Montreal's Rene Bourque celebrates his second-period goal against the New York Rangers in Game 1 on Saturday. (Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto / Getty Images)
The train chugged into the art-deco Gare Centrale — Central Station — in downtown Montreal with its precious cargo contained in one special Canadian National passenger car. A gaggle of journalists — a bunch from Canadian papers with a single Yank — waited on the platform with high expectations.
One by one, the Montreal Canadiens stepped from the railway carriage. Toe Blake, the coach. The dignified Jean Beliveau, the team captain. Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard, J.C. Tremblay, Gilles Tremblay, John Ferguson. We were anxious and kept waiting in suspense.
Waiting for the stricken goalkeeper, Lorne “Gump” Worsley.
The Canadiens had lost the night before to the Black Hawks (two words in this Original Six era) and the Stanley Cup Finals were tied at three victories apiece. Game 7 for the Cup would be played the next night, Saturday, in the Montreal Forum.
It still was that period in time, 1965, when the teams took the train. The journalists, in a mighty rush, journeyed between cities in airplanes.
And this was a series that was bitter and hotly contested. The Black Hawks had the wondrous Bobby Hull and the skilled Stan Mikita — and the illustrious Glenn Hall playing goal.
Worsley had been incapacitated since Game 3 game of the series, with a serious leg injury. The Canadiens had lost two of the next three games with Charlie Hodge, Worsley’s backup, in goal.
None of the Montreal players spoke and we kept waiting on the platform. At last, Worsley was assisted down the steps onto the platform. You could see him limp as he passed us. He shook his head. He doubted if he could play in Game 7.
The Canadiens boarded a bus to drive away to a secluded hotel outside the city hidden in the Laurentian Mountains.
It still was that period in time — again — that teams in the playoffs kept their players sequestered in hideaways. Away from the fans, inaccessible to the media.
The Saturday speculation was that Hodge would have to play for the Canadiens that night.
Without Worsley, it seemed the Canadiens would be doomed.
At that time, I knew that Gordie Howe was the greatest hockey player of all time. I knew that Ted Lindsay, in addition to being an awesome hockey player, was an awesome fist fighter. I knew that hockey players were the toughest breed of athletes.
But I would discover how tough.
Saturday night in The Forum, the Canadiens skated onto the ice for Game 7 and skating first in their queue was Gump Worsley. There was no limp. He had freedom of movement. He could slide from side to side in the goalmouth. He could flop. He was spry and quick.
It was early in the game when a puck hit Beliveau’s boot and ricocheted into the Chicago goal. Soon, the Canadiens were ahead, 3-0. They won the Cup that night 49 years ago, 4-0. Hull, Mikita were stifled by the strangely recovered Gump Worsley.
And being wonderful hosts, the Canadiens’ invited the journalists to championship party in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
An amazing recovery
Champagne flowed. The Canadiens put on a feast.
And over away from the main body of celebrants stood Lorne “Gump” Worsley with a glass in his hand.
Gump Worsley never would be recognized as a premier athlete by the great unwashed. He was 5-foot-7. He had a flattop crewcut. He had a pouch.
But he was a master showman.
“Gump,” we asked, “is that champagne in your glass?”
“No,” he said. “It’s good old-fashioned Canadian whiskey.”
“How come your leg healed so fast?”
This question sent Worsley into a lengthy soliloquy.
He set the scene at the Canadiens’ hideaway in the mountains that Saturday morning. Blake, the coach who had been Hall of Fame center for the Canadiens, approached Worsley.
“Can you play?’ Blake asked.
“I can, play,” Worsley responded.
“But CAN YOU PLAY?” Blake asked again, Worsley’s voice much louder now.
“Yessssss, I can play.”
And play he did that night.
It was that period in time, once again, that I did not know much about hypodermic needles and painkillers — and how remarkably hockey players could play with otherwise disabling injuries.
The Canadiens would prove to become the most dominant of all the championship franchises in North American sports. The night Worsley sipped his precious Canadian whiskey, the Canadiens started a dynasty. In 18 years, Montreal would win 12 Stanley Cup championships.
The NHL would jump — it seemed without looking — into an era of expansion.
But the Canadiens would remain dominant.
Players changed. Coaches moved in and out. Scotty Bowman won five of those Stanley Cup championships coaching the Canadiens before moving on and winning the Cup in Pittsburgh and three times in Detroit. I’ve written before and say again — Vince Lombardi and Bowman were the greatest coaches ever, anywhere, in any sport.
It was 1993 when the Canadiens’ dynasty ended. They beat the Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup championship. Jacques Demers — affable and so frequently jolly and so angry sometimes — was the Canadiens’ coach. Jacques was destined to be coach of his hometown Canadiens, even while he was guiding the resurgence of hockey tradition with the Red Wings.
Alas, it was then that the Canadiens started to spin downward. Demers was fired. Montreal has not won the Stanley Cup since. The Canadiens have not even reached the Cup finals since Demers’ championship season.
Indeed, the Montreal Canadiens were the last Canada-based team to win the Stanley Cup — over all those last 21 years.
This is a Canadian tragedy, to me, not a Canadian. Ice hockey is Canada’s game.
The Americans, the Russians, the Swedes, the Finns have gotten better at it. Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Chelios, Teemu Selanne and Connecticut Yankees Max Pacioretty (also Michigan) and Jonathan Quick have been wonders in the NHL.
But it is still Canada’s game. And here we haven’t seen the Cup paraded in a Canadians city since 1993. Olympic Gold, yes. But no, not the ancient silver Cup.
But now? The Canadiens have eliminated the Boston Bruins to reach the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers. Game 1 was Saturday, the Rangers winning 7-2. Winner of the Eastern finals advances to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Alas, sentiment never matters much deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canadiens were pummeled, 7-2, in Saturday’s Game 1 by the Rangers.
Still all of Canada roots on for the Canadiens.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.