The diminutive Hergesheimer, who passed away in September at age 87, darted around among the big defenders and caused havoc for goalies during his 351 games in the NHL
After walking out on the Rangers coaching job for a similar stint with the Bruins in 1950, Boston coach Lynn Patrick never failed to zing his former team nor its stars. One of Patrick’s favorite foes was an unobtrusive little guy who wore No. 18 for the Rangers and never caused trouble, except to enemy goaltenders. Wally Hergesheimer, who died at age 87 on Sept. 27, was that target. “Hergesheimer,” snapped Patrick after the diminutive right winger had potted a pair, “is nothing but a garbage collector.” By contrast, Wally’s manager, Frank Boucher, smelled nothing but roses, laughing off Patrick’s rip during the 1952-53 campaign with the perfect squelch: “ ‘Hergy’ was my leading scorer (26 goals) last year and will do it again. I’ll take that ‘garbage.’ ”
Sure enough, in his sophomore NHL run, Hergy topped the Blueshirts scoring list with 30 goals and was runner-up for the Lady Byng Trophy. He was overshadowed only by a couple Hall of Famers, Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard and Gordie Howe. “Hergesheimer succeeds,” wrote Elmer Ferguson Award-winner Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail, “because he digs industriously in those spots where the action is liveliest.”
That the 5-foot-8, 155-pounder even made it to the NHL is a medical miracle. Starring on his neighborhood Winnipeg teams, Wally had his eyes fixed on junior when tragedy seemed to end hopes for a professional hockey career. Working in the off-season on an industrial punch press, he caught his right hand and lost part of his middle and index fingers.
“Frankly,” he remembered, “I never really expected to make it to the NHL. But losing the fingers never bothered me.” Hergesheimer also was inspired by his older brother, Phil, already an NHLer with Chicago. In time, Wally became a junior star and eventually moved up the pro ladder, winning the American League’s rookie of the year award in 1951 with the Cleveland Barons. With that in mind, Boucher traded four players plus cash for Hergy and defenseman Hy Buller. It proved to be one of Boucher’s best deals. “Wally was clever,” Boucher marvelled. “I don’t know how he did it, but he’d zoom out of nowhere to bat the puck in the net. And the funny thing was you seldom noticed him until he scored a goal.” Playing all 70 games in his second season, Hergesheimer laughed off suggestions that eventually his small body would be crushed by the opposition Goliaths. “My size is an advantage,” he countered. “Bigger fellows get hurt more. Besides, I can always keep out of their way – most of the time.” Then, a pause, and a typical Hergy quip: “Not that I wouldn’t mind having 40 more pounds. Sometimes I feel like blasting guys because there are a few players in the league who give it to me dirty.” During Wally’s New York heyday he was centered by Paul Ronty with Neil Strain on the port side. Writing in the New York Daily News, Rangers beat man Dana Mozley asserted the line – and Wally in particular – had taken more abuse than any other trio in years. Rangers coach Bill Cook underlined the point after a game against the rugged Bruins. “Big Ed Sandford belted Hergy across the neck three times with his stick and the referee (Red Storey) never called a penalty,” Cook said. “What Wally really needs is a cop on that line.” But he never got one. A two-time NHL All-Star Game participant, the little man helped the Rangers to their first playoff berth in six years during the 1955-56 season. Throughout his career, Wally was revered by teammates and the media alike for his droll humor. Once, after he nearly came to blows with burly Boston defenseman Bob Armstrong, Wally quipped, “Armstrong was lucky because if we ever really fought, I’d have bled all over him.” By that time, Hergesheimer had earned respect throughout the league but especially in Montreal’s Forum on the night of Oct. 3, 1953, when Wally scored twice in 79 seconds for the NHL All-Stars against the defending Cup champion Canadiens. Hergy’s goals not only cemented the 3-1 victory but further enhanced the reputation of the All-Stars’ coach. That happened to be Patrick, who no longer dared mock Hergy as a “garbage collector.” Hergesheimer was 32 when his NHL days ended in 1959. He continued playing another four seasons in the AHL and Western League with the Buffalo Bisons, Calgary Stampeders and Los Angeles Blades. He and his wife Ruth then moved back to his hometown of Winnipeg, where he had a second career as an assistant manager of a liquor store.
This feature appears in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.