Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Gump Worsley: R.I.P.

Unless you are a hockey enthusiast you will probably be mystified as to why I am mourning the death of former NHL goaltender and Hockey Hall of Fame member Lorne “Gump” Worsley this past weekend. I mourn for his death because Gump Worsley was one the few remaining vestiges of the NHL’s glorious distant past; a past that could never be replicated in today’s world. His death has now stilled a voice that once regaled writers and fans alike with memories of playing for the New York Rangers in the 1950s, the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960s before finishing his career with the Minnesota North Stars in 1974.

Yes, I mourn for his death because Worsley was the antithesis of what we expect from a famous athlete. What other goaltender would get his nickname from a comic-book character or look so ungainly in physical appearance? (Worsley, in his prime, always sported a crew cut, was a pot-bellied 5-7 and trained on rye whiskey and chain-smoked cigarettes between periods). What other goaltender could block a Bobby Hull slap-shot with his unmasked face and have the courage to defend his net against the likes of Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, or Frank Mahovlich while being deathly afraid of flying? What other goaltender could endure season after losing season with the Rangers and then be reborn as a four-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender for the Habs in 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1969?

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because what other goaltender could win the Calder Memorial Trophy (awarded to the NHL’s best rookie player) in 1953 and yet be demoted to the minors the following season simply he wanted a $500 raise in salary? (The goaltender who filled in for him while Worsley did his minor-league purgatory was Johnny Bower, a future hockey hall-of-famer himself). What other goaltender could maintain a high-standard of play despite playing on Rangers teams that (with the exception of Harry Howell) played very poor defense. It is axiomatic among hockey experts that in front of every great goaltender, is a great defensive line. Worsley was a prime example of that axiom. When he played for the Rangers his Goals-Allowed average was around three. When he was traded to Montreal his Goals-Allowed average plummeted to a low two level and he would win his two Vezina Trophies (awarded to the NHL’s best goaltender) whereas Jacques Plante the Habs goalie who was sent to New York in exchange for Worsley saw his once low Goals-Allowed average soar appreciably.

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because what other goaltender (or player for that manner) could utter one of the most (if not the most) famous hockey quotes when (as a Rangers player) he was asked by a New York sportswriter which NHL team gave him the most trouble, only to retort, “The Rangers, dummy!” Former Rangers player Vic Hadfield once wrote in his diary of the Rangers 1972-1973 season that Worsley “took a lot of abuse from the fans in those days, but he’d shrug it off and never lose his sense of humor.”

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because what other goaltender could enter the NHL in the 1950s (the Golden Age of great, innovative goaltenders who altered the face of the hockey with their unique styles) and take on night after night such net-minding luminaries like Terry Sawchuk (with his gorilla crouch), Glenn Hall (with his radical butterfly style of blocking shots), Johnny Bower (with his vaunted poke check), and Jacques Plante (first to use the face mask while fearlessly venturing out of the net to shoot the puck to his teammates—which was unheard of in those days) and not his disgrace himself despite the poor support of his teammates?

Yes, I mourn for Gump Worsley because when he was entering the back nine of his NHL career he was granted a chance in 1965 to prove to the world that he was a genuinely great goalie. In the 1965 Stanley Cup finals against the vaunted Chicago Black Hawks (which featured Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Phil Esposito, and Glenn Hall), Worsley led the Canadiens to victory in Game Seven despite having to sit out several games in the finals due to injury. When the chips came down, Montreal coach Toe Blake tapped Worsley to win it all and Worsley played the greatest game of his career, shutting out the Black Hawks, 4-0. For sixty minutes Worsley stoned the Black Hawks, playing with great style but with an economy of movement. He was never out of position and never lost focus on the puck. The closest the Black Hawks ever came to scoring came roughly five to seven minutes into the second period when Hawks defenseman Bill Hay fed an outlet pass in the Chicago zone to Eric Nesterenko, who took the puck up the ice to Worsley’s right side. When Nesterenko crossed the red-line he swerved sharply to his right (thus faking the Montreal defensemen out of position) and, after dekeing out the last Montreal defender, he finds himself one-one-one with Worsley. While all this is going on the Montreal Forum crowd is on its feet. Nesterenko reached the face-off circle to Worsley’s left. It was then that Worsley made the defensive play of his career. He left the net and slid into Nesterenko, deflecting the puck away from him with a brilliant skate save. It is my favorite moment of the entire game. When I interviewed Eric Nesterenko in Vail, Colorado I was hoping that he would remember the play (sadly, he didn’t but, rather interestingly, as I was reciting the play to him, he had a coy half-smile on his face. What the smile meant, I didn’t know. Did the smile mean Nesterenko did remember the play and didn’t want to tell me or was he impressed with the verve with which I recited the play from memory? I’ll never know).

It was my fervent desire to interview Gump Worsley this coming April during my impending trip to Montreal to interview as many players (and fans) living in the area as possible. It was my hope that Worsley (if he were still living and in semi-decent health) could have told me the story about that play and any other special moments in his career. I would have loved to have listened to his stories and reveled in his rapier-like wit and barbed commentary. I would have loved to ask him what it felt like to have a Bobby Hull slap-shot impact on his face (or body). I would have loved to ask him about the 1965 Stanley Cup finals (and the 1966 Finals). I would have loved to ask him about all of it.

But that won’t happen because he’s dead and his memories have died with him and the realm of NHL history is a lot poorer now because of that fact. Sometimes being a historian means you’re in a race against time. This is one time where time has defeated the historian.

Rest in Peace, Gump Worsley!

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