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The boy on Bobby's back is back
Gary Ronberg
November 28, 1966
A Red Wing who achieved fame last year by being a nuisance in the playoffs is as pesky as ever
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November 28, 1966

The Boy On Bobby's Back Is Back

A Red Wing who achieved fame last year by being a nuisance in the playoffs is as pesky as ever

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The effort shows. Bryan Watson's face is a mass of welts and bruises laced together by scars. A tussle with Hull in Chicago last week added 18 new stitches. The Watson countenance has been marred so often by fists, sticks and pucks that Watson would rather not talk about it. The nose is flat because it is all plastic, "and it still leaks." he says. The eyebrows are puffed, like Carmen Basilio's, and the teeth are a set he received in exchange for a slap shot caught flush in the uppers last year. When Watson walks into the Mayfair Restaurant, his favorite, those heads that don't snap up in recognition do so out of compassion. "I'd better get married soon," Bryan jokes, "before I get any uglier."

One thing he has gotten is quicker. Assailed recently by 6-foot, 185-pound Phil Esposito of the Hawks, Watson suddenly found himself spread flat on the ice, his face the painful recipient of stinging, gloveless right-hand blows. "So when he cocked the right again," remembers Bryan, "I ducked." Esposito's fist crashed into the ice, crushed a knuckle and put the attacker out for two games.

Provoking opponents into just such flare-ups is perhaps Bryan Watson's greatest skill. And he doesn't scrap with just anybody. All of his altercations have a touch of class to them, enough so that when Bryan heads for the penalty box he usually drags a Hull or a Richard or a Mikita along with him. Verbally, he can top them all. Recently, in a game in Detroit, Montreal's Canadiens had a two-man advantage and were pressing for an almost certain power-play goal. Suddenly, the puck eluded the Canadiens' Yvan Cournoyer, and the Wings cleared it from the danger zone. As the red-faced Frenchman skated past the Detroit bench, Watson leaned over and whispered a word of advice. Whatever it was, it made Cournoyer so mad that he slammed his stick against the boards near Watson and drew a two-minute penalty. The Montreal threat was over, and Coach Sid Abel couldn't keep from laughing.

The Detroit fans love Bryan Watson for what he is and what he does and for the obvious contributions he makes every night he plays, but it is doubtful that they cherish him as do the Red Wing players. Watson is a team favorite, particularly of 38-year-old Gordie Howe, whom he is constantly—and unsuccessfully—attempting to needle.

"Hey, Gordie," Watson will yell across the red-carpeted floor of the Detroit locker room at Olympia, "when you gonna hang 'em up and let some of us young guys play a while?" But Gordie responds with a look of mock disdain.

"Look at me when you speak, Mumbles," he will say, "so that I can read your lips." Then, feigning helplessness with his palms turned up, Howe will turn to Abel and say, "Sid, when you gonna schedule a few open dates so Bugsy here can rest his face?"

Mumbles, Blinky Jr., Spotty, Bolts, Bugsy, Wasp, Superpest—the nicknames are all there, but they mask a young man who is genuinely bright and plays the stooge role only by choice and because he is smart enough to handle it. He is tickled to death to be playing with players he read about as a boy in Bancroft, Ont. He is a student at Carleton University n Ottawa and is studying, among other subjects, psychology. His reading encompasses Jane Austen and T. S. Eliot. When not on the ice he is in constant demand for personal appearances and speaking engagements, which he handles like a professional. And, as you would expect of a 24-year-old big-leaguer who loves people, he is a soft touch for autograph seekers. Charging out the back door of the Detroit locker room, dressed in a sports jacket of gold-and-brown tweed, sharply tailored slacks and double-button boots, Watson is always the last Wing to reach the parking lot. When he does, he will pull down the brim of the black hat with the feather, climb into the 1964 white Pontiac that has been painted live times, stolen once and is affectionately nicknamed "White Charger," and head for the expressway that gets you fastest to the Roostertail, Lindell's AC, or the Red Carpet out on the east side.

Unless you happen to be playing across from him, it is not difficult at all to like Bryan Watson. On the ice, however, it is just as easy to hate him. As one opposing player put it: "He'll be all right as long as he realizes his capabilities. But don't forget, Bryan weighs only 160 pounds. If he's not careful, one of these days somebody is going to mash him up."

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