Garry Unger finds what he was missing
For years Garry Unger thought the missing element in his life was the Stanley Cup. And why not? He played 1,105 games in a 16-year NHL career, yet as a player never had the chance to hoist the most prized chalice in sport.
As part of the Edmonton Oilers broadcast team, he saw those players lift several Cups during their storied run in the 1980s and 1990s. Unger, a hockey lifer, had everything a pro athlete could want during his time in St. Louis and then with the Atlanta Flames.
He came into the league with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967-68, then played for the Detroit Red Wings for four years which shipped him to St. Louis in 1970-71. The Blues had just come off an appearance in the Cup as an expansion team just three years, yet Unger played for the Blues past those glory days in the early 1970s.
The Cup is what every hockey player plays for and the thing they all dream about as a young kid growing up in the frozen Canadian frontier or in a big-city hockey academy. The fact that his on-ice contribution as a player in making that happen fell short bothered him for the longest time, he said in an extensive interview with Guy “The Hawaiian Blues Fan” Bensing and Jeremy “Fox” Miller of STLFanReport.com and host of the SlyFoxPodcast.
But it wasn’t the Cup that caused emptiness in Unger’s soul. It was a myriad of things, including the tragic loss of his friend and teammate Bob Gassoff in a motorcycle accident near Unger’s Missouri farm. It was the direction his marriage was heading. It was what to do with his life outside of hockey.
For a guy who seemingly had it all – the adulation of fans, a huge big-money contract, instant name recognition – he felt like he had nothing.
The story of Gassoff’s death contains so many twists and turns and tragic decisions that were made by the player himself. Unger talks freely about the tragedy, and even with a lawsuit entered against him by attorneys representing Gassoff, he still speaks glowingly of his relationship with him and the relationship Unger and his wife had with the widowed Mrs. Gassoff, who was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death, Unger recalled.
But back to the Stanley Cup, as it serves as a catalyst for change in Unger’s life. He won’t stand for a picture with it and doesn’t really like to even be in the same room with it if it can be helped.
“I don’t even want my picture taken with the Cup unless I was part of the reason they won the Cup,” Garry said. “I don’t even want my picture taken with it. Because as a player, you want to know your name and your stamp is on the Cup.”
When the Oilers won five Cups in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990 and Unger was part of the announcing team. He was obviously very happy for the players – icons like Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, among many others.
“But after the celebrations and all of that, I kind of noticed, the players were like, ‘Is this it?’ The excitement doesn’t last like you think it does. And that’s what I got to be part of with the Edmonton Oilers.” Garry quietly stated.
As a player, he points to the trade from St. Louis to Atlanta as a life-changing period of time in his life. On October 10, 1979, Unger was traded for a second-round draft pick in 1981 (Hakan Nordin), Ed Kea, and Don Laurence.
His wife was pregnant at the time and had to stay back in St. Louis while Unger made the transition to his new home in the Peachtree state.
Never a drinker or hard partier, Unger did enjoy spending time out with the boys and hit the finest joints in town with his teammates – maybe even some places he’d not go into on his own.
“I remember one of the guys when I got there was talking about the team and he pointed over there and said, ‘Yeah, watch out for those guys. They’re Christians and they kind of keep to themselves.’ And I was kind of intrigued by that. I started noticing how these guys conducted themselves on and off the ice. How they dressed every day. How they treated their teammates and especially how they treated their wives. It was very impressive.”
The other group – the rowdy ones – would have epic nights of bar takeovers with bawdiness and relative debauchery taking over the most dive bars out there. Unger would be there, watching the fracas, sipping Dr. Peppers or Pepsi. With a pregnant wife at home with a toddler, he felt terrible that his wife was shouldering the load while he was out partying with the boys.
“I started to realize that while some guy thought it was great to watch another guy drink 50 beers after a game, I didn’t think that was normal. That wasn’t what I wanted to be known for,” Unger said.
Through the help of “the other guys” on the Flames, he started to creep closer and closer to his faith.
“It was clear that I wasn’t being the husband or man I needed to be for my family,” he said.
The change was predicated – literally – with a “come to Jesus meeting” where Unger had to face his emotions. Prayer was powerful for Unger, who soon accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his Personal Savior.
His life has been a blast ever since.
He and his wife have never been closer, and they now have grandchildren they cheer for and watch play hockey throughout the year. Garry also runs a hockey academy near the picturesque town of Banff, Alberta. He is a frequent NHL alumni guest at Red Wings, Blues, and Edmonton Oilers games.
He has banded with a group of very well-known former players and coaches to form a Christian support group of sorts. With virtual teleconferencing becoming more consumer-friendly, this group meets regularly to share stories of inspiration and encouragement. The names are so high profile and so well known, I do not want to violate any of Unger’s trust by inadvertently releasing the names. They are truly icons of hockey.
And like as when he was a player, Garry Unger is the centerman for this new, faith-filled effort.
Back to the Cup … he said he was proud to see his Blues take home the hardware in 2019, even though it had been well over 25 years since he last played in the league.
“It was exciting to see,” he said. “We were in the playoffs (a team he’s involved with) so we couldn’t watch the games live, but we did keep up with the games as best as we could. It was so great to see. I am so happy for so many people in the organization.”
Among those Unger pointed to are Blues icons Bobby Plager, who recently passed away, and Bruce Affleck who works tirelessly with Blues alumni to connect them to today’s teams.
“Bobby was one of a kind, obviously,” Unger said. “He was a real prankster and everybody loved him.”
As for Affleck, Unger and the other former players are delighted when they are brought back to connect with the Blues and Blues fans. Bensing, for instance, often has former Blues players on his pre-game and intermission shows on STLFanReport.com. Terry Yake and Mike Zuke have been on the intermission shows, with more players to come in the future, Bensing said. “Who knows who will show up? Maybe even Garry.”
Even as great as Unger was as a player, he still is in awe of players like Gretzky, who he called “a skinny little thing” when he showed up in the league at age 18. He also played with the legendary Gordie Howe, the Plager brothers, and so many other great NHL players.
He enjoyed many battles with Bobby Hull over the years. Hull, who starred for the Blackhawks, reward St. Louis for all the letdowns by given us his son, Brett, who would go on to set nearly every franchise record around.
“I probably have more stories about Bobby Hull than Brett, but of course he was such a prolific goal scorer. You are just in awe of the guy. I remember bringing my grandson to the All-Star game one year and Brett Hull treated him so very well. I just don’t have enough great things to say about Brett and his father, wow, he was a great hockey player.”
Editors Note: The time I spent with Garry Unger and the other Alumni, has shown me just how important these interviews are. In the first Interview, we just got a glimpse into who Garry is. In this interview, we learn what made Garry the man he is today. Unger is an incredible person and Hockey player. This man truly loves St Louis and the Blues. Please let us and Garry know what you think about these interviews in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
Now, back to full strength …
A St. Louis Blues blogger, NHL podcaster, and writer, and contributor for the STL Fan Report.