THE HAS-BEEN WHO DOESN’T KNOW ENOUGH TO STOP BEING BETTER THAN ANYBODY
Lumpy, stumpy Gump Worsley knocked around hockey oblivion long, he just about owned it. Then in a cunning shuffle, he dealed into the Montreal Canadiens’ net. And now? Just shows
IT’S NEVER BEEN EASY to take Gump Worsley seriously as an athlete. He's lumpy and stumpy and he’s got a pot on him like a tame bee. Even Toe Blake, the most successful coach in hockey, didn't realize how much goalkeeper he was getting when Gump went to the Canadiens in a seven-man trade with the Rangers in June of 1963. He was an old guy of 34 then, a worn runt. Blake's main concern was getting rid of Montreal s incumbent goaler, Jacques Plante, a celebrated hypochondriac and dressingroom malcontent. So it wasn’t even late-blooming recognition that rescued Worsley from more than a decade in the New York shooting gallery and similar purgatorial ice patches in Springfield, Providence, Saskatoon, New Haven, St. Paul, Vancouver and Quebec City.
Now Worsley, who’s 37 and some mornings feels 73, is taken very seriously indeed, especially by Blake, who’d be in his own little purgatory, or right near there, without him. Gump has backstopped the Habitants to Stanley Cup championships for the past two seasons, and last spring, for the first time in his nomadic life, he won the Vezina Trophy as the top goalkeeper in the National Hockey League. But in the summer of 1964, after Worsley had spent the first season following his trade from the Rangers on the Montreal farm club in Quebec City, the Canadiens decided to leave him unprotected during the NHI.’s annual draft meetings. He was available for $20,000 but the five other clubs waived.
So he was washed up. apparently, expendable to the champions, unwanted by the rest. He was pegged as a jolly jowly journeyman closing out a career principally noted for his heroics with the losing Rangers and for ripostes involving Phil Watson, a profane and volatile Ranger coach for live seasons in the latter half of the 1950s. In the most celebrated of these exchanges. Watson was alibiing a fivegame losing streak for the benefit of the ingenuous New York hockey writers in the Garden dressing room.
“I got a beer-belly in goal, and the rest of these blankety-blanks just aren’t in shape.” said Watson, whose voice rises an octave when he's agitated.
Worsley was philosophical when the sportswriters sought comment.
“Watson is full of baloney,” he remarked, if baloney was indeed the word. “I never drink beer, and he knows it.” He tapped an ash from a cigaret. “Only whisky,” he added.
One early fall, the Rangers played a preseason exhibition in New Haven, and because of unseasonably warm weather the ice surface grew blanketed by fog. In the dressing room after the second period, Watson found Gump unconcernedly removing his equipment. As Watson’s voice began to rise. Worsley cut in:
“I can't see, so I’m quitting for the night,” he observed airily. “I’m far too valuable a man to risk injury in a game that means nothing.” He put on his clothes and left.
In Gump’s Ranger period, it wasn’t unusual for him to be pelted by 50 shots or m.-»re when the enemy was the Habitants of Montreal or when he faced the more deliberate firepower of Bobby Hull and his pals on the Chicago Black Hawks. Worsley was once asked which team gave him the most trouble in his long nights in the cage.
“The Rangers,” he said, civilly.
And then, one bright June afternoon in 1963, it all changed. Gump was basking in the sun in the backyard of his home in Montreal, nursing a small hangover honorably acquired the night before with his boss, Muzz Patrick, then the Ranger general manager. It was the eve of the annual draft meetings in the Sheraton-M.t. Royal
Hotel and trade talk wafted on air thick with smoke and lies.
“Are you gonna trade me?” Gump grinned.
“Are you kiddin’?” snorted Patrick. “You're a fixture in New' York.”
“If you ever trade me,” needled Gump, the dreamer, “make it Montreal.”
And then shortly after noon the next day, a neighbor burst upon Gump’s reverie, informing him he’d been traded.
“He had to tell me three times,” Worsley recalls now. “Why the hell would I believe him? But it’s on the radio every 15 minutes because it’s such a big trade, eh? Me and Dave Balón and Léon Rochefort and Lennie Ronson are coming to Montreal for Plante, Phil Goyette and Donnie Marshall. Now I got to believe it.”
What he also got was oblivion. In his eighth game in the new season Worsley made a back flip for a sliding puck, pulled a hamstring muscle and was out for tw'o weeks. When he was ready to play again, his job belonged to Charlie Hodge, a slender little veteran four years younger who’d played in Plante’s shadow since 1955, usually in the hinterland. Blake, the coach, declined to dislodge the redhot Hodge, who went on to win the Vezina Trophy. Worsley was exiled to the Quebec Aces, the Hab farm in the American League, and he was still there when the next season opened in the fall of '64. Hodge, the trophy win-
ner. was still in charge of the big team, and for the umpteenth time in his hockey life, peripatetic Worsley was parted from his wife Doreen and three children, who stayed home in Montreal.
But Gump never lost his cool. Once, when he filled in for injured Hodge for a couple of games with the Canadiens, the Quebec Aces won three in a row without him. “What does this mean?” a reporter goaded Gump.
“It means Omaha,” deadpanned Worsley. naming a lower Montreal farm affiliate in the Central League.
The wear and tear began to tell on Hodge as the season wore along, and Gump was back for longer periods as Charlie rested. By the spring of '65 he was sharing the job with Hodge right through a Stanley Cup triumph, and last season, at the ripe old age of 36, he’d won the job outright, earning the Vezina Trophy, high-flying to another Stanley Cup, and completing one of the more remarkable comebacks in sports history.
Curiously, life at the top has brought small surcease from the turmoil of the Ranger cage. Indeed, Worsley says it’s harder to play in Montreal than in New York.
“For one single reason,” he says. “You’ve got to wán.”
We were sitting in a little coffee joint on Peel Street in Montreal this day late in August, and kids and young men and old guys steering kids
kept coming to the booth to get Gump's autograph. Two dark-haired girls in the next booth looked silently at him. talking quietly to each other occasionally, then returning their long impassive glances to him. He was oblivious of them, sipping coffee, chain-smoking cigarets. talking earnestly, waving his hands to emphasize points. He’s a stocky little man with a big rounded upper body, heavy jowls and a flat crewcut low on his forehead. And he has these thick arched eyebrows that give him a wide-eyed expression of eternal surprise. His square name is Lome but kids called him Gump years ago after a comic-strip character, Andy Gump, a chinless cat whom he may have resembled then but sure as hell doesn’t now; his chin is fatter than an English heavyweight’s and as blue as five-o’clock shadow. If he resembles any comic-strip character now, maybe its Pluto, Disney’s jowly, wide-eyed old hound-dog.
Gump is a Montreal native, born in May 1929 — the year that tilted the North American economy. He scratched his way on his hockey skill out of the tough, workingman’s suburb of Point St. Charles. His father. Bill, a Scot, was an ironworker who had tw'o boys and a girl and didn’t work for four years in the Depression. These days Gump makes a pilgrimage nearly every week back to Point St. Charles to visit old pals — “the ones who aren’t in jail” — in a neighborhood pool hall, guys like Alex Neale, a beer waiter in the Sportsman’s Tavern. “They like to shoot the breeze,” Gump says. “We talk hockey.” Gump made more than $30,000, including bonuses, with the Canadiens last season, but he still goes back. “He’s a helluva guy,” Alex Neale says. “Gump never forgot nobody.”
Now Gump was talking about Montreal, blowing on his coffee. “In this town,” he repeated, “you’ve got to win. eh?” He / continued on page 46
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“Blake’s a man who loves to win”
has the Quebecker’s peculiar speech habit of putting the word “eh.” with the question mark, at the end of positive statements. “With the Rangers, if we went on the road and were two and two, that was one hell of a road trip, eh? Here, unless you’re three and one on the road, or four and oh, they want to know what’s going on. ‘We lost two in a row!’ You’d think it was the end of the world. You remember last spring we lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup final to Detroit here at the Forum? I’m tellin’ you, there weren’t 10 people in this town who figured we had a chance after that. Even my own friends out where I live, this little place east of Montreal, Beloeil, they had us buried.”
But in other ways it’s magnificent to be in Montreal.
“You look forward to going to the rink, eh? You like the way the guys hang together. I mean, you don’t hear guys bitchin’ at guys in the dressing room. The big stars are all part of the team, you understand me? Like Jean Beliveau, there’s a big man, eh? When we're on the road Jean” (when Gump says it, it comes out John) “says, ‘Let's all go,’ and he means that everybody goes out some place together after a game. It’s en masse. It's not the big stars in their clique, and the lesser lights to find their own way; it’s everybody .”
It was natural to ask about Toe Blake, what he contributes, this grimvisaged, black-haired, 54-year-old coach who has rolled up seven Stanley Cup victories in his I 1 years as a thinker after 13 seasons as a digging, relentless leftwinger overshadowed by a rightwinger named Rocket Richard.
“This man loves to win, eh?” Worsley pondered, rubbing his hand across a small boy’s head after writing him an autograph. “He communicates this . . . this . . . pride in winning. Some guys can communicate, some guys can’t, eh? Toe can. He has a way, like an earnestness, of making you feel that since the idea of this game is to win, you’ve got to give it your best shot — every game. He blows his stack, sure, but if he’s got something to say to you he calls you in, and it’s private. To be a coach, you’ve got to
be a psychologist, eh? You’ve got 20 different personalities in that room. Remember Dave Creighton? Hell of a hockey player if you handled him right. But if you yell at him, he might as well take his clothes off. He’ll be scared to make a move. Toe knows his 20 guys. He’ll draw you aside and he’ll say, ‘You’re not goin’ so good. You’re goin’ down too much and when you go down you're not gettin’ up quick enough. Is there anything on your mind? Things okay at home?’ Now, me, I respond to this. I figure here’s a guy concerned about me. I dunno how he handles the others, but that’s how he handles me.
“Phil Watson knew as much hockey as any guy I ever knew. He was a great coach — for the game itself, I mean. But he didn’t handle his guys. You’d find out what he thought of you the next day in the papers. What kind of a way is that? He got on me once, and I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I was in this league when you came and I’ll be here when you’re gone.’ Worked out that way, eh?”
“That’s a funny feeling”
Worsley has survived more than Watson’s expostulations. Beyond untold strains and pulls and bruises, and uncounted scores of stitches, he’s surmounted three specific incidents that might well have finished him, two of them involving the Herculean Bobby Hull. Fourteen years ago in Vancouver with the Western Hockey League Canucks, Worsley was crashed by a bruising Calgary Stampeder defenseman named Gus Kyle, an exMountie apparently getting his man, as he stood in the goal mouth. The impact sent Worsley rolling and toppling, all legs and stick, into the boards of the rink a good 90 feet away, knocked unconscious. When he came to in a heap, there was no feeling in his body below the waist. Doctors said he would regain use of his legs eventually, but his goalkecping was ended.
“That’s a funny feeling, I got news for you, when the doc puts needles in you up to your butt and you feel nuthin’,” Gump reflects. “After three days it turned out to be only a pinched
GUMP WORSLEY continued
"A goalie has only two things going for him: the goalposts"
nerve in my spine and I went back playine. 1 wore a steel-ribbed corset all summer, wondering every now and then if maybe 1 was gonna lose my mobility.”
Seven years ago. then a Ranger. Gump crouched as Bobby Hull flashed clear of defenders and lanced toward him. Gump slid out as Hull feinted, trying to bump the puck loose from Hull’s stick, reaching flat out to jar it. Hull's skate cut through Gump’s glove, slicing his hand and severing the tendons of his right hand. He didn’t know about the tendons as he sat in the Garden infirmary and watched the doctor prepare to stitch him. When the doctor told him to straighten his hand, he couldn't. Then two severed tendons popped up through the blood. He was in hospital for 15 days. This time it was his hand they kept popping needles into, with no reaction. When he recovered he went to Springfield to get his timing back.
On March 8, 1965. people who have pondered such questions as what it would be like to be in an elevator if the cables snapped at the 46th floor got an answer to another poser to enthral sadists: what would happen to a goalkeeper struck on the head by one of Bobby Hull's awesome slapshots? This night in the Chicago Stadium was sheer ecstasy for the 20.000 Black Hawk fans who blocked the aisles and festooned the balconies. With 28 seconds to play, the Hawks were leading the humbled Habitants seven to nothing. The millennium. Through the air rich in smoke and the cackle of cowbells and the din of an insurmountable lead, Hull ripped loose with a 40footer through a maze of sweaty forms milling in front of Worsley. He never saw the puck. It hit him on the right side of the head and he slumped, unconscious. where he had stood. Suddenly. there was only silence in the vast arena. Trainers, doctors and players knelt and bent toward the inert figure. Then it stirred. Moments later, it shook itself erect. A great cheer echoed and re-echoed. Gump shook off the gentle, aiding hands. He refused to go to the bench. He played out those final 28 seconds in a constant din of acclaim. When it was over, and he was leaving the ice. he waved to the thousands. He stayed all night in a Chicago hospital, and was released the following day. He’d suffered only an ugly bruise.
Really, no one yet knows what might happen if a Hull blast catches a goalkeeper. In Worsley's case, the puck had turned in flight and the flat face of it had caught him; the conceivably lethal edge had been at 90 degrees to his head.
Like two other veterans in his craft. Johnny Bower and Glenn Hall, Worsley won’t wear a mask. He can’t play his game with one, he says. A half dozen years ago in New York, he tried a mask in practice. When a high shot came, he ducked.
"Why you ducking?” Phil Watson asked. “You have a mask.”
"1 had a mask.” growled Gump, wrenching it off and throwing it into his cage. “When did I ever duck before?”
He hasn't worn one since, even in practice.
Nor is he superstitious, or dependent upon outside forces. “Aside from his reflexes and his eyesight, a goalkeeper has only two things going for him.” Gump philosophizes. “The goalposts.” It’s conceivable, though, that the imperturbability he's shown through
his ups and downs for the last 15 years as a pro has begun to be chinked by the need to win in Montreal. Last spring, after his second straight success as a Stanley Cup goalkeeper, he began to feel ill a few weeks after the season ended.
"For 10 days 1 couldn't keep anything down." said Gump, frowning
that afternoon in Montreal, absently stirring his coffee. “1 didn't get much sleep, either, tossing and turning.” Then he brightened. "Aw. it was probably the banquet circuit after we won,” he said. “They really love a winner around this town. 1 gave my stomach a bad time most nights.”
We got up and went out into the sunshine of Peel Street, and he went swinging down the hill toward St. Catherine, rubbing his little round pot, and grinning. ★