If the supreme test of a championship team is to win despite the loss of key players, the Montreal Canadiens have just passed with high marks—by hanging onto first place in the National Hockey League while operating for five weeks without their two regular goaltenders. But while Lorne (Gump) Worsley, his nerves jangling, and Rogatien Vachon, a broken bone in his hand healing slowly in a plaster cast, watched games from the press box, the Canadiens' net sometimes appeared to be as wide as the Fleuve Saint-Laurent.
Tony Esposito, the paunchy, curly-haired brother of the Boston Bruins' Phil Esposito, was the rookie suddenly shoved into the 4-by-6-foot gap normally filled by Worsley or Vachon—and Tony, well, he has this tendency to roam away from the net. Although he settled down somewhat after a few games—an expression of worry hidden by his dark protective mask—Esposito's overall performance was shaky. The Canadiens have won five games, tied four and lost only two with Esposito, but he has been tending goal the hard way, making a spectacular save one moment and letting in a soft 50-footer the next. This has done nothing whatsoever to calm the churning stomach of Claude Ruel, who in his first year as coach of the Canadiens has already lost 25 of the 230 pounds he began the season with.
Minutes after he had beaten the Philadelphia Flyers 1-0 in a game in which the expansion team had managed but a handful of shots from closer than 35 feet, Esposito held out his hand; it was trembling. "I've always been nervous before a game, but never like up here, with the Canadiens," he admitted. "The pressure, the crowd—I've never experienced anything like it before in my life."
Worsley, a short, chubby, crew-cut veteran of more than 700 NHL games, knows what Esposito means. "Everybody takes pride in what they do, but with the Canadiens you get a double dose," Worsley said. "With them there's only one place to finish—and that's first. The front office demands it and the fans expect it. Anywhere else is a disaster. When I was with New York we just set out to make the playoffs—fourth place, if necessary—just make the playoffs. Here, we finished second a couple years ago and you'd have thought the world came to an end.
January 6, 1969
"And the goaltender, he feels the pressure more than anyone. Would you believe that eight or nine guys on this club have Vezina clauses in their contracts? In other words, if Vachon and I win the Vezina Trophy [which they combined to take last year as the NHL's best goal-tending team] they get a bonus. So what happens? Late in the season we may be ahead in a game 4-1 or 5-1, but here come the defensemen and some forwards skating back to my net. They whack me on the pads and give me little pep talks. 'Hang in there, Gumper,' they say. 'Don't let any easy ones in. Don't give 'em anything.' That's some pressure, eh?"
That and the pressure applied by the Forum's demanding fans, plus a deep concern about his future, strained Worsley's nerves to the breaking point. Nearing 40, the Gumper has devoted his entire working life to defending nets from New York to Saskatoon. He has little money and a scanty education and he is worried that his only marketable skill may be that of stopping speeding hockey pucks. Ever since training camp opened in September it was evident things were on Worsley's mind. Normally good-natured and jovial, he had come to camp moody and snappish. In a game at Minnesota he caught a stick in the mouth and 15 stitches were required to close the wound. Next he began experiencing sharp pains in his back—pains for which the doctors could find no cause. "How would you feel," he said, "if your back hurt and nobody could fix it?"
Finally, following a turbulent 2-hour flight to Chicago on Nov. 26, Worsley's fear of flying—which he had managed to live with for 15 years—became overpowering. When the plane reached the gate, Worsley walked ashen-faced to Ruel and said, "Claude, I'm sorry. But that did it. I just can't take it anymore." Within an hour he was on his way back to Montreal—by train.
Vachon, a dark-eyed 23-year-old long on sideburns and promise, took over, but a week later a slap shot during a practice session fractured the fifth metacarpal bone in his right hand and he, too, was on the shelf. Vachon was expected to return this week, making Montreal a threat to break open the race in the East. If the Gumper can conquer his anxieties and come back, too, the Canadiens need ask for no additional New Year's treats.