It was time for the phantom to strike again in the dressing room of the Minnesota North Stars. Defenseman Tom Reid walked in, resplendent in a pair of white double-knit slacks. Fool. The phantom instantly produced a Magic Marker, and when Reid went out to practice all the North Stars lined up and autographed his pants.
"The phantom gets everyone," said Gump Worsley with a smile. Everyone, that is, except Gump and his goaltending sidekick, Cesare Maniago. As one of hockey's eldest statesmen, the 42-year-old Worsley has been granted immunity by the pranksters. Besides, Gump rarely is in good humor at the morning practices, and he would bluntly tell them to buzz off and don't bother him. Maniago grinned. "Since they don't trouble Gump, they don't trouble me, either," he said. "It's a fringe benefit, I guess."
The truth is that Worsley and Maniago are principally responsible for this injection of hilarity into what heretofore has been a somber team. Worsley, short and stout at 5'6½" and 180 pounds, and Maniago, tall and lean at 6'3" and 185 pounds, have been providing Minnesota's wild hockey fans with amazing goaltending. Through the first 14 games it was the best early-season exhibition of goaltending seen in the NHL in 18 years, and as a result the upstart expansionists were performing the astonishing feat of keeping pace with the Chicago Black Hawks at the top of the West Division.
But, alas, Worsley's immunity is not binding on the shooters of hockey's best team. Last Saturday night at the screaming Met in Bloomington, Minn., Worsley—playing without a mask, as usual, because "my face is my mask"—gave up five goals to the Montreal Canadiens as his counterpart, Ken Dryden, yielded only one. This upped Worsley's implausible one-goal-a-game average to a merely sensational 1.5. It was, his fans devoutly hoped, a fleeting aberration. Most likely their wishes will come true. With a vengeance Minnesota seems to have displaced St. Louis as the best of the expansion teams.
November 22, 1971
"We're playing well," Worsley admits, "but usually it's like a cakewalk back there. The forwards are always backchecking now, and the defensemen rarely get caught. I see only 26 or 27 shots a game and maybe only 10 of them are inside 30 feet. If things continue like this, I might play until I'm 52."
And what about the 32-year-old Maniago? "I see the old man kicking them out," he says, "and I get embarrassed at times. But he's right when he says the people up front are making our job easier. I remember the old days here, when I'd make 45 or 50 saves a game and we'd win or lose 5-4. We were spectacular then. Now we're like the Vikings. We beat you with great defense."
Ironically, both Worsley and Maniago were supposed to be washed-out rejects when they arrived in Minnesota. Particularly Gump. He had started the 1969-70 season with the Canadiens, but he jumped the team in December after a bumpy flight from Montreal to Chicago. "I was a nervous flier anyway," he says, "and this flight was awful. My nerves were shot, so I quit." He stayed away for two months and, in truth, he never expected to play again.
"I ended up at the shrinker," he says. "He told me to stay away." Worsley did, but one day Wren Blair, the general manager of the North Stars, called him at his home in Montreal. "I told him I didn't want to play, that I was finished," Worsley says, "but he kept asking me just to come out to Minnesota and look around."
Like most athletes, Worsley immediately discovered that Minnesota is a perfect place to play, especially if you are old and tired of the pressure of the big cities. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "Everything was so handy, and the people didn't know how to be mean to you. And I could see that there was no great mental pressure playing here. In Montreal if you lost two games in a row, there was hell to pay. You'd go to a golf course, or a bar, and the people would get on your back and call you a bum. I didn't need that anymore."
Worsley signed with the North Stars and led them into the playoffs on the last weekend of the season. Still, he was reluctant to play the following year. "The game had been good to me," he says. "I didn't want to steal from it."
Blair, however, convinced Worsley that he surely had at least another year in him. Worsley left the decision to his wife Doreen. "If she likes Minnesota, I'll come," he said. When Doreen arrived she was swamped with invitations to luncheons and dinners and tea parties. "She loved that."
So Worsley signed a one-year contract for more money than he had ever earned before. His base pay was $37,500, and there would be a bonus of 51,000 for every victory, $500 for every tie and $100 for every shutout. However, Worsley pulled a groin muscle early in that 1970-71 season and won only four games in 24 starts.
"Now I figured I was really finished," he says. "I knew Minnesota could not protect me in the draft, and I could not see myself playing for a real bad team ever again. I did my time with the old New York Rangers back in the '50s." But Worsley survived the draft, and signed the same contract, including the bonus arrangements. When he went to training camp this fall in Winnipeg he was feeling sharp. "I rarely have a drink now, and I never have breakfast," he says. "They used to call me a beer belly, remember? I never drank beer. My belly was pure rye and ginger ale. But not anymore."
Maniago, meanwhile, does not begrudge Worsley his handsome salary—including $6,000 in bonuses already this season. "Gump put in his time, and he never made big money until he came here," Cesare says. "I hope he makes all he can." When Maniago went to the North Stars in the original expansion draft in 1967, he, like Worsley, brought along a distinctive reputation. "I was, remember, the man who gave up Bernie Geoffrion's 50th goal and Bobby Hull's record 51st goal," Maniago says. "Every time I played in those years, it seemed I was giving up a record to someone. Why, one night in Detroit Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio both set records on the same goal."
The most severe rap against Maniago concerned his courage. ("Imagine questioning a goalie's courage," Worsley says.) Maniago played for the Rangers in 1966-67, and one night he was hit in the mouth by a puck and had to leave a game that New York was leading 3-1 over Boston. He had had some teeth knocked out in a game at Toronto a few days before, and the new stitches from the Boston game made things worse. "Emile Francis asked me how I felt when I came back to the bench from the doctor's room," Maniago recalls. "I told him I felt lousy. I did. That was no lie."
Francis kept Maniago on the bench, and they both watched as his replacement, Ed Giacomin, permitted two easy goals that allowed Boston to tie the game. "The next day Francis blew his top and said I was the reason the Rangers hadn't won," Maniago says. "I didn't play very much in New York after that."
Since joining the North Stars, Maniago has been consistently outstanding, even while playing with his jaw wired at one stage. Until Blair acquired Worsley, though, Maniago had to take all the important games and most of the crips, too. "It's impossible to play every game," he says. "I got tired."
With the Gump around, he doesn't have to play 'em all anymore. And if they need him, of course, Blair and Coach Jack Gordon can always dress the phantom.