By his own admission, writer George Plimpton wasn't much of a skater when he attended Boston Bruins training camp in 1977. But that may have been the least of his worries.
The amateur goaltender and father of "participatory journalism" also was almost 50 years old when he attended Bruins camp on assignment for Sports Illustrated. By then, the legendary writer had made a career of being out of his athletic element. Thanks to "Open Net," his classic book documenting the experience, his mark on the sport endures 35 years later.
Plimpton's first foray into pro sports was chronicled in "Out of My League," which details his attempt in 1958 to pitch against a team of National League all-stars that included Willie Mays. But Plimpton is best known for "Paper Lion," in which he documents his experience playing quarterback for the 1963 Detroit Lions.
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By the time Plimpton attended Bruins training camp in Fitchburg, Mass., he had written about his experiences boxing against Archie Moore, suiting up for the Boston Celtics, and travelling with the PGA Tour. But blending into a Bruins team that had recently dealt star players Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito would require a new set of skills. Fortunately for him, Plimpton had no trouble getting along.
"He was just an unbelievable person. He and I became very close friends," Hall of Fame goaltender Gerry Cheevers said. "Maybe a year later, my wife and I went to New York to be present while he played in the New York Philharmonic. He played the triangle. It was about an hour [long] and I think he hit the triangle twice."
With a notepad tucked in his pads, Plimpton ultimately narrated what might be one of the most vivid portrayals of life as an NHL goaltender. Thanks in part to guidance from Cheevers and fellow goaltender Jim "Seaweed" Pettie, Plimpton gave a unique perspective on a unique sport.
"All I really did was just brainwash him that you can't fall down. He was a tall guy and gangly," said Cheevers, who tried to channel his inner Plimpton when he wrote his book, "Unmasked," last year. "I said 'George, if you fall down, you're going to stay down.' He did a great job."
When Plimpton got the call between the pipes for an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the writer found himself in the thick of a matchup between two of the NHL's toughest teams. By the time the Flyers heard about the opposing goaltender, they agreed that Plimpton should survive his five-minute appearance in the crease.
"We were told not to run him and go crazy and shoot hard pucks at him," Flyers wing Reggie Leach said. "Give him a feel of it and that was about it."
Plimpton did let one long shot sneak behind him, but the true moment of reckoning came when Leach was awarded a penalty shot. After hearing Cheevers' pleas not to embarrass Plimpton, Leach simply shot the puck softly at the Bruins keeper.
"I don't want to embarrass Reggie," Cheevers said. "But let's put it this way, it wasn't sudden death of the Stanley Cup [Final]."
Plimpton's retelling of his experience would help cement his legacy, but perhaps the most interesting moment in that exhibition game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia occurred after he left the crease. While Plimpton conducted interviews away from the ice, the teams engaged in a bench-clearing scrap that extended to the hallways adjoining their locker rooms. Plimpton missed the melee, which would have made an interesting addition to a fascinating piece of literature.