September 01, 2012

Summit Series Heroes: Gary Bergman

When Gary Bergman was selected to play for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets it raised more than a few eyebrows among hockey fans in Canada.

He had been a solid performer for the Detroit Red Wings since 1964 but it wasn't until after the 1972 series that fans fully appreciated his play. Gary was only one of seven players on that 35-man roster who played all eight games. Coach Harry Sinden paired him with Brad Park.

"I'm so happy when I look back on that series that we picked him,'' Sinden said 28 years later. " We thought he had the character, integrity and type of personality that would add to our team, and we were exactly right in our assessment.

"He was one of the biggest surprises in terms of contribution that we had. We felt he could be a regular member of the team but his contribution exceeded that. He was a terrific member of the team, and well respected.''

"Team Canada was loaded with offensive talent and I believe I did what the situation dictated. I decided I could be more useful by bumping into the opposition and keeping my own end of the rink clean.", Gary said a few years after the series.

When asked if he had learned any new techniques in the series Gary replied:

"No, I didn't learn anything that I didn't know before the series began. But I did come out of it with an enormous respect for the players who were my teammates. Certain players surprised me. I never expected them to react so well. When things got tough the whole team put it all together, came up with the guts, and did a hell of a job."

Gary was not a rushing defenseman in the Bobby Orr mold but in the early years he was quite offensive minded and a good two way defenseman. He was also a fine bodychecker and very good shot blocker. Because of his fine skating in the early years he was also used as a left wing on occasions.

Gary was pretty large boned and burly. He had a Scottish mother and a Swedish father, whose Christian name of Gunnar became Gary's second name. Gary's dad used to play hockey himself and by the time Gary was three years old he was skating.

Gary played his junior hockey for the Winnipeg Braves and Winnipeg Warriors. He was barely 18-years old when he already was the property of Montreal Canadiens. Gary anchored the defense when he led the Winnipeg Warriors to the Memorial Cup in 1959. He chipped in with a league leading 20 assists in the playoffs.

Despite Gary's fine season he was ignored and forgotten by Montreal who at that time had just won their fourth straight Stanley Cup. Montreal went on to win a fifth title the following season and had one of the strongest teams of all time.

Instead of playing in the NHL Gary spent a long time in the minors, four years to be exact. It wasn't until Gary was claimed by Detroit in the intra-league draft 1964 that he got his first shot in the NHL. He made his NHL debut on opening night of the 1963-64 season, a 3-5 loss to Toronto (October 15) and never looked back. He played ten seasons in Detroit before he was suddenly traded to Minnesota for Ted Harris on November 7,1973.

" I wasn't surprised, but I was definitely dismayed when they traded me," Gary said back then. " I think it's very difficult to make a change after playing in one city as long as I did. I cannot say I was exactly attached to the people who operate the Red Wing organization because there have been so many changes in Detroit. " But I had become a little spoiled. " I was in my tenth year as a Detroit resident and I never even had to leave home to get to training camp. Now that's a real plus. Aside from hockey, my wife and I had our own special activities that we were sorry to leave and our three children had made a lot of friends. The difficult part of a trade is pulling up roots and transplanting ourselves. I had been doing things the Red Wing way for so many years."

Gary's stint in Minnesota lasted only for 57 games, that was the rest of the 1973-74 season before he was traded back to Detroit less than a year later. He played the 1974-75 season in Detroit before he was once again traded. This time it was to the Kansas City Scouts who were in desperate need for a reliable veteran defenseman. Gary provided Kansas with leadership and a 38 point season (5+33), his second best output of his 12 year NHL career. His best came in 1967-68 when he had 41 points (13+28) for Detroit. Despite his offensive outburst for Kansas he decided to retire. Gary was after all 38 years old.

He served as the president of the Red Wings Alumni Association in 1981 and from 1997 to 2000.

Gary had a malignant melanoma removed from his back in 1994 and there were no other health problems until he got a new diagnosis on April, 2000 that confirmed it had spread.

It's a great shame that Gary didn't make it to the 1972 Team Canada reunion held at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on November 3, 2000. Almost all the players from the 1972 team were there but Gary was too ill to attend. The heroes of 1972 were saddened to hear about Gary's condition.

"The guys who played knew Bergie's value to the team,'' said Paul Henderson, the hero of the 1972 series and a former teammate of Gary in Detroit. " He was a friend in Detroit, too, and I developed a deep respect for him as a husband and a father.''

"From my perspective, he was one of the great unsung heroes of that series,. He just played incredible hockey.''

"He was an above-average player in the NHL at that time and he proved that during the series,'' Bill White, one of the 1972 team's other defencemen, said. " Bergie gave a great account of himself in that whole series. " The steadiness of his play is what I remember most.''

"He was a rock,'' said Bobby Orr who didn't play in the series due to a knee injury but who travelled with the team and was impressed with Gary's steady play.

"We hit it off really good for guys who didn't know each other very well,'' said his defensive partner Brad Park. " I was more of an offensive guy so we jelled very well together.

"Right away I realized what a classy guy he was in how he handled himself on and off the ice, and what a great competitor he was. He had a lot of confidence in his ability and wasn't worried about how he was going to play. He just went out and played. He was as solid a defenceman as has ever played the game.''

Sadly Gary passed away on December 8, 2000. He was 62 years old.

The 1972 Summit Series was the highlight of Gary Bergman's hockey career so it's only appropriate to finish this biography with a memorable Gary Bergman quote about that series:

"As we skated off the ice after the last game, I stopped for one more look around the old barn. I realized that never in my life would I be prouder or have more respect for a group of men than I did at that moment."

The feeling from his teammates was very mutual.

No comments: