Another memory I have from the games is laughing as we watched the Gears utilize their ‘seventh player’ to confound opposing teams and score goals. I’m referring to a couple of perennial bad spots in the hockey boards positioned just to the left and right of the goal cage. You see, hockey boards for minor league hockey teams were constructed back then out of cheap plywood and the surfaces facing the playing rink were covered in thick plastic that became brittle as it aged due to the cold from the ice surface.
The constant banging from pucks and players would loosen the wood plies and the boards would chip away on the bottom edges. We had a team of fellows at the arena who had to patch or replace these boards all the time, but one season, I guess Gears revenues were down and expenses were up and there was an unusual amount of whole replacements being performed, so we were instructed to wait longer before administering repairs. This resulted in the boards behind the goal at the Zamboni end of the ice (west goal) to have large holes behind the yellow plastic runners attached to the bottoms.
One day, as I watched the Gears practice, I notice a number of them gathered in front of the west goal talking and gesturing excitedly. Two of them – Dennis Desrosiers and Stu Irving – were leading the ‘discussion’ with the others, and I remember hearing something along the lines of “I’ll prove it to you!” The gang broke and positioned themselves in places in and between the face-off circles to the right and left of the goal, and the two protagonists skated out to center ice with a puck. Skating forward from behind the far blue line to gather momentum, Desrosiers and Irving rushed forward grabbing the puck and headed full speed toward the west goal.
The rest of the Gears evidently had been instructed to defend the two guys coming at them, including someone in full pads playing goal. The defenders braced themselves in the usual way, watching for the passing and the speed of the forward skaters. After passing between themselves a couple of times, one of the forwards reared back and fired the puck at the last curved board just to the right of goal. The defenseman, as well as the goalkeeper immediately shifted the other direction expecting the puck to go ricocheting around in back of the net – one of the classic ‘dump in’ maneuvers that gets the puck quickly around to the other side of the attack zone.
Well, you can imagine the surprise of all (except Denny D and Stewie) when the puck came straight back out on a bead to the other skater who slapped it home! Everyone raised their arms over their heads (goal!) and then literally bent over laughing. We rushed down to rink level to catch the conversation and listened as Stu filled everybody in.
It seems as though – strictly by accident during the morning shoot-around, one of the guys had noticed that when the puck hit a couple of places on the boards, instead of the usual ‘crack’ sound of hitting the plastic firmly affixed to the plywood, there was a dull ‘thunk’ sound and the puck would carom at weird angles. The player instantly got the bright idea that this ‘condition’ could be used to the advantage of the team who was playing in any period where the opposing goal was at this end of the ice. For the next hour or so, the group practiced using this additional ‘player’ to pass to (and receive ‘passes’ back!) and they worked out maneuvers for each type of ricochet.
It just so happens that there was a game that evening and that I had to work it. Sure enough, after allowing enough time for the game to ‘settle in,’ the Gears broke out their magic play, and with the expected results. The opposing team was dumbfounded, but they didn’t catch on: the Gears were smart enough not to go to the well unless absolutely necessary.
As it turned out, the Gears had to use their ‘additional player’ only once or twice per game, so it took awhile for opposing teams to catch on, but catch on they did, and they put up a howl to the league office. The upshot was that we received a special call one day to come in early and replace the entire set of boards behind the west goal whether they needed it or not. I remember some of the Gears players laughing as they took the ice for practice that morning watching us feverishly replacing all the boards.