- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

In the annals of great sports nicknames, Lorne John Worsley stood right alongside Lawrence Peter Berra. The baseball catcher was known to one and all as “Yogi,” the hockey goalkeeper as “Gump.” And there were other similarities, too.

Like Berra, Worsley had a lovable public image. Short and squat at 5-foot-7 and 180 well-padded pounds, he bore no resemblance to your average pro athlete. As he once told his more physically imposing teammates, “I’ve played 20 years in [the NHL] with a beer belly — let’s see how you guys do.”

That’s another supposed link between Berra and Worsley: Both seemed to have a droll sense of humor that produced memorable one-liners. But Yogi’s often were manufactured by others, while Gump’s emitted straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Worsley, who died Jan. 27 in Beloeil, Quebec, following a heart attack at age 77, played 21 tough seasons in the NHL (1952-1972). Before achieving respectability and championships with the Montreal Canadiens, he spent more than a decade with mostly ghastly New York Rangers teams that provided ample material for jokes if not victories.

Asked once which of the Original Six NHL clubs gave him the most trouble, Gump replied unhesitatingly, “the New York Rangers.” And when he opened a restaurant in Montreal after his retirement from the ice, he dubbed its chicken salad “the Rangers Special.”

Worsley declined to wear a mask for most of his career, which naturally resulted in his facial features being rearranged by a myriad of misplaced pucks. And he left teeth scattered all over assorted rinks.

Why live so dangerously?

“My face is my mask,” he explained. “If goalies were afraid of being hurt, they wouldn’t be out there at all.”

That answer probably was a little too serious for Gump, so he added, “It wouldn’t have been fair not to give the fans a chance to see my beautiful face.”

Scars and all.

For 21 long seasons, hockey hard hitters like Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Bobby Hull took aim — intentionally or otherwise — at Gump’s noggin. He finally tried a mask for the final six games of his final season as he neared his 43rd birthday.

“I didn’t like it,” he said of the belated and brief experiment. “It was too hot, and I couldn’t see the puck beneath my legs.”

Hull, then a megastar for the Chicago Blackhawks, once slugged a shot that ricocheted off Worsley’s face and landed in the second tier of seats at old Chicago Stadium. Gump spent the night in the hospital, but it was no big deal.

Said Howe, a Hall of Famer for the Detroit Red Wings during most of his own long career: “I remember if you shot high on him, he’d get way out the net [to stop it]. Of course everything was high on Gumper.”

Worsley got his singular nickname as a child because of a perceived resemblance to the comic strip character Andy Gump. Somehow, though, it seemed a perfect fit for a guy who looked as if he belonged in the cheap seats rather than the cage.

Furman Bisher, the veteran sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, once said Worsley resembled “an overstuffed bag of laundry … a lumpy, forlorn little figure like an abandoned waif in a field of ice.”

During Worsley’s days with the Rangers, one teammate — his brother, Vic — was more charitable: “He was just like a little rubber ball with more guts than he knew what to do with. He was like a little penguin out on that ice with those short legs and squat build, but he was quick as a jackrabbit and unbelievably fearless.”

With the Rangers, in particular, Worsley had to be. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the team was a forerunner of baseball’s abysmally inept Mets. Indeed, his coaches could have borrowed Casey Stengel’s poignant lament about the baseball team: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Worsley labored — and that’s certainly the right word — for teams that finished with records like 17-37-16 and 17-35-18. Most years the Rangers were strangers to the playoffs. In his 11 seasons of wearing a red-and-blue sweater, he got into just 20 postseason games and won only five.

Twice during that dismal span, he was named the Rangers’ MVP, which would seem hockey’s equivalent of being the best bobsledder in Jamaica. But his day of deliverance came June 4, 1963, when the Rangers traded him to perennially tough Montreal. In his first season, the Canadiens finished with the league’s best record (36-21-11). In his second and third seasons, they won the Stanley Cup. Gump probably thought he had died and gone to hockey heaven. Or maybe he just pinched himself a few times.

All told, Les Habitats won four Stanley Cups while Worsley manned the nets. He won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie in 1965-66 and 1967-68 and played in four NHL All-Star Games. After retirement, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1980.

When his career ended and for decades afterward, Worsley was remembered by fans as a magnificent goalkeeper who overcame all adversity to achieve greatness. But, Gump insisted, he enjoyed even the bad old days with the Rangers.

“It was a good life for me, a great life,” he said in a 1995 interview. “I loved every minute I was there. I’d do it all over again. Not for the money. … I’d just do it all over again.”

And perhaps a former NHL player and general manager, Lou Nanne, had the most accurate description of the Gumper: “He was the most unlikely looking athlete ever — but if you wanted to win a big game, he was the guy.”

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