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Worsley: Great goalie, better person

by John McGourty
As the hockey world gathers today to honor one great Montreal Canadiens Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender, Ken Dryden, it finds itself mourning another, Lorne "Gump" Worsley.

Worsley, 77, died Friday at his home in Beloeil, Quebec, after suffering a heart attack Monday. "Gumper" was one of the great characters to play in the National Hockey League, a wisecracker, good with an anecdote who won four Stanley Cups and two Vezina Trophies in five years with the Canadiens in the late 1960s.

Dryden will have his No. 29 retired tonight at the Bell Centre, a honor he richly deserved. But Worsley will be on his mind and in the minds of everyone assembled.

Worsley went 335-352-150 with a 2.88 goals-against average and 43 shutouts in 861 regular-season games over 21 NHL seasons. Worsley was 40-26 with a 2.78 GAA and five shutouts in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Worsley also played for the New York Rangers, the last-place team for whom he won the 1952 Calder Memorial Trophy, and the Minnesota North Stars.

Those are the numbers. The lasting memory of Worsley is of a short, stocky man with quicker reflexes that one would expect, repeatedly throwing his body in front of the hardest shots and snagging apparent goals out of the air with his glove. "Gumper" was a gamer, a player who would do everything to win and one who achieved success at the highest level after a long battle to prove his worth.

Go figure, "Gumper" lost more NHL games than any other goalie, but was loved by all. He retired in 1974 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1980.

What was it about Worsley that made him so popular in his playing days and beyond? Worsley had a tremendous sense of humor and he could put defeat quickly behind him to prepare for the next game.

Maybe it was the 1961 Bobby Hull slap shot that ricocheted off Gumper's forehead and broke a seat-back in the second deck of Chicago Stadium. It hospitalized him, but he laughed if off and returned to the NHL without a mask. He didn't wear face protection until the last six games of his career in Minnesota.

"My face is my mask," he always said, and it bore the marks of 21 NHL seasons.

While playing with the perennial losing Rangers in the 1950s, Worsley was asked which NHL team scared him the most.

"The Rangers," he responded.

Insulted by Rangers coach Phil Watson for having "a beer belly," the rotund Worsley retorted, "Tell Watson I only drink rye."

Maybe it was his belief in himself that allowed him to survive the nine tough up-and-down years with the Rangers, the mid-career demotion to the minors in Montreal and the lean years in Minneapolis. More likely, it was the humor and the incredible saves. Worsley had terrific anticipation and reflexes that belied his roly-poly shape.

Worsley was one of the six Stanley-Cup winning goalies who played a decade or more in the 1950s and 1960s for the Original Six teams, along with Jacques Plante, Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall and Don Simmons. Like Sawchuk and Plante, Worsley's athletic, flopping style was radical and in contrast to the stand-up style that earlier prevailed in the NHL, a style that was retained by Bower and Simmons and later revived by Dryden.

Between Gerry McNeil and the 1953 Montreal Canadiens and Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston on the 1970 Boston Bruins, every Stanley Cup winner had one or two of those six goalies in net.

Worsley needed both his belief in himself and his sense of humor while playing for the Rangers and his first GM in Montreal, Frank Selke Jr. The great hockey writer, Red Fisher, writing in yesterday's Montreal Gazette, recalled an incident in which Worsley was hurt shortly after arriving in Montreal. Selke saw Worsley's flabby body on the training table and dispatched him to the AHL Quebec Aces. He might have rotted there had the Canadiens not fired Selke that year and replaced him with Sam Pollock, surely one of smartest men to ever head an NHL franchise.

Worsley guards the net for the Rangers in this Nov. 10, 1954 contest against the Maple Leafs.
Pollock brought Worsley back and he helped the Canadiens win Stanley Cups in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969. In his early years, Worsley played on NHL teams that carried only one goalie. By the mid-1960s, the two-goalie system was in place. Worsley shared goaltending duties in 1965 and 1966 with Charlie Hodge and with Rogie Vachon in 1968 and 1969.

Worsley had one of the finest years of any NHL goaltender in 1967-68 when he went 19-9-8 with a 1.98 goals-against average. He was even better, impenetrable really, in the Playoffs when he won 11 of 12 games and posted a 1.68 GAA.

Pollack mined the expansion teams for draft choices in exchange for aging stars and Worsley was no exception. Less than two months into the 1969-70 season, Worsley's longtime hatred of air travel got the better of him and he retired. Pollack traded his rights to Minnesota in February 1970 and Worsley returned to play eight games, winning five, and three in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He teamed with goalie Cesar Maniago to get the North Stars to the middle round of the 1971 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they lost to Dryden and the Canadiens in six games on a disputed North Stars' non-goal.

Worsley completed his NHL career with the North Stars after playing 29 games during the 1973-74 season.

It was ironic that Worsley would have his greatest success with the Canadiens. His family had been fans of the Montreal Maroons and always rooted against the Canadiens. Worsley went so far as to sign a minor-league contract with a Rangers' affiliate.

Worsley had an impressive minor-league career before breaking into the NHL. More impressive, he played center-half in soccer during the off-seasons and helped Montreal Hakaoh to the 1953 Canadian championship game.

Worsley decline was painful, for him, his family and friends, and those who knew him from hockey.

We were about 10 minutes into a nice conversation two years ago when Worsley broke it off by saying, "I really wish I could talk to you longer, but I'm very tired. I haven't been well lately."

A few days later, former Montreal Canadiens center Elmer Lach told me Worsley had been struggling with his health for a couple of years.

"Bernie Geoffrion is sick and Gumper's worse," Lach said. Geoffrion passed away last March.

Worsley's struggle is over now but the sense of loss is very strong. He gave us so much pleasure, in so many ways, that real anger arises when thinking of Worsley's painful last years.

Life is wonderful, but the end stages still need work.

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