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Interview with Garry Unger

A group of fans, mostly teenagers and many in their 20s, waited outside the players’ entrance at The Arena hoping for a glimpse of one of their beloved Blues.

On this night, they weren’t disappointed. Out walked Garry Unger — the Blues’ glamour boy — blond hair flowing, a beautiful woman on his arm. They hopped into a convertible and drove off into the night.

That postgame scene repeated itself time after time in the 1970s.

Colorful, cool and prolific as a scorer, Garry Unger once was larger than life in St. Louis, scoring 30 or more goals in all eight of his full seasons with the Blues. On a club that had only two winning seasons in the ‘70s, he was a reason — maybe the reason — for fans to head to the rink.

Part of the appeal might have been that Garry Unger was a bit of a rebel. He had, after all, been traded to St. Louis from Detroit in 1971 (for Red Berenson) in part because he refused Detroit coach Ned Harkness’ repeated demands to cut his hair.

Why, the first time he met Harkness, who was new to Detroit that season, Unger said Harkness spent part of the lunch meeting “drawing on a napkin how he wants my hair cut.”

Unger scored 292 goals over his eight-plus seasons with the Blues. More than 40 years after he last wore the Blue Note, only three players in franchise history have scored more: Brett Hull, Bernie Federko and Brian Sutter.

He played in a franchise-record 662 consecutive games with the Blues, part of his then-NHL record 914 consecutive starts, which now ranks second all-time. He accomplished his ironman streak in a career that included 11 broken noses, two broken cheekbones, a broken wrist and a separated shoulder among other things.

But he never lost a tooth — fitting for someone who was the face of the Blues for nearly a decade. It was hard to stay humble.

“Your impression of yourself gets distorted when everybody’s making a fuss over you all the time,” Unger said. “And I tried really hard not to let it get to me. But it’s hard not to.”

Today, Unger still has a convertible (and a motorcycle) at age 72. The woman who accompanied him out of the Arena back in the day is now his wife, Beverly. So some things haven’t changed.

Tragic time

Then again, one of those trips past adoring fans at The Arena helped change his life near the end of the 1976-77 season. He just didn’t know it at the time.

Unger remembers entering the building before a game. As always, a pile of youngsters waited at the players’ entrance, hoping for an autograph. Unger was in a hurry to get in for the game this night and politely declined.

“As I was doing that, there was a kid kind of standing over in a corner, and I was just about to go through the door and he said to me: ‘Do you know where you’re gonna spend eternity?’" Unger recalled.

Unger didn’t think much about it at the time. But not that long after that chance encounter — and unusual question — Unger held his season-ending party for friends and teammates at his horse and cattle ranch near Gray Summit, about 15 minutes west of the Six Flags amusement park.

Late that afternoon, teammate Bob Gassoff was trying to start one of the several motorcycles Unger had on the property.

“I said, ‘Bobby, I don’t know how much you’ve been drinking, but don’t be fiddling around with the motorcycles at this time. We’re gonna eat here in a minute,’" Unger recalled. “Somebody grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘Listen, we need some more pop and stuff for the party.’"

So Unger left Gassoff . . . and longtime Blues fans remember what happened next. Gassoff got on a dirt bike and headed off on the rural roads. A while later, Unger got a phone call from a Missouri State trooper asking if he knew a Bob Gassoff.

When the trooper informed Unger that Gassoff has been in an accident, what turned out to be a fatal collision, Unger saw the face of that teenager in his mind’s eye — the teenager from The Arena earlier that spring: “Do you know where you’re gonna spend eternity?”

A rugged defenseman, Gassoff was a good friend, the toughest guy Unger knew.

“And all of a sudden he was gone,” Unger recalled. “And where did he go?”

Finding faith

That started Unger on a path towards Christianity, renewed faith, and an association with the Phoenix-based Athletes International Ministry.

Nearing the end of his time in St. Louis, Unger felt there was a void in his life despite all the success, money and adulation he experienced through hockey.

At first, he thought that void might be filled with a Stanley Cup; he thought he’d have a better chance to do so when he was traded to the Atlanta Flames in 1979. But in his only season in Atlanta, Unger credits Flames teammates, including Paul Henderson, with setting him on the right path spiritually.

“I never, ever really wanted to leave St. Louis,” Unger said. “I was drawn to leave St. Louis because of this yearning that I had down deep. ... I realized that the void that I had in my life wasn’t (about) more cars, more championships and more scoring goals, it was that personal relationship with Christ that changed both of our lives and changed our marriage really.”

After that season in Atlanta, Unger played for the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers, then served as a player-coach in Scotland and England. He says he’s played hockey in 25 countries.

Unger’s second career was in coaching — all over — with stops in Phoenix, Tulsa, Albuquerque, Florida, Vancouver, Detroit. All at the minor-league level. For the past 10 years, Unger has been involved with the Banff Hockey Academy near his hometown of Calgary, Alberta, first as a coach and now as athletics director.

He oversees the operation, helps the coaches of three youth teams (one of which is a girls’ squad), even has a bus license to drive the teams around. Along with the rest of the teenagers attending the academy, he stays in a boarding house during the school year. About half of the students/hockey players are from the U.S and Canada, the rest are from overseas.

In the summer, he’s involved with a similar school in Germany. There’s also one in Colorado as well as prospect camps all over where Unger and the academy recruit.

When he’s not doing all that, he calls Phoenix home, not that he’s there often during a normal year. Unger is in Arizona early this year, in shelter-in-place mode because the hockey academy in Banff has closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re not sure if it’s gonna continue to go because of all this stuff that’s going on,” Unger said.

Special honor?

In a lifetime spent roaming from one hockey outpost to another, St. Louis still holds a special place in Unger’s heart.

“I don’t have any tattoos,” he once said. “But if I did, it would be a St. Louis Blues emblem.”

He married Beverly in St. Louis; two of their three daughters were born here.

“It was definitely a really special time in my life,” Unger said.

Just one thing would make his time in St. Louis complete: to have his jersey number (7) retired and hanging in the rafters at Enterprise Center.

“I would like that to happen,” Unger said. “I think that would be something that would be really special. It’s not something that I lose any sleep over, but it would be really nice for my family and stuff like that. And it’s deserved. It’s not something like I want to sneak in. You know?”

 

Originally published on https://www.stltoday.com/sports/hockey/professional/ungers-hunger-st-louis-remains-special-place-for-former-blues-glamour-boy/article_978f17ac-66f7-5eca-90cc-f2891df97ad5.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=user-share

Written by: Jim Thomas

April 7th, 2020

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image - Garry Unger fighting during a 1971 game

The Blues' Garry Unger, right, connects with a punch to the jaw of the Buffalo Sabres' Kevin O'Shea in a fight that erupted in the second period of a game on Oct. 12, 1971, in St. Louis. Each player was given a 5-minute penalty. (UPI photo)