The Iron Man Garry Unger Gets Cut.
For all of Garry Unger’s accolades as a pro hockey player – the seven NHL All-Star games for starters – the truth is, he got cut his first time he tried out for a youth hockey team.
Like, five times.
Unger was the star Blues’ center known as much for his flowing golden locks of hair as much as for his iron-man streak of consecutive games played for the ‘Note. The retired player graciously sat down for an extended interview with The BlueNote Fan Report, Guy “Hawaiian Blues Fan” Bensing, and myself (Brock Banner). Disclaimer: both Guy and myself are huge fans of Garry Unger, so we were both in awe of the man as he answered our questions. Look for the interview to be posted at the STLFanReport.com site.
In the interview, which covered Unger’s career, his time with the Detroit Red Wings and the Blues, living life as a mega-celebrity in St. Louis in the 1970s, and the tragic loss of his dear friend and Blues great Bob Gassoff in a motorcycle accident at Garry’s ranch. Unger reached deep inside to reveal a spiritual side, which fans don’t often see. He found his faith and has been touched by Jesus Christ, and he is proud to talk about that. In all, he was a wonderful interviewee.
The man who wore Number 7 better than any other player in Blues’ history talked at length about his life in and out of hockey. He is just as proud to talk about the newspaper route he drove as a kid, as he is about his 16-year career. The fans in St. Louis he, said, “were just great. They treated me like a rock star.”
A Determined Unger
But back to that youth tryout. It didn’t go well. He was maybe 11 years old as the story goes, and when the first wave of cuts came down, the coaches sent the cut players to the corner where they broke the news they didn’t make the team. Unger was supposed to go to the corner but instead decided to get back in the line at the opposite end and continue practicing with the team.
“Then the second cut came, and my name got called to go over to the corner, and I decided again to just get back in line,” he joked. “I wanted to keep playing.”
This sequence would happen until the fourth cut. At that point, names were posted on a chalkboard, so if you weren’t listed, then, well, good luck, kid.
“My dad asked me what I wanted to do if I wanted to quit hockey, or go find something else to do?” he recalled. “It was one of the defining moments in my life because I decided I was going to go play hockey for the other town over.”
A few weeks had passed, and the team that cut Unger had suffered some injuries. They came calling (crawling) back.
“So here was this team that had cut me five times before, asking me to come back,” he said, smiling.
His father was a member of the Canadian Army, Unger, and his dad built an ice rink on common ground on the Army post he grew up, and it became a gathering place for all the neighborhood players.
Today, Unger is retired but in his post-Blues career, he has been as a hockey coach, scout, academy director, and grandpa/fan to his young grandson, also a hockey player. Garry is best known for his time with the Blues. He played from 1968-1983 with the Detroit Red Wings, the Blues, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the now-defunct Atlanta Flames, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Edmonton Oilers. He logged 1,102 games over a 16-tear career in the NHL, and 662 games over nine years were with the Blues. He’d contributed 80 points (41 goals, 39 assists) to the Blues in 1972-73. He added another 80 points (36 goals, 44 assists) in the 1974-75 season. He has scored 10 hat tricks in his career.
According to an article about the greatest Blues players of all-time by thehockeywriters.com, Unger made their list.
“Probably underappreciated because of the unsung era in Blues history during which he played,” the website wrote, “Garry Unger is still a franchise legend. He was the team’s best player during the 70s, and he still ranks ninth in games played (662) and fourth in points (575). He joined the Atlanta Flames for the 1979-80 season, ending his decade-long tenure in the Gateway City.”
As a young player, he was signed by the Detroit Red Wings to center a line with the great Gordie Howe. As a kid, Unger recalls he and his friends going to a department store where Howe was signing autographs.
“The line went out the door and around the corner. Everybody wanted to get Gordie’s autograph,” Unger recalled, “I just kind of stayed in the back and watched him sign all these autographs. After about two hours, I decided to jump into line. When I finally got up to meet him, I couldn’t do it. I froze up. I turned around and walked out.
“So then I get to Detroit and here I am centering a line with Gordie Howe,” Unger said. “It was pretty amazing to be part of that.”
His time in Detroit was not rosy. He had a tiff with the coach about the length of his hair. Unger had traveled to Greece with his then-girlfriend and now wife.
“It was during the hippie days. Guys wore their hair long. So I decided to let my hair grow long. And been out in the sun all day, it got really blond,” he said. The coach pressured him to cut his hair back to the traditional “brush cut” of well-kempt Canadian boys. Either Unger won or lost, depending on how you look at it.
The coach was fired and Unger was dealt to St. Louis. The franchise had opened play in 1967-68 and advanced to the Stanley Cup on the backs of players like Bob Plager, Barclay Plager, Jimmy Roberts, and Noel Picard. At age 23, Unger came to St. Louis to play with those guys – the same goons he fought with for years wearing the red-winged wheel.
“The first time I met Bobby Plager was in front of the net at the old Arena as he had his arms wrapped around me trying to take me down,” Unger recalled. Like other Blues alumni, he speaks of Plager with a level of reverence, and a certain amount of humor. Like when Bobby would steal players’ shoes on the plane, forcing them to exit barefoot. Or, the time he cut a young guy’s tie off right as they slept on the plane.”
“You always knew who Bobby got to the guys who had the short tie stubs because Bobby or whoever cut them off,” he said. They got Plagered.
Unger scored 413 goals in his career and registered 391 assists for 804 points, His plus/minus was a minus-131. His goal total puts him 89th among all-time leading NHL scorers.
Unger was well-traveled, often finding his name as part of trade discussions. In March 1968, he was traded to Detroit by Toronto with Frank Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski, and the rights to Carl Brewer for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, and Doug Barrie.
In February 1971, he was traded to St. Louis by Detroit with Wayne Connelly for Red Berenson and Tim Eccelston. where he played in St. Louis for eight seasons, then was traded to Atlanta in 1979 for Ed Kea, Don Laurence, and Atlanta’s 2nd round choice (Hakan Nordin) in the 1981 Entry Draft. By June 1980, Unger was traded to Los Angeles by Calgary for Bert Wilson and Randy Holt. He was transferred to Calgary after the Atlanta franchise relocated there. In March 1981, he was traded to Edmonton by Los Angeles for Edmonton’s 7th round choice (Craig Hurley) in the 1981 Entry Draft.
So, how would Unger fare in today’s game?
“Well, I’d be a lot slower,” he quipped, adding, “The game has gotten so fast today.”
The game is different these days, he said. In his days, the game was much rougher and puck handling skills really set him apart from the other players as a young pro. He learned how to handle the puck in a pretty peculiar way growing up near Alberta, Canada.
“Back when I was growing up we would play hockey in these big ice fields or ponds, and there would be about 25 guys on each team. If you didn’t learn how to handle the puck, you never touched it in those games,” he said. [These] pond games and his youth team coaches also taught him the value of being able to protect himself. As a scorer, he knew the opposing teams had eyes on knocking him out of the lineup. Playing in the NHL in those days was survival of the fittest.
Playing pond hockey is a path almost every NHL player has taken. For Unger, he also played on frozen ponds and creeks. One place he used to skate was a pond on property owned by a meat-processing company. Every winter, the pond would freeze over.
“It was half water and half-animal blood,” Unger joked.
Bensing said the interview will be available in two parts over the coming weeks. He encouraged fans to follow his TheBlueNote Fan report on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming segments.
“It was the type of interview where you cannot just take a 15-second sound bite. There was so much he had to say, the only way to really do it justice is to cut these down into two interviews” Bensing said. “We honestly could have talked to Garry Unger for three hours, but nobody is going to watch a three-hour interview.”
And those people call themselves fans????
COMING UP: Part two: Garry Unger talks about the death of Bob Gassoff, his memories of Bob Plager, being Blues Alumni, and much more
Now back to full strength …