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 5'6�" 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.
"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."