Think of all the great homegrown goaltenders the Montreal Canadiens have had in their history. We’ll wait since it’ll take a while. There’s Georges Vezina, Bill Durnan, Jacques Plante, Gerry McNeil, Charlie Hodge, Rogie Vachon, Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Jose Theodore and Carey Price. All those guys were developed by the Canadiens, started their NHL tenures there, and if they didn’t play their entire careers in Montreal, most had their best years there.
It’s no wonder why the Canadiens so seldom had to go outside the organization to find great goaltenders. They did it with George Hainsworth. Then they did it again with Gump Worsley. Hainsworth was understandable, since he was a Toronto boy. But Worsley was right in the Canadiens’ backyard and became one of the few Montreal-born players that didn’t initially suit up for the Habs in the early 1950s. But when Worsley became available more than a decade later, after being part of a group of NHLers to start a players’ union, the Canadiens wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
They were richly rewarded for their patience, even though it took him a couple years in the minors and he was well into his 30s by then. But Worsley emerged as one of the franchise’s truly great goalies. Despite not winning an NHL playoff series until he was 35, he backstopped the Canadiens to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, a team that won five championships in that decade to earn the moniker, ‘The Forgotten Dynasty.’
That’s fitting, since Worsley rarely occupied the same rarified air as some of the other goaltenders in the ’60s, such as Terry Sawchuk, Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall and Plante. (Only Bower won as many Cups as Worsley in that decade.) Worsley didn’t exactly look the part, but once he got his career back on track with the Canadiens, all he did was win. “He was a guy who liked his fun,” said hockey historian Bob Duff. “He was like (former Boston Bruins goalie) Gerry Cheevers in that he didn’t have great numbers, but he won. The Canadiens rebuilt that team after they won the five in a row, and Worsley was a big part of that.”
There is only one Hall of Fame goalie who has lost more games than Worsley, and that’s Martin Brodeur, who just happens to have won more games than any other goalie as well. Worsley lost 348 games in his NHL career, but 270 of those losses came with the moribund New York Rangers, where Worsley started his career and played until he was 34. Once when playing in New York, a sportswriter asked Worsley which team gave him the most trouble, and without hesitation he responded, “the Rangers.” He may have well been the best goalie in the league when he was in New York.
Worsley won the Calder Trophy with the Rangers and once led the league with a .927 save percentage in New York, but his decade on Broadway was mostly dark years for both Worsley and the club. And he was no stranger to the minors. Prior to joining the Rangers in 1952-53, Worsley played for five separate teams in six different minor leagues. In fact, he was sent to the Vancouver Canucks of the Western League for the entire season after winning the Calder in 1953. As good as he was with the Rangers when he returned, he was dispatched to the AHL twice during his tenure in New York. And for most of his first two seasons after being dealt to Montreal in 1963, for a package that included Plante, Worsley toiled for the Canadiens’ AHL farm team in Quebec City.
After leading the Canadiens to Stanley Cups in 1965 and ’66, Worsley lost the net to rookie Rogie Vachon, which prompted Toronto Maple Leafs GM Punch Imlach to say that the Canadiens were relying on “Jr. B goaltending” in the 1967 final. Vachon played the first five games and with his team heavily favored but down 3-2 in the series Canadiens coach Toe Blake put Worsley in for Game 6. The Canadiens lost 3-1 and a chance to win five straight Cups for the second time in their history.
Had Worsley played the entire series, the Canadiens might have done it. It’s worth noting that Worsley carried the bulk of the goaltending load when the Canadiens recaptured the Cup in 1968, and he and Vachon split the playoff duties when they won it again the next season.
Yet it almost never happened. To say the Canadiens were disenchanted with Worsley when he first came to Montreal would be an understatement. He showed up overweight, which was taboo with Blake, who insisted his players weigh in every day. Worsley was sent to the minors and was held out as trade bait in 1964. He was almost dealt to Detroit, but Red Wings GM Jack Adams wanted to see what he had in a young rookie by the name of Roger Crozier, knowing he had a deal for Worsley in his back pocket if Crozier faltered. He didn’t, leading the league in wins and winning the Calder Trophy.
Worsley worked himself back into the Canadiens’ good graces and, as they say, the rest is history. One of the true characters of the game, Worsley was always quick with a one-liner. A notoriously bad flyer, he was once on a turbulent flight with the Canadiens when at one point the plane dipped and Jean Beliveau ended up with coffee all over himself. When the flight attendant told Beliveau that Air Canada would pay for the dry cleaning, Worsley quipped, “What about my shorts?”
On another flight, in 1968, Worsley actually left the Canadiens during a stopover in Chicago en route to Los Angeles and took the long train ride back to Montreal. He took a month off but returned to lead them to the Stanley Cup.
By the time he joined the Minnesota North Stars at 40, having retired from the Canadiens, his best years were behind him. But he went a respectable 39-37-24 with a 2.63 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage in Minnesota, helping them make the playoffs four of the five seasons he was there.
Born: May 14, 1929, Montreal, Que.
NHL Career: 1952-74
Teams: NYR, Mtl, Min
Stats: 333-348-149, 2.87 GAA, .913 SP, 43 SO
All-Star: 2 (First-1, Second-1)
Trophies: 3 (Vezina-2, Calder-1)
Stanley Cups: 4
DID YOU KNOW?
The Rangers had two Hall of Fame goalies in their organization at the same time, Worsley and Johnny Bower, but never won a playoff series with either of them. After Worsley won the Calder Trophy with the Rangers in 1953, New York purchased the 27-year-old Bower from the Cleveland Barons of the AHL. Worsley showed up out of shape at camp to prepare for 1953-54, demanded a $500 raise and was promptly sent to the Vancouver Canucks of the Western League. The tables were turned the next season when Worsley found himself back with the Rangers, with Bower being sent to Vancouver, also after showing up to training camp out of shape.