20 October 2011
Known better by a younger generation of Flyer fans as the color commentator who was about 50/50 in identifying his own team's players, and by and even younger generation as the guy who just wandered into their club box and choked down a pizza in the corner, Gary Dornhoefer was an integral part of the Flyers Stanley Cup winning teams.
And much more of a formidable opponent than I've ever given him credit for.
I'm currently reading one of hockey's seminal works, George Plimpton's Open Net. It tells the story of a time when hockey players didn't hate journalists, to the point where the Bruins allowed Plimpton, who was not a hockey player in the least, to join them for all of training camp and then play 5 minutes in a preseason game against the Flyers. As a goalie.
Although it was written over 30 years ago, the book provides a vivid glimpse into the psyche of the modern day NHLer, covering everything from pride to drinking to Don Cherry to fighting to muking to summers on the lake to the game itself. A part I'm finding particularly interesting, however, really has little to do with the Bruins or Plimpton, but the esteem with which the Bruins players hold Gary Dornhoefer. You always hear about Clarke, Shultz, Kelley, MacLeish, Leach, Barber and a slew of others, but I always though of Dorny as more of a fringe player. Yeah, he has a statue outside of the WFC, but that was because of a great goal he scored, not because he was such a great Flyer. Or was it? Maybe their one in the same.
Dorny is mentioned a number of times in the book, but here are a couple selections that have me looking at him in a different light:
The first mention of Dornhoefer comes out of nowhere:
They talked a lot about the big Philadelphia rightwinger, Gary Dornhoefer. "You'll be seeing a lot of him," they said. "He'll jam you in the crease. He's not supposed to touch you, but he likes to jam, set a screen so you can't see what's going on out there. All you'll see will be the numbers on the back of his jersey - number twelve, if that's of interest to you."
"Thanks," I said.
"Oh yes, you're going to have a tête-à-tête with Dorny. You'll have a great rapport with him."
Apparently, Dornhoefer was hugely irritating. Larry Robinson of the Canadiens had once tried to "knock the stuffing" out of him - as they put it - by checking him into the boards…on this one occasion with such a vengeance that play had to be stopped while workmen came out with hammers and crowbars to pry the bent-out section back into place. I asked if Dornhoefer had been cooled down by this treatment.
"None of you is going to try to help me by 'knocking the stuffing' out of Dornhoefer?"
"What happens if I get in a scuffle with him?"
"If Dornhoefer fights you in the crease, we're all skating to the bench. We'll have some water, and blow a bit, and watch. We're not fooling around with that guy. You're on your own."
And later when talking to his roommate, Seaweed, another goalie:
"…in your game against the Flyers you're going to have to deal with Dornhoefer shoving at you…"
"I've been hearing about him."
"Dornhoefer," Seaweed said. "Big Philly wing. Gary Dornhoefer. If you don't clear him out of there you won't be able to see anything. He parks his rear right in your face. He blots out the sun. You have to chop him in the ankles with your stick. Crack him in the ankles."
A conversation with the Bruins goon, John Wensink:
"Philadelphia has four or five of them who can go… Dornhoefer, he can go too."
"You'll have to worry about him. He'll be in the crease with you. He is not really an enforcer. But he likes goaltenders. He likes them very much."
A couple of days later, another conversation turns to G Dorn:
"What you're going to see is Dornhoefer, big guy, who's going to get in the crease with you."
"You were telling me about him the other night. My sleep was fitful."
"He's like a really big, go-get-'em type dog, one of those big elkhound types, trying to get into bed with you. You've got to get him out."
"You're sure you won't let me go to Hershey?"
"No, he's all yours."
Some in-the-lockeroom pre-game advice from Jerry Cheevers:
"As for Dornhoefer, he'll jam you in the crease," he went on. "He's not supposed to touch you, but you'll think he's part of your uniform. Get rid of him. Crack him with your stick!"
"Crack him with my stick?"
"That's right. Chop him."
"Chop him. You expect me to chop Dornhoefer."
"I can hardly lift my stick up. Much less chop anyone with it."
"Use both hands."
In the end, Dorny isn't really involved in Plimpton's five minutes in the NHL. The Bruins keep the Flyers pinned down in their end for the first two minutes. Then there are some goals on Plimpton and a penalty kill, and then it's all over. As fast as you'd think.
But the reverence that his enemies held for Gary Dornhoefer, I have to tell you, it kind of surprised me. And it meant more that it wasn't an old man remembering an adversary the size of Paul Bunyan, that it was tough guys in their prime talking about Dorny in his prime. He really must have been quite the player out there. Too bad for him that he was surrounded by so many better players.
Actually, he probably feels differently about that last sentence. Especially every time he catches a glimpse of his two Cup rings when he's finishing of a stranger's pizza crust in a random club box.
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