Thursday, February 14, 2008

Garry Unger

It may be hard to believe nowadays, but there was a time when the Detroit Red Wings were the weakest of the weak in hockey. Head back to the late 1960s and especially the 1970s. They were ridiculously outpaced by their Original Six counterparts. Even most NHL expansion teams and even some of the WHA teams were stronger than the Red Wings.

The Red Wings made some real bonehead moves back then. Most notably they alienated a young Marcel Dionne and later let him get away. Another young star they chased out of town was Garry Unger, all because of his hair.

In 1971 the Wings had an old school coach named Ned Harkness. In some ways he was the epitome of the later day Mike Keenan, a strict authoritarian who would make unreasonable demands, but without Keenan's success.

Harkness and Unger clashed almost immediately. Unger, who scored 42 goals as a sophomore in 1969-70, had a somewhat misplaced reputation as a playboy. He was good looking with rosy cheeks, and he wore colorful clothes. His signature had to be his shoulder length blonde hair. He was known to use a hair dryer as much as a hockey blade torch. And hey it must have worked, as he was dating Miss America in 1970.

It may have been the 70s, but Harkness would have none of this. He ordered all of his players to get crew-cuts. Unger refused, and on February 6th, 1971 he, Tim Ecclestone and Wayne Connelly were traded to St. Louis in exchange for expansion scoring star Red Berenson. It turned out to be a terrible trade for the Wings.

Berenson had a couple of solid seasons in Detroit, but he was near the end. Connelly and Ecclestone would go on to become solid NHL players, while Unger erupted in St. Louis. In each of his 8 seasons as Mr. Blue he scored at least 30 goals. Year-in and year-out he would lead the Blues in most offensive categories.

Of course Unger also became known as Mr. Ironman. Unger never missed a game until December 22, 1979, then playing with the Atlanta Flames. He participated in 914 consecutive NHL games, breaking Andy Hebenton's record of 630 games in the process. The ironman record has since been upped to 964 games by Doug Jarvis.

Unger said :...back then it was difficult for me to complain about a sore ankle or leg when I knew that in two weeks it was going to fine, yet my sister was never going to be able to walk again.” His sister suffered from polio, but despite that she “could be so peaceful and happy with her life despite the fact that she couldn’t walk.”

Unger also tamed his playboy image while in St. Louis, too. Unger moved into the guest house of the Blue's owner's ranch some 40 miles from downtown St. Louis. Unger loved the horses and the outdoors. Instead of partying in the city for a night on the town, he spent more of his free time dirt biking, mountain climbing and water skiing.

Unger always remained a free spirit. One off-season he decided to drive cross-country in a convertible with the top down. Even when he hit heavy rains he would keep the rag top collapsed, claiming "it gave me a sense of accomplishment."

Unger accomplished a lot in life, thanks to hockey. But he was never the most likely candidate to become a hockey star. His father, a member of the Canadian Army, build a rink in the backyard of the family home in Edmonton. Garry was given a pair of skates, but they were girl's figure skates. Undaunted, Garry painted them back and taught himself to skate.

Much of Garry's formal hockey development occurred in Calgary, where his father was transferred. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Unger to a C-form in the days before the creation of a entry draft. He would move to southern Ontario and play with the London Nationals.

Garry barely had a chance to play for the Leafs. He got into just 15 NHL games with the Leafs before he was included in the big Frank Mahovlich trade to Detroit. Unger, Mahovlich and Pete Stemkowski headed to the Motor City in exchange for a package including Carl Brewer, Norm Ullman, and Paul Henderson.

Garry Unger moved to Detroit where his famous battle over his hair would be waged. Towards the end of his career he came to realize that perhaps success came too early in Detroit, and that the best thing that ever happened to him was the trade to St. Louis where he would escape the limelight somewhat and mature as a person and a player.

Late in his career Unger would be able pass these lessons on to budding NHL superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey. Unger finished his career with parts of three seasons in his hometown of Edmonton.

Unger retired from the NHL in 1983. He played in 1105 games, scored 413 goals, 391 assists and 804 total points.

He would briefly come out of retirement and play in Great Britain later in the 1980s. His playboy lifestyle well behind him, he became quite religious while spending much of his post-playing days riding buses and coaching the low minor leagues.


Michael Daehn August 11, 2008 at 10:45 AM  

I skated with Garry in Russia on an exhibition trip. Besides his obvious skill I could not believe how smart he was. He didn't seem to skate that hard, but all of a sudden the puck would come on his stick right in front of the net and he'd put it away.

He's a great player and coach, and an even nicer guy.

Anonymous,  January 30, 2010 at 11:16 AM  

Gary Unger was Mr. Blue in the 70's
I remember on more than one occasion, Gary won the faceoff in the offensive zone and fired a shot past the goalie all in one motion, you never see that these days. He was awesome, and he is the reason I have been a St. Louis
Blues fan since I was 8 years old.

The Blues should do much more to recocnize Gary's accomplishment as a Blue. After all he was out there by himself most of the time talent wise in the 70's.

Anonymous,  January 31, 2010 at 5:17 PM  

Garry Unger was the reason I started playing hockey in St. Louis. I remember being in the uniform line after making teams in the 70's and kids would literally be fighting over Unger's coveted #7. It's amazing to me how the St. Louis Blues have neglected to acknowledge his contribution as a role model for youth hockey in St. Louis and to the franchise. Those were some pretty weak Blues teams he played on and if he had played with the Canadiens in those days he would have easily been a 50 goal scorer year in and year out. The number 7 should have been retired in his honor years ago. But due to being black-balled by his fellow alumnus, his fans have been deprived of that long awaited ceremony.

Anonymous,  April 9, 2010 at 1:01 AM  

Garry and I were "locker mates" in high school - while he played for the London Nationals. Even after a long road trip - he found his way to classes. I was a non-hockey player - and he still became a good friend. Enjoy life Garry

Ecclestone Fan,  June 17, 2011 at 12:05 AM  

Garry Unger was traded to The St.Louis Blues along with Wayne Connely in exchange for Red Berenson and Tim Ecclestone. Not with Tim Ecclestone as you have stated here.

Ken Dupe June 23, 2011 at 2:23 PM  

Ken Dupe
I remember meeting Gary when he was in Calgary..His Dad and mine were in the military together.
He showed up in Currie one year driving a corvette and had the awe of all us on the base who wished we could have been good enough to keep up with Gary. He had us at the rink in Lincolin park another forces base doing some awesome skaitng drills and we all commented ..look at him skate. Thats why hes a hockey super star.

HisBratt December 11, 2011 at 8:56 AM  

Garry Unger is my great uncle, and I never knew he was a hockey legend! Great Job Uncle!!

HisBratt December 11, 2011 at 8:57 AM  

WOW! Never knew my great uncle accomplished all of this! Great Job!

Unknown February 20, 2012 at 11:19 PM  

Wes Bowers - Garry's Dad and my Dad were in the Canadian Army. Garry and I would sometimes walk to junior high school together and he told me back then that he had his sights set on the NHL. He and I delivered the Calgary Herald newspaper. Some of the other delivery boys moved up from bicycles to motorcycles to deliver their papers. Garry and I leaped ahead of them by being the first to buy cars and pick up our papers from the depot that way. I had a '55 Plymouth and he had a '56 Plymouth. He carried on to become a leader in hockey. I joined the Air Force and became a pilot, later retiring as a senior officer. We both discovered a personal relationship with God and became involved in Christian ministries - Garry ministering to athletes and sports fans and myself ministering to military persoonel. Garry was influenced in that direction by Hockey legend Paul Henderson. I became the Director for and a co-worker of Paul Henderson with Power to Change and Garry became a spokesman for Athletes International Ministries. Not bad for a couple of military brats.

bryan mahoney jr.,  February 22, 2012 at 7:51 PM  

My Dad was friends with Garry Unger in Calgary and Whitehorse during their childhood, both were army kids and that is how they connected.
They used to play hockey together in Calgary for the midget AAA Rangers.
When I was about ten years old (1977), my Dad took me to the 'fan waiting area' after a game against the Canucks in Vancouver. Garry came out a gave me his stick. It was one of those memorable moments as a hockey fan I will never forget. I felt so privileged. I never used that stick for about 3-4 years. Thank you Garry , thank you Dad.

Richard Short,  April 27, 2012 at 2:44 PM  

Garry is my first cousin . My family has followed his career since he was playing with the Calgary Buffalo's. I can remmenber my mom always pasting any newpapers clippings she could find in an over loaded scrap book . You could not find a nicer guy. He always had time for us kids when he would visit us in Sylvan Lake . He scored many goals on me (Goaltender) when he played street hockey with the whole nieghbour hood . I can remember having him autographing almost everything I had in my room . We are so proud of him . Not only in his NHL career but in his personal life. Thanks Garry , you have no idea how much it ment to have you in our lives. Rick Short

John Bartony,  May 13, 2016 at 10:17 PM  

Garry Unger was part of a very dark time in Detroit Red Wing History. He scored 42 goals in his first full season and was the darling of the fans. It came all apart when the Red Wings hired a college coach by the name of Ned Harkness. He was completely out of touch with the modern professional athlete and treated these men like college boys. He traded Unger after a Q and A interview appeared in the Detroit paper saying that "Harkness seemed confused." per Garry. It was St Louis gain and for many years I would watch Unger do his thing in the NHL as Berenson and others tried hard but the time was lousy and long time fans started to say that if you wanted to punish somebody, give them a pair of Red Wing tickets. Thank God I was still alive when the Wings had their run a three Stanley Cups. Garry Unger should have been a mainstay in a Detroit Uniform but a guy named Harkness too care of that.

Unknown February 1, 2017 at 2:24 AM  

I had the honour of watching Garry play for my home team in the UK Dundee Rockets in the 80s. He was absolutely superb. Never seen anything like this guy on these shores and never will . British Ice Hockey will never see anybody like Garry Unger . On and off the ice an incredible guy . Thanks for the memories. A proper icon of the game #Ironman

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