Tag Archives: Gump Worsley

Dave Balon Battled

The following is a tremendous story published in the National Post on May 30, 2007 regarding Dave Balon, a tough and talented player for the Canadiens from 1963 to 1967.

He’d come to the Montreal from New York in a  trade that saw him, Gump Worsley, Leon Rochefort, and Len Ronson become brand new Habs and Jacques Plante, Phil Goyette, and Don Marshall going the other way.

This story was published just a day after Dave lost his battle with multiple sclerosis. I don’t know who wrote it, but it affected me.

Instead of just providing the link, here it is in full, plus a photo I have in my scrapbook of Dave and his wife Gwen.

Balon

Dave Balon’s Silent Fight

PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – She takes a handful of tissues and shuffles to her husband’s side. Her back is crooked by osteoporosis, her body beaten by a failing spine and the stroke she suffered last summer.

She looks much older than her 68 years. Her face is deeply lined, her hair thin and stringy, and her voice little more than a bullfrog’s croak, the product of a lifetime of heavy smoking.

There is a sadness about Gwen Balon as she sits next to the hockey player she married 47 years ago. She leans in close to his cheek and tenderly wipes away the stream of saliva bubbling from the corner of his mouth.

“Are you OK, hon,” she asks, gently, the words delivered with a sweetness that show she has never stopped loving theman in front of her.

“It is so hard for me to express,” she says. “They tell you there is no such thing as a soulmate, but Dave is mine. I knew right off the bat that we would get married. “He is such a kind man.”

Dave Balon’s clear blue eyes shift toward the sound of his wife’s voice and lock on to her loving gaze. “It’s been a long time for us, eh, honey?” Gwen says. “Yeah,” he whispers.

Balon used to talk in torrents. Words would pour out of his mouth so fast, and so softly uttered, that the hockey writers who hung around the dressing rooms in New York, Montreal, Minnesota and, at the sad end of his 13-year National Hockey League career, Vancouver, would scribble madly or risk missing what Balon had to say.

“Gosh,” “holy cow” and “guldurn” were among his favourite expressions, folksy terms spoken by an earnest, friendly, hard-working forward from the farm country of northern Saskatchewan.

The words do not come easily any more. They started to come less and less about four years ago, when the multiple sclerosis that has gradually transformed Balon’s once-athletic physique into a withered coffin of flesh and bone began its assault on his voice.

Everything below his neck is intact, but gone, really, a victim of the progressive strain of an incurable disease that affects the central nervous system. It first appeared just as Balon was enjoying his most productive seasons as a pro.

Squeeze his arm and Balon feels the pressure of your fingers, though his body is unable to respond. He takes Tylenol to ease a persistent low-grade ache and muscle relaxants to prevent his deadened limbs from twitching involuntarily

What remains alive for the man inside the broken body is his own bright mind, and a wife and a daughter, Jodi, who love him, care for him and continue to stand by him, even while somany others no longer do.

They want the hockey world to know that Dave Balon’s spirit persists, and that his life still matters. He can still experience joy. He can still hear everything. He has not stopped fighting this terrible disease. He never will, not until it kills him.

The women who love him hope an earlier generation of hockey fans have not forgotten about the bow-legged Prairie boy who helped Montreal win a pair of Stanley Cups in 1965 and ’66, played in four NHL All-Star Games, and fought for his teammates wherever he went.

Marshall Johnston remembers who Dave Balon used to be. The Carolina Hurricanes’ head of professional scouting was a teammate of Balon’s with the Prince Albert Mintos, and he has been friends with the family ever since. His duties with the Hurricanes seldom take him back to Saskatchewan, but when he gets there, he will drop in on his former junior teammate. He is one of the few that still do.

Balon’s permanent address is a private room at the Herb Bassett nursing home, a full-care facility on the outskirts of Prince Albert, not more than 15 minutes drive from the front door of the family home.

Every two weeks the staff transports him back to his real home, a tidy brick bungalow on Gillmor Crescent, where he spends the day in a reclining chair just inside the front door.

It is difficult to watch him sitting there now, motionless, in the late winter sun. He has blankets around his legs, a quilt around his shoulders and a Team Canada cap perched on his head. This picture doesn’t connect to the pictures from another time, some 50 years ago, when a handsomely rugged hayseed from the farming community of Wakaw first appeared in Prince Albert to play junior hockey for the Mintos.

Johnston remembers a brawl in Flin Flon, Man., way back when, that had Balon in the middle of it. “Dave was one tough player,” he says. “And I wasn’t very tough, and I guess that’s why I respected him so much: Because he was tough, and he could play.”

He could also charm the ladies. Gwen Gillies was a raven-haired nursing student at the Holy Family Hospital. She liked going to Mintos games. The whole town did. Balon spotted her there and thought she had a pretty smile. (He had “nice legs.”) Balon asked Gwen if she wanted to grab a Coke at the ice cream parlour sometime. “You were the prettiest groupie, mom. Come on, admit it,” Jodi says. “Thanks, Jod,” says Gwen, blushing.

They married in 1960, the season Balon skated for the New York Rangers’ farm club in Trois-Rivieres, Que. He would ship packages of fancy clothes back to Saskatchewan for his new bride. She would look forward to opening each one.

Balon broke in with the Rangers in 1962-63, but he was traded away to Montreal that summer. In his first season with the great Canadiens, Balon surprised Toe Blake, the legendary coach, by exploding for a career best 24 goals and 42 points — and 80 penalty minutes.

“I always knew he was a good checker,” Blake said then. “But he’s shown he can be a real good scorer, too.”

Montreal won Stanley Cups in 1965 and ’66. Balon drew the assist on Henri Richard’s Game 6 championship clincher in ’66, in overtime, against Detroit.

Minnesota selected Balon first overall in the 1967 expansion draft, but he was back in New York by the end of the year. Unable to have children of their own, the Balons adopted Jodi, and then a son, Jeff. New York was a happy time for the young family. Many of the Rangers were Saskatchewan boys, such as Orland Kurtenbach and Jim Neilson, and the whole crew lived in Long Beach out on Long Island.

They would get together to play cards, board games, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, laugh and share stories about their crazy new life so far away from home.

Long Beach was known as a mafia suburb back then, full of goodfellas and crime bosses. One day, there was a knock on the Balon’s front door. It was a delivery man from the Fulton Fish Market, dropping off a thank you from some shady character whose son had received a stick from Balon after practice. “I was giving fresh fish to everyone on the street,” Gwen says with a laugh. “I didn’t know where to keep it.”

On the ice, Balon was enjoying his best years. He finished 10th in NHL scoring in 1969-70 with 33 goals and 70 points. He scored 36 the following season, led the league in plus-minus — Bobby Orr came third — and won the Frank Boucher Trophy, given to the most popular Ranger in a vote by the fans.

Gwen clipped every article written about her husband, kept every hockey card, and she put it all in a scrapbook now held together by electrical tape. She noted Dave’s highlights in a neat, schoolgirl script; a four-goal game against St. Louis, a hat trick against Detroit and beating Orr in the plus-minus race.

But even as Balon was doing so well, something wasn’t quite right. “His legs and arms started feeling weak for no reason,” Gwen says. He talked to the team doctors, but all they could find was a chiselled 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete.

Balon signed with Vancouver in 1971. He was expected to score goals. He got weaker and weaker instead. Canucks management figured Balon, at 33 years old, was washed up. He jumped to the World Hockey Association, lasted for three games, and then quit for good in 1973, heading home to Prince Albert.

The Balons had always been smart with Dave’s NHL money. They owned a house, a cabin in Prince Albert National Park and a paddle-wheel boat. Balon was the captain of the 40-passenger vessel. Every summer, Saskatchewanians from the south would trek north and line up for Dave Balon’s tours of Lake Waskesiu.

“Have you ever been to Waskesiu?” Balon asks. “It is so beautiful up there.”

People started gossping about his health in the late 1970s. Balon was having trouble with his balance. There were whispers he had a drinking problem. The problem was worse than that.

Dave and Gwen had never heard of MS when the doctors in Saskatoon gave them the diagnosis in 1980. They were told there was no cure, and that it would only get worse.

But Balon took on the disease like he took on his NHL career — with fight in his belly, a capacity to suffer its worst and seldom a complaint. Sure, there were tantrums every now and again, rages where the “Holy Cows” were replaced by curses better suited to a hockey dressing room than the family dinner table.

“The odd time he got cranky,” Gwen says. “But he really fought, and we just didn’t acknowledge the disease.”

That is, until they could no longer ignore it.

Balon started walking with a cane early on, and then two canes, and then a walker. He drove a big Lincoln outfitted with a hydraulic lift. He fell getting into it 12 years ago. That was it for walking.

“Honestly,” Jodi says, “he could do everything up until that one point when he fell, and then everything fell apart.”

The Balons did their best to keep it together, though, with the help of the NHL emergency fund, Dave’s player pension and the alumni associations in Montreal and Vancouver. The Canadiens paid for a custom van. The bungalow on Gillmor Crescent was outfitted with special lifts, and an electric chair to carry Balon down to the basement, his favourite haunt.

Jodi has spent the past several months transforming the cluttered space into an orderly shrine celebrating her dad’s NHL career; decorating it with old photos, framed newspaper articles, the Frank Boucher Trophy, and the pair of skates he wore with Montreal.

It is a museum Balon will never see.

The majority of Dave Balon’s neighbours at the Herb Bassett home are elderly women. Several of them suffer from Alzheimers. Orderlies wheel the patients to a common area after meals, where they sit in front of a television set. Balon sits among them. Many of the faces there harbour blank expressions. Oprah and Montel Williams — who also suffers from MS — are Balon’s favourite daytime entertainment. But he most enjoys those nights when a hockey game is on, especially one featuring Montreal or New York. The ex-Hab still refers to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the “Laughs.”

Some days the nursing home brings in guest performers: musicians, authors and clap-your-hands-and-sing-along groups. Balon likes some of the events, but mostly he looks forward to every second day, when he knows Jodi and Gwen will appear at the door for a visit.

He puckers his lips when he sees his daughter — and again when she gets up to leave — a ritual that leaves her near tears, even now, four years after a serious infection put her father in the home permanently.

“It was the worst day for us,” says Gwen. “The disease progressed so slow at first that we just adapted to it.”

The 69-year-old Balon has plenty of old friends living in the Prince Albert area. But few come to visit. They tell Gwen it is just too hard to see Dave like this. “Well, how hard do you think it is for dad?” Jodi says. Her brother Jeff, a handyman in Fernie, B.C., does not come around much either. “He misses his son,” Gwen says. Fans used to write letters, but not so much any more. Jodi wishes they still would. “Tell them: Just send money,” Balon whispers, his sense of humour clearly intact.

It has been a couple years since Kurtenbach, Balon’s teammate in New York, who now lives in Vancouver, has stopped by to see his friend. “Dave had changed so much,” Kurtenbach says. “It is a shock to see him.

“It’s terrible, especially the last time I was there, because it is a pretty one-sided conversation now. Dave is laying there, and you know he is not going to get up.”

Sometimes, in his dreams, Dave Balon does get up. He is a young again, and racing down the left wing of the old Madison Square Garden. He is free in these dreams. And they seem so real to him, but they aren’t. What is real is the woman who has spent a lifetime loving him.

The late afternoon sun is fading through the front window of the house on Gillmor Crescent. It has been a long day for the old hockey player.

Gwen leans in to her husband’s cheek.

“Are you OK, hon?” she asks. “That’s my guy.”

“I’m your guy,” Balon whispers back. “I’m OK.”

Habs, Leafs, And Beatles

On August 17th in 1966, the Beatles played an afternoon show in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens.

I was there and I’m pretty darn proud of it.

I was 15 years old and had a summer job as a highway construction slave labourer, but the boss let me go early and I went down to Toronto from Orillia with a disc jockey my sister worked with at the local radio station. She had got word to me just that morning that the DJ was going and asked if I would like to go with him.

I didn’t have a ticket, but believe it or not, they were still available when I showed up at the Gardens, and I got a $5.50 ticket in the very last row on the floor.

It was madness, of course. There were about six bands in the lineup, including the Ronettes, the Cyrkle, and Bobby Hebb, and the Beatles in the finale played for about 40 minutes with girls screaming and fainting and carrying on.

That fall, hockey season began, and the next spring, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Habs in six games to win their last Stanley Cup.

The Leafs were an old team with guys like Terry Sawchuk, Johnny Bower, Red Kelly, and Allan Stanley, but Montreal wasn’t that young either. Henri Richard was 30, John Ferguson 27, Claude Provost was 32, Dick Duff 30, Ted Harris 30, Jean-Guy Talbot was 34, Jean Beliveau was 35, and the goalies, Gump Worsley and Charlie Hodge, were 37 and 33 respectively.

Of course, Montreal also had the kiddies. Yvan Cournoyer was all of 22. Claude Larose was 23. Jacques Laperriere 24. And Serge Savard and Carol Vadnais were just 20.

John and Ringo were 26, Paul 24, and George 23.

The Habs and Beatles remain in the hearts of millions.

The Leafs continue to suck.

50 Or More; And That Curved Stick

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Up until this December 1964 Hockey Pictorial question was posed, just three players had ever scored 50 goals in a season – Maurice Richard in 1944-45, Bernie Geoffrion in 1960-61, and Bobby Hull during the 1961-62 season.

Who would finally score more than 50 in a season?

As you can see, five of the six players polled thought it would be Bobby Hull, while Jacques Laperriere figured Jean Beliveau would be the man.

The answer would come the following year, when yes indeed, it was Bobby Hull, who scored 54 in 65 games.

Hull would also bulge the twine 52 times in ’66-’67 and 58 in ”68-’69.

And how did the Golden Jet explain his talent for scoring? He mostly credited the introduction of the curved stick, which allowed him to blast howitzers at panic-stricken goaltenders. And although that’s a very credible explanation, it doesn’t do Hull complete justice. He was a beautiful skater, strong as an ox, and one of the greatest ever. The curved stick only added another huge element to Hull’s game.

Not long after Hull’s feats, the numbers would get out of hand. Phil Esposito would light the lamp 76 times in 1970-71, and during the 1980-81 campaign, eight players would score 50 or more, including Mike Bossy with 68 markers.

But it would be the 1981-82 season when goal scoring really blossomed, led by Wayne Gretzky, of course. Ten players cracked the 50-goal mark that year, with Gretzky notching an amazing 92 goals.

And back to the curved stick –

Andy Bathgate says it was he who was the first to use it, but it was Hull’s teammate Stan Mikita who is generally regarded as the inventor, although it came accidentally.

As explained in Bruce Dowbiggin’s book “The Stick,” Mikita’s stick cracked during practice, and he tried to break it and throw it away, but it wouldn’t snap completely. Mikita then jammed the stick into the door at the bench and it ended up looking like a boomerang.

While he waited for his trainer to get him another stick in the dressing room, which was several minutes away down the steps at the old Chicago Stadium, Mikita, out of anger, slapped a puck with the broken stick and the puck took off. He slapped another and it was the same thing. He was amazed, even at the new sound the puck made hitting the boards.

Back in the dressing room, Mikita started bending all his sticks, but they were breaking, until someone suggested making them wet first, which he did. He then left his new, curved sticks overnight, and the next day at practice he started shooting. The first shot was like a knuckler in baseball. It dropped and veered, and the next shot did all sorts of weird things too.

Bobby Hull was watching all this, and began bending his too.

Coach Billy Reay wasn’t impressed. He figured they wouldn’t be able to control their shots, and he was right. In Hull’s first game using this new banana blade, his first shot went right over the glass. In another game, Hull hit Ranger goalie Gump Worsley in the head, and when asked if he feared the curved blade, Worsley replied that he thought fans behind him were in more danger than him.

And about Andy Bathgate saying he was the first.

Bobby Hull said he always remembered Bathgate as having a bit of a curve to his sticks, even in the late ’50s, but it was Mikita who pioneered the whole idea of it. Bathgate has said that when Chicago was playing his Rangers one night, his trainer had lent Mikita one of Bathgate’s sticks (which is unusual to say the least), after the Hawk had run out of his own, and Mikita had liked the curved stick.

Mikita disagrees and talked to Bathgate about this, and in Dowbiggin’s book is quoted as saying, “I told Andy to his face that he’s – well, let’s say I talked to him about it. I might have borrowed some sticks, but I sure don’t remember any curve.”

And one final note: It was a Bathgate shot that smashed into Jacques Plante’s face, causing Plante to come back out wearing his mask for the first time during a game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Night At The Station

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone. On this day you’re an Irishman no matter what your roots are, and that’s a good thing. Except for the hangover you might have tomorrow morning.

I’ve talked many times about the Richard Riot that took place on March 17, 1955, and today, instead of going on about what you already know, I’d like to show a recent comment here from a fellow named Eric Buch.

Here’s what he wrote. It’s just one sentence, but it’s a beauty.

“The first game that my brother ever went to see at the Forum at the age of nine (March, 1955) featured the “Richard Riot” – tear gas, cars turned over and store windows smashed for many blocks down Ste. Catherine Street.”

I felt that was so fantastic. Imagine, the first time you go to an NHL game and you find yourself in the middle of history being made.

Eric also tells us about the time his teacher took the class down to the Westmount station one night to meet the Habs, and lo and behold, they all showed up.

Again, here’s Eric:

“Every year she would take the girls in her class to see the Ice Capades at the Montreal Forum and the boys to a Montreal Canadiens game. Her husband was a conductor for Canadian Pacific Rail and was able to find out which station the Habs would be leaving from to head to their next game. We went to Westmount station just before midnight (we were about the only ones there) and, sure enough, within minutes the entire Canadiens team came into the waiting room. It was Nirvana – seeing our hockey heroes, talking with them and getting their autographs – and a night that I will never forget.”

“By my calculation, it would have been January or February of 1965. Beliveau was the Captain and other players I recall meeting that night included Richard (“Pocket Rocket”), Backstrom, Rousseau, Laperriere, JC Tremblay, Cournoyer, Provost, Ferguson and ‘Gump’ Worsley. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.”

 

Rangers Tonight

Rangers

The Canadiens hit Broadway tonight for a meeting with the Rangers, and to keep their win streak alive, they know they’ll have to contain the big five – Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Andy Bathgate, and little Camille Henry. They also know they must be aware of the Ranger’s tight defence, with stalwarts such as Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Harry Howell, and Bill Gadsby patrolling the back end.

The Rangers sit eight in the east with 17 points, four points behind the second-place Habs, and at this point, N.Y. coach John Tortorella hasn’t announced whether he’s starting Henrik Lundqvist or Gump Worsley in goal.

A big game for the Habs, as they look to blast those Blueshirts and keep us happy.

Gadgetrometry

This may seem ridiculous to you, but when you get older, the world of electronic gadgets will try to pass you by like James Dean in his Porsche Spyder, blasting past the Beverly Hillbillies old truck with the rocking chair in the back.  Howie Morenz breezing by Hal Gill. Usain Bolt vs. Gump Worsley in the 200 metre.

You could be like me, and you don’t want that.

I’m falling behind and I’m not crazy about this. I want to keep up but it seems the world of technology is faster than my little brain can compute. I’m not like those people I see on street corners, bent over, looking into their hand-held gadget. I’ve never done that. I feel left out.

Maybe these people run the risk of having their heads and necks bent permanently downwards, and I’m not sure I want to run this risk. Why can’t I just phone and email when I get home? But that would mean I’d have to wait untill I got home. It’s a dilemma.

There is one disturbing sight I’m proud I’m not part of. I’m not one of those who reads their gadgets while talking to someone. You know he’s not listening, he’s reading. So you wait until he’s finished reading. I think it’s rude. Really rude. Others have agreed.

Today I’m going to the store to look at iPods. I have a lot of questions about this. How do you turn them on? How do you put music on them? How do you listen to music? I also like the idea of tablets, which aren’t as cumbersome as a laptop. It wasn’t that long ago that I thought laptops weren’t cumbersome. It turns out they became cumbersome when I wasn’t looking.

I’m trying to stay on top of things, but it’s tough. And if you think I’m an idiot, wait a few years. You’ll see.

 

Job Openings

I haven’t completely given up on getting the stick boy job, but I’m now starting to think that maybe I should have a plan B in place. I just want a nice, part-time job that I can continue to do when I’m older and which will help pay for the RDS channel and some food.

So it made me quite excited to see a few help wanted ads in a magazine called New Scientist that Luci brought home from work. I read these and thought, hey I can do this! This is excellent, because the stick boy thing is dragging its heels and maybe I can do both if both happen to come my way.

Here are the ads, and if you beat me to them, I’m going to be really upset.

Postdoctoral Position in Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology:

The Scripps Research Institute on the Jupiter, Fl campus is looking for a postdoctoral scientist to study molecular, cellular and behavioral aspects of neuronal signaling. Experience with electrophysiological approaches and genetic mouse models is particularly desired.

And not only that, the University of Nebraska is looking for a Postdoctoral Research Associate! This position will continue studies that have identified small molecules that block fatty acid import. Expertise in mammalian cell culture and rodent handling and a working knowledge of lipid metabolism and pharmcological analysis of small molecules and how they impact metabolism are preferred.

Damn I’d like one of these cushy jobs. Almost like a holiday with pay! I wouldn’t even be surprised to see locked-out players like Brad Marchand go for one of these. And I could be wrong but didn’t Eddie Shack and Gump Worsley do these doctoral jobs when they worked during the summers?

I’m applying right away but I probably won’t get either. They just seem so easy. Surely there must be a catch.

Player Pics

Back when the earth was flat and dinosaurs roamed about in foul moods, the Toronto Star Weekly (and other sister newspapers around the country) would once a week feature lovely full size photos of NHL stars which I would cut out and put into a second scrapbook, the first being my treasured Montreal Canadiens scrapbook. I looked forward to see who would be next in the long line of photos, and it was always interesting to check out the big-league equipment these guys wore.

Here’s five of them;

Gump Worsley, before he was a Hab, was a Ranger.

Terry Sawchuk, who many believe was the greatest goaltender of his day, (some even say the the best ever), would eventually pass away after a wrestling match with teammate Ron Stewart out on the front lawn.

Don Simmons was one goalie in particular that the Rocket seemed to have his way with, and there are several pictures of Richard bulging the twine behind a snakebitten Simmons. He owned a sporting goods store in southern Ontario for years after he’d retired from the game.

Gordie Howe. I once had breakfast with Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall, and I asked him who was the greatest of them all. He didn’t even have to think about it. He’d played against Bobby Orr, admitted the Rocket was the most dangerous from the blueline in, and had watched Wayne Gretzky closely from his farm near Edmonton, but his answer was Howe.

George Armstrong, Leafs captain and a guy I always thought was a really mediocre skater, but he made up for it with leadership and smarts. I never liked him much because he was a Leaf and sometimes he’d score against the Habs. He was also very stingy about signing autographs, which was rare for players back then.