was quite a relief,” Howell said, years later. “I added about ten pounds to my playing weight and I turned my game around right away.”

The fans forgave, or forgot, or learned to appreciate Howell’s game. In all, he skated in 17 seasons for the Rangers, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in games played, with 1,194. He ended his NHL years on the west coast, serving with stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, and California Golden Seals. He played three years in the WHA, for the New York Golden Blades/Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, and the Calgary Cowboys.

He was 35 in 1967 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman, edging out Chicago’s Pierre Pilote and Boston’s 19-year-old rookie Bobby Orr. “I’m glad I won it this year,” Howell said when he took the trophy in hand, “because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade.” He was close: Orr would win the Norris in each of the next eight years. They would enter the Hall of Fame, as it happened, together, in 1979.

In January of 1968, the Rangers celebrated Howell’s stout service ahead of his 1,002nd NHL game. New York was playing Boston that night at Madison Square Garden, and would beat them by a score of 2-1. Ahead of the hockey, Howell, along with his wife Marilyn, and the couple’s two children (11-year-old Cheryl and seven-year-old Daniel), stood at centre ice to receive a shower of gifts. Other NHL teams had organized nights  like this, for it was a first for the Rangers. I promise you I’m not inventing any of this. As reported in the press that week, the inventory included:

A set of Ben Hogan woods and irons
A golf-club membership (“paid-up”)

A three-piece set of luggage

A cartoon of Howell (“laminated”)

Kent cigarettes (“cartons of”)
Cigars (“from 21 Club”)

Binoculars
A pool cue

A razor and a year’s supply of blades
Revlon cosmetics

A set of encyclopedias (32 volumes)

A hat
A dozen Gant shirts
Golf shirts
Two pairs of custom-made golf slacks
A ski outfit
A bespoke mohair suit
Thread (50 spools)

Roses for Mrs. Howell before every Rangers’ game played on a Wednesday night
Ten beauty-parlor appointments for Mrs. Howell

A vacation at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, near Liberty, New York
Dinner at a Hamilton, Ontario hotel
A month’s stay at Glen Oaks Village, in Queens, New York
A night at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub, New York
A two-week vacation in Palm Beach, Florida
Swimming-pool privileges at Loew’s Midtown Hotel, New York
Dinner at Toots Shor’s restaurant, New York

A pair of children’s bicycles

A gas barbecue
An electric frying pan
An electric blender
A dishwasher (also “electric”)
An portable stereo (RCA)
25 record albums
A radio
A portable TV
An 8mm movie camera and lighting equipment
An 8mm projector and screen
A colour film of the evening’s proceedings
A hairdryer (“women’s”)

A Christmas tree (“seven-foot artificial”)

A year’s supply of cheese (“from Finland”) and hams (“Polish”)

A week’s rental from Avis Rent-A-Car
Four tires
Gasoline vouchers

The final gift, driven out on the ice by two of Howell’s former teammates, Red Sullivan and Lou Fontinato, was a 1967 Mercury Cougar.

(Top image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

enemy bombers arriving in howell’s territory are rarely shot down

Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.

Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).

In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?

It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:

Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.