December 05, 2016
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.