Jean-Guy Talbot should have known better.
He was living and working in the fashion mecca of North America. His office at Madison Square Garden was a few blocks from New York’s garment district, just one mile down 7th Avenue from the fashion gurus at Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and he had in his dressing room some of the game’s coolest players of all-time: Ron Duguay, Phil Esposito, Dave Maloney. Those three, along with Anders Hedberg, even did television commercials for fashionable Sasson jeans.
Meanwhile, Talbot was creating the fashion violation of the century, at least in the hockey world. Take a glimpse at this photo of Talbot coaching the New York Rangers in 1977-78. Just look at him wearing a turtleneck sweater underneath a gaudy polyester tracksuit. You should know this photo wasn’t taken during a practice or training camp session. (That’s Maloney on the bench in the background.) It was taken during an actual game, one of 30 or 40 that season in which Talbot wore that hideous tracksuit. While the dapper likes of Don Cherry in Boston, Bob Pulford in Chicago, Scotty Bowman in Montreal and Al Arbour on Long Island dressed in tailor-made suits and custom-fitted Dack’s, Talbot looked like he was heading out to mow the lawn on a brisk autumn morning.
Getting dressed wasn’t always a white-flag event for Talbot. The 1977-78 season was an aberration. The Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Que., native had a sterling 16-year career in which he won the Stanley Cup seven times, including in his first five years in the NHL, and lost in the final four other times. He wore a suit and tie before and after games, like his teammates Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau in the early days and Gilbert Perreault and Garry Unger in his twilight seasons. Talbot was a sturdy, stay-at-home defenseman who, from a few feet away in his final career playoff game, watched hockey’s most enduring image: Bobby Orr getting launched into the air off the stick of St. Louis’ Noel Picard, Talbot’s defense partner with the Blues, after scoring the Cup-winning goal in overtime for the Bruins in 1970.
Talbot retired from playing in 1971 and moved straight into coaching with the Western League’s Denver Spurs later that year. Like other bench bosses, he donned a suit and tie and made his way up the ranks to the NHL. He coached St. Louis in 1972-73 and 1973-74, but he wasn’t crazy about the experience, so he returned to Denver in the minor leagues and World Hockey Association. When his former Canadiens teammate and Rangers GM John Ferguson called in the summer of 1977 asking him to coach in the Big Apple, Talbot accepted.
In the 1970s, tracksuits grew in popularity as athletes, especially Olympians seen on television, wore them before and after competitions. “Aerobics” became a buzzword. The surge in synthetic fibers also took off that decade and Talbot got caught in a perfect storm of sweat, sweatpants and practical decision-making.
You see, Talbot was prone to perspiration. As a player, it was no big deal. But as a coach in a jam-packed arena with television lights and pressure and reporters and nerves and post-game conferences and questions… well, it made him sweat. Profusely.
“It gets hot in Madison Square Garden,” Ferguson told esteemed hockey journalist Stan Fischler in 1988. “You sweat a lot. If you’re wearing a suit or sports jacket, it gets damp from the sweat. There are also puddles of water from the melting ice and that can ruin a suit.”
It got to the point partway through 1977-78 where Talbot would take off his suit jacket after a game in the steamy quarters outside the dressing room and the sweat stains under his arms made it look like he had burned more calories than his players.
“I was embarrassed,” said Talbot, now 81 and living in Trois-Rivieres, Que. “I asked John (Ferguson), ‘Will you let me wear a tracksuit during games? They’re looser and more comfortable. After a game, I take a shower and it feels good to put on a clean, dry suit instead of one that’s damp from the sweat.’
“I think John felt bad for me so he didn’t argue with it. He let me do it for the last half of the season.”
An NHL coach wearing a tracksuit wasn’t that huge of a deal in the loosey-goosey 1970s, a decade infused with disco lights and manmade Ultrasuede leisure suits. It was more of a footnote. With the passage of time, however, the “Aw, really?” factor gets ramped up.
It wasn’t a good season for the Rangers. They struggled from the outset, Ferguson denied rumors in February that the team was considering a coaching change and later a first-round playoff loss sealed Talbot’s fate. His coaching career was over. The tracksuit behind the bench died right then and there.
“I don’t think you’ll see anyone try that again,” Talbot said.
That we can be sure of.
This is an excerpt from THN’s book, Biggest of Everything in Hockey.