Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Garry Unger: Two Autographed Cards

Before Gary Unger, the NHL Ironman record was 264 straight games. From the time he suited up as a rookie for the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1967-68 season through trades to the Detroit Red Wings (same year) to the St. Louis Blues during the 1970-71 season and to the Atlanta Flames in 1979-80, he suited up in 914 consecutive games, until head coach Al MacNeil made him a healthy scratch on December 21st, 1979. It was the only game he'd miss that year, and it was just a message to the team's other players that each and every one of them had to be accountable and deserve their ice time, regardless of the fact that they were a record holder, or what language they spoke.

It wasn't the only time Unger was treated unfairly; he was actually traded by Detroit because he defied head coach Ned Harkness. Harkness didn't like Unger's attitude; he'd scored 44 goals the previous season and was now dating the current Miss America, Pamela Eldred, who had been Miss Michigan prior to that. Unger had everything going for him, and had long, blonde shoulder-length locks. Harkness - an authoritarian disciplinarian - was of the old guard that hated individuality and may have been better at running a boarding school. His career .368 NHL record (12-22-4) as a coach now speaking of itself, Harkness insisted all of his players sport crew cuts, specifically aiming at one player to fall in line. Unger refused and was shipped to St. Louis with another good and dependable player (Wayne Connelly) for fading star "Red" Berenson and fourth-liner Tim Ecclestone.

Unger scored 30 goals or more in each of his eight seasons with the Blues, with a high of 41 in 1972-73; he had three seasons over the 80-point mark, with a high of 83 in 1975-76. After the Flames incident, he spent the 1980-81 season with the Los Angeles Kings, collecting 10 goals and 10 assists (20 points) in 58 games, as can be shown on card #123 from O-Pee-Chee's 1980-81 O-Pee-Chee set:
And, yes, he then spent the next three seasons mentoring Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Ken Linseman, Charlie Huddy, Grant Fuhr, Andy Moog, Laurie Boschman, Lee Fogolin and the other young members of the Edmonton Oilers into being true professionals, as evidenced on card #120 from OPC's 1982-83 O-Pee-Chee collection:
And, yes, this card has him joining Tom Gilbert as wearers of #77 in my Oilers Numbers Project.

After retiring, Unger set his sights to coaching, winning a championship with the 1992-93 Tulsa Oilers and teaching kids in the Tulsa area for many years after that. However, when he started having grandchildren, he moved back to Alberta (Banff, more specifically) and heads the Banff Hockey Association to this day, into his 70s.

I've had these cards, signed in ballpoint pen since pretty much forever.  I met him a few times in the mid-to-late 1990s while attending and eventually teaching at the Jacques St-Jean Hockey School, and there were times when we organized meet-and-greet/tournaments with other hockey schools in the country. He was a class act each time we made our way there, spending time with every kid who went to see him.

Oh, and yes, Doug Jarvis now holds the NHL Ironman record with 964 consecutive games, from October 1975 until October 1987, and Unger is sitting comfortably in second place; the longest current active streak is Keith Yandle's, at 784, following Andrew Cogliano's suspension, which blocked his streak at 830.

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