The face of old-time hockey

Every sport has its eras, times in the game when equipment, style of play, and players made the game a unique iteration within a larger whole. Football has its “leather-helmet era” and tennis has its pre-open era, and its wooden racket era. As a game moves on from one of these “eras” it becomes impossible in many ways to compare players across “eras.” How do you compare someone like Borg and Federer, for instance? Both men dominated their games, and given the style of play, and the equipment each used, today’s Federer would wipe the court with a wooden racketed, serve and volley Borg … its not a matter of talent, but rather a matter of what composite rackets with over-sized heads allow a player like Federer to do. Even with modern equipment, Borg didn’t grow up with the power of the new equipment … while Borg would struggle to control the power, Federrer knows nothing different, and its worth noting that in the reverse situation, where you put a wooden racket in Federer’s hand, and put him on centre court at Wimbeldon in 1980 against Borg at his prime, my money goes on Borg without question. Borg spent a lifetime learning how to get the most out of those old rackets, and the things Federer expects to be able to do with a tennis ball simply wouldn’t work with that style of racket. Everything Borg tried would still work fine. Its rather easy to see that in today’s game, Federrer would beat most any player, current or former, but at the same time, you can’t discount what men like Borg and McEnroe and Laver and others managed to do with old equipment, and you can’t really compare what they did in that era of the game with what men like Aggassi and Sampras and Federer did in later eras.

Gump Worsley in classic pose for the North Stars
Lorne “Gump” Worsley in classic pose with the Minnesota North Stars, from Legends of Hockey

Hockey has its eras as well, and there is perhaps no better visual symbol of “Old-time hockey” than the bare-faced goaltender, standing tall in net in the face of blistering shots from the world’s best hockey players. One of the last men to play that old-style of hockey, Gump Worsley, died this past Friday after a heart attack. In his final season, 1974-1975 with the Minnesota North Stars, Worsley finally donned a mask to protect his face, but for his previous 24 seasons he faced the likes of Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and other giants of the game bare-faced. And while those days had no composite sticks, and no 100 mph slapshots, the stories of the Gordie Howe shot alone are legendary … the idea of facing that with no mask is a sobering thought.

In the world of 2007, its hard to imagine a time when professional hockey players played without helmets, never mind the idea of a goalies playing with no mask. Its an era that was, largely, before my time. I do have vague memories of men like Worsley and others, and while my heroes of the day were goalies like Gerry Cheevers, Bernie Parent (who had the quirky habit of never appearing in the arena on a game day without his mask on), Ken Dryden (who, incidentally, is having his Canadian’s jersey retired tonight) and Tony Esposito, I remember watching men like Worsley playing with a sense of awe. He wasn’t the first man to wear a mask (that was, of course, Clint Benedict of the Montreal Maroons) or the first man to make it regular equipment,like Jaques Plante. He wasn’t even the last man to play professionally bare-faced … that “honour” goes to Andy Brown. But he may very well be the last great bare-faced goalie, the last of a breed of hockey player that no longer exists. “Old-time hockey” conjures up memories of tougher game in a tougher time, and there are few better visual symbols of that than a bare-faced Gump Worsley kicking out the pads to stop a shot. You can talk about great goalies from any era, like Dryden or Roy or Fuhr, but can you really make a comparison to a man who is willing to put his bare face in front of a Gordie Howe slapshot? Call it stupidity, call it bravery, call it what you like … it was a different breed of player playing an entirely different breed of hockey. RIP Mr. Worsley.


One Response

  1. Old Time radio sports shows are nostalgically fun and quite interesting especially when compared to the modern version of the games….

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