By Ben Welter
Lorne (Gump) Worsley, one of the NHL’s last unmasked goaltenders, died in January 2007 at age 77. As a young goalie growing up in the early 1970s, I marveled at this pudgy-looking old man who consistently frustrated the likes of Hull, Esposito and Cournoyer and kept the outmanned North Stars in many games.
I saw only a handful of NHL games at Met Center back then, and don’t recall ever seeing Worsley play in person. My memories are based on radio and TV and newspaper accounts. Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar was one of my favorite writers. One week after surviving a Wyoming blizzard, Klobuchar witnessed one of Gump’s memorable performances on TV — and managed to eke an amusing column out of it.
He is now
FOR PEOPLE WHO GET their ice hockey over the air waves, the trick is to separate what is merely sensational from that which is truly unbelievable.
Hockey announcers tend to talk in code, particularly when they describe the agonized gymnastics of the goal keepers. I do not accuse them of insincerity or hambone theatrics. The trouble is the English language. There simply is not enough imagery in the old warwagons like “good,” “great” and “incredible.”
As a result, the hockey announcer faces the very real problem of trying to classify the level of incredibility at which the goalie is playing on this particular night.
|Long johns and a modest amount of padding were all that protected Gump Worsley from 100-mph slapshots back in 1971. Dig the groovy sideburns!|
This requires an advanced degree of restrained professionalism and subtle shading. Thus, when the announcer describes the save Tony Esposito has just made – use the workaday “flabbergasting” as an example – we know that Tony may have had to stick out a toe rather strenuously, but that he really wasn’t breathing very hard.
If, on the other hand, the announcer discloses that the stop by Tony “bordered on the impossible and maybe even a little beyond,” we realize immediately that there was character there even if the defenseman wasn’t.
The ultimate challenge in the craft, however, is to make a superman out of Gump Worsely.
It’s not that Gump Worsley of the North Stars is not a good goalie or even a great goalie. On certain nights, in fact, you might very well classify him as an incredible goalie and maybe a little beyond.
The dilemma confronting the announcer is that Gump just does not look incredible. Further, he does not act incredible. Gump is 41 years old. Admitted, this barely gets him out of puberty on the goalies’ scale of longevity. To understand how productive hockey goalies may be at a mature age, you have to imagine Bernard Baruch in pads.
Gump, though, is a soul apart. There are goalies who cast a dramatic profile to the onrushing puck, such as New York’s Ed Giacomin, and others who stand before the onslaught in an attitude of tragic torment, such as Cesare Maniago.
Gump resembles an unfrocked butcher who got mixed up in the neighborhood broomball game.
One of the things Gump does well is to enjoy the bouquet of good rye whiskey, at the appropriate times, of course. This discriminating taste, coupled with his squat dimensions and preference for loose tailoring, gives the impression the Gump may have a faint trace of credit union belly.
I have always considered this a slander on a good man with a low center of gravity. It ill fits one who is required, as a specification of his job, to be astounding and perhaps even incomprehensible on short notice.
SO NOW HERE was Gump Worsley on the screen in Boston last night, and it was a spectacle I would conservatively describe as indescribable. The Bruins took 67 shots at Gump. He should have had a last smoke.
The narrator I listened to on TV was Hal Kelly, a moderate man in these things.
It was a joy to listen to an experienced tradesman at work. Hal opened by freely admitting that after 10 minutes of furious Boston attacks Gump Worsley was the master of the situation.
By the second period Gump was making a spectacular save now and then, and I frowned because I knew the Gumper was going better than that. “There’s one,” Hal erupted suddenly, “that was truly phenomenal.”
Well, now. It was good to see the Gumper finally hit stride.
By the end of the second period Hal was flatly describing Gump as “supreme.” This did tend to take a little of the edge off it when in the third period Gump made a stop on Derek Sanderson. Having used up supreme, Hal had to retreat a little and simply observe that it was the kind of stop not only you and I couldn’t believe, but that Sanderson couldn’t believe, either.
THIS TENDED to make disbelievers of us all, but coming after supreme it seemed something of a demotion for Gump.
Anyhow, Gump is the last of the holdouts against the face mask. So it’s possible to lip-read while he is lying there on the ice spewing and puffing. Hal has just called his last stop fantastic and I looked for a heroic quote from Gump.
“Balls,” he is saying, “of fire. I find it inconceivable.”
|Playing goal without a mask was dangerous business. Here, Worsley lay unconscious after taking a puck in the nose in 1972. It’s not clear where the puck ended up. (Minneapolis Star photo by Don Black)|