NHL travel via Air Canada – in the U.S. – is now a subject of controversy.
So, we though that we would reprint the following article on the NHL’s history of air travel.
There is some controversy over which NHL club first introduced air travel as a method of getting to their out-of-town destinations.
In his book, Hockey’s Book Of Firsts, James Deplacey purports that the New York Rangers, at the request of team President Colonel John Hammond, utilized this innovation. He contends that in 1935 the Blueshirts climbed aboard a plane provided by the Curtis-Wright Corporation and flew to Toronto for a Saturday night match.
Conversely, Ken McKenzie, founder of the Hockey News, wrote in his editorial column on January 1, 1966, that the Red Wings were the first sports team overall, to take to the skies as a method of flitting from one NHL city to another. He wrote that Manager Jack Adams chartered a United Air Lines DC3 to airlift his squad—considered to be a radical move at the time. They certainly were to first team to fly to all their away games.
Later on, however, in his same “Passing The Puck” column, McKenzie credited the New York Americans with introducing this adaptation in transportation about 1939.
DC3 LEAVING NEW YORK IN 1938
So, perhaps it may never be known who initiated this method of commuting.
But this much is clear—by 1959, rail travel, the standard NHL method of journeying from home base to opposition cities, was dwindling. In an interview with “Punch” Imlach, in the Maple Leaf Gardens Programme that winter, he reported that the Buds were logging 20,000 miles annually by plane.
He touted this change because, he opined, “Long train trips are tiring for hockey players. We are much fresher when we fly. We have flown to New York and Boston and won; we took trains to Montreal and Chicago and lost! It’s also true that ‘butterflies’ do not set in as easily on a short, quick hop!”
He went on the argue: “Players themselves think nothing of air travel now. They are extremely conditioned to it and not like their trepidatious fathers who knew of the coming air age. Not one of my players fears air travel. They fly as a matter of course, just like taking the downtown subway.”
As we shall see, that was not a completely accurate statement. But, as the old saying has it, Punch’s “mind was made up; don’t confuse him with facts.”
Because this method of commuting was relatively new, we need not backtrack very far in the league’s annals to find the senior member of the airplane hate club. We refer, of course, to none other than the jovial Lorne “Gump” Worsley, who joined the pay-for-play scene a decade before flying was anything more than a rare occurrence.
His journey to the Big Time was a rough one. From the first time he strapped on the big pads for the New Rangers in 1953, until be became a fixture with the Canadiens in 1965, he bobbed up and down from the NHL to the minors no less than five times. Even after an initial creditable showing in that first trip to the majors, he was designated to play in Vancouver of the Western Hockey League for the entire 1953-54 campaign.
But his aerophobia proved to be an equally rough ride. While apprenticing with the Ranger’s farm club, the New York Rovers, he was introduced to a rare scenario—a minor pro team traveling by plane. It was one of his first trips in the air, and he thought it was his last.
“Gump” relates: “We had played a game in Milwaukee and were returning to New York on a two-motor prop job. I think it was a Viscount. I was sitting there as nervous as hell when one of our guys yelled, ‘Hey, there’s smoke coming out of the engine!’ I figured that was the end. The pilot managed to extinguish the fire and we made an emergency landing in Pittsburgh. Perhaps you’ve heard of my fear of flying. Well, it all began on that night in November 1949!”
He always suffered terribly when he was forced to take to the air. He was once quoted as saying, “It’s the only time I don’t talk—I’m too scared to say anything.” Of course, with the 1967 expansion to twelve teams, especially with trips to west coast clubs like Los Angeles and Oakland, the number of hours he had to endure this trepidation only multiplied.
Finally, in 1968, he reached the end of his tether. The Canadiens played their first eight games on the road, which meant an unusual amount of time in airplanes. All those flights left him in a nervous wreck. The team was on its way to Los Angeles, with the first leg of the journey from Montreal to Chicago. It was a bad run. So Worsley got off the plane there and announced to Jean Beliveau that he was retiring. He took the train back home, through with “all those bumpy plane rids”.
After visiting a psychiatrist, he returned to the Habs for the rest of the schedule. But after only six contests in the fall of 1969, he bolted to the Minnesota North Stars. They promised that there would be less flying because of their central location in the loop. Although not amusing to Worsley, on the very first flight with his new team, the turbo jet nearly ran out of fuel, and had to stop in Milwaukee to top up.
When the Gump complained to coach Charlie Burns, he proved to be Job’s comforter: “It doesn’t happen too often,” he deadpanned.
His counseling sessions must have helped some, since he remained in Minneapolis for another four seasons, before retiring.
Carl Brewer was the one Toronto player who proved “Punch” Imlach wrong when he said, “Not one of my players fears air travel.” In fact, Brewer hated it so much he once said he wouldn’t even send a letter by airmail!
Moving directly from Junior hockey to the Leafs, the rookie defenseman proved to be a filled with nervous energy. Not given to modesty, he spoke his mind, and let the chips fall where they may. When voted to the All Star team in 1961, he was interviewed on Hockey Night in Canada. Was he surprised at the choice? “No!”, he answered. “But I was pleased!”
Regarding his aversion to airplanes, he confessed: “It’s difficult, I know, for people to realize just what someone goes through who has a fear of flying. It’s not as bad as it once was, but it’s still bad enough. On planes I do try to sit with elderly ladies, or someone that I can talk to about flying. I find that by talking about it and occupying myself this way, it’s not near the problem. This, I know, is selfish of me.”
In 1965, after clashing with Imlach, he quit hockey, returning to school. He played for Canada’s National squad the following season, and then became playing coach with Muskegon in the International loop. He must have found several elderly ladies to talk to, because he next moved to Finland, a considerable distance by air, where he was player-coach of their national team.
In 1969 he played the prodigal and returned to the NHL, this time with Detroit. Coach Sid Abel reported “his fear of flying remains, but he’s working it out.” The Red Wings allowed him to take the train when the schedule allowed sufficient travel time between contests.
Los Angeles hockey scribe Bill Libby once wrote of Lowell MacDonald: “What bothers him the most is that he may go down in a plane in flames before he’s cured of all his physical ailments.”
The talented winger played parts of fourteen seasons with Detroit, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh before finally hanging up his blades for good. His aerophobia prompted him to retire prematurely in 1969, when he left the King’s training camp in Barrie, saying he was through with the pro game. He enrolled in St. Mary’s University in Halifax, trading his rulebook for a textbook.
He admitted, “I can’t help worrying about flying. I dread every flight. I can’t sleep on flights. I can hardly breathe. All I can do is sweat. I don’t drink, so I can’t even get drunk. I’m aware of everything that happens in the air. If the pilot adjusts his fuel mixture, I feel it! Guys who take flying in stride have no idea how lucky they are. Except for hockey there’s no way I would fly. I have to do it now. But if anything drives me out of the game, flying will!”
Fortunately he had a sense of humour. His teammates teased him about his fears. On one flight the guys talked the stewardess into giving him a pair of toy wings, like children receive when they get on a passenger plane.
MacDonald somehow managed to curb his fright sufficiently to make a comeback. He caught on with Pittsburgh for part of the ’70-’71 campaign, missed the next season with injuries, but scored 30 goals in 1972-73, earning himself the Masterton Trophy for “perseverance and dedication to hockey”. He overcame the trauma of four knee operations to return to the Big Time.
At 20 years of age, Alexander Mogilny was a junior lieutenant in the Soviet Central Red Army. He was considered to be the best player in the world in that age group, heir-apparent to Sergei Makorov or Vladimir Krutov of the famous Russian KLM line. But his reputation as a free spirit clashed with the rigourous disciplines of life in the USSR, and especially in the military. On May 4, 1989, while playing in the World Championships at Stockholm, Sweden, he stole away from the hotel, and commenced an odyssey which led him to North American and the Buffalo Sabres. Cultural shock took its toll, and being branded a deserter and a traitor didn’t help. But added to all that was his flying phobia.
“I’ve got a big problem,” he admitted. “I watched on TV some plane crashes. I don’t know. Everything up here in my head!”
It was first revealed on January 16, 1990, not long after all the red tape was out of the way, allowing him to finally join the team. Having played in Los Angeles he would not board the connecting flight from Detroit to Buffalo. The club made special arrangements for him to travel by train to the next scheduled match in Chicago.
Three weeks later the nemesis came to life again. On February 10th he balked at the team’s trek to St. Louis. His intense trepidation of being air bound finally grounded him. On that occasion he told his teammates it was “his last game”. He was simply terrified at the prospect of getting on a plane again.
The club gave him an indefinite medical leave of absence, arranging him for him to receive counseling and therapy. He found consolation in the offices of a Russian doctor, who held the only hope of Mogilny having a career of any length in the NHL. That treatment continued on an ongoing basis, while the Sabres allowed him to take a limo to games within reasonable driving distance.
Mike Ramsay was another fearful flier. He used to lock himself in the washroom during flights.
Jeff O’Neill found getting on a plane was “just terrible”. Nothing helped! He finally cited this phobia as his reason for retiring.
But the most famous “white-knuckle flier—the worst in league history”, according to one source, was none other than “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky. Apparently this annoyance reached its peak in the mid-eighties. Just at the time when he was breaking the 200-point barrier, he was having trouble getting to arenas! It actually had its roots in his days with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA, his first pay-for-play sextet. Whenever possible he utilized the railroad systems. But, as an NHL’er, with fraternities spread from coast to coast, he couldn’t avoid the wild blue yonder.
A 1966 BOEING 727-100 INTERIOR – SIMILAR TO AIR MCNALL’S
“It’s horrible!” he said of plane rides. “The guys in Edmonton know its my biggest fear! Anything to do with travel—it’s always bothered me!”
On one occasion the team was being transported on an older, noisier craft, and the din was not helping “Mr. Waynederful” to relax. Suddenly he stood up and shouted, “This plane is turning!” and rushed to the cockpit to sit with the pilot. This proved to bring some respite, and he often gravitated to that hideaway on other journeys. In fact, when the King’s owner, Bruce McNall, began to utilize his private jet for team travel, Wayne nearly always headed straight for that cabin.
Steve Pervin, the owner’s private pilot, once revealed that Gretzky told him that helped cure his fear of flying.