Two great goaltenders—and me

By Stephen Trumper

“They call him Gumper.”

So began my cold–call cover letter for a full–time copyediting job, which I mailed to newspapers throughout Ontario as I was finishing my journalism studies.

It was a tricky writing task. I wanted to play to what I perceived to be my strengths—and not shy away from one potential weakness.

Displaying a level of chutzpah that still surprises me, I thought, maybe, my application to newsrooms might stand out if I put forward a thoughtful, fun, unexpected profile of me.

So I started my letter with the nickname my various ball–hockey teammates gave me, a reference to my surname, but also to the great NHL goaltender, Lorne “Gump” Worsley.

I played goal, primarily because limp–lurching me sucked at any position that required actual running.

My intent was to be upfront about my disability, while showing I was a resourceful, resilient young man who had successfully handled problems much bigger than anything a busy newsroom could throw at me.

The gambit worked. I was offered a job in Thunder Bay and received encouraging responses from editors in Kingston, Ottawa and Peterborough.

When I reflect on that letter today, I am struck by how much it showed the depth of my passion for hockey. In one way that wasn’t surprising. I was, after all, a Toronto boy at a time when the Maple Leafs regularly won playoff series and Stanley Cups.

However, I think that passion also came from what might best be termed the intersection of sports and disability.

It was through playing ball hockey that I first experienced the taste of true inclusion. Well before people even talked of such matters, back in the days when there was real segregation between the able-bodied and people with disabilities, I was blessed with having friends who accepted me and did not make a huge fuss about my disability, even feeling relaxed enough to good-naturedly tease me– many, many times.

I often think of people with disabilities of my generation as pioneers, but it should also be said that these friends were also pioneers. They may not realize it, but they have become my role models for judging how people with no significant disabilities treat those of us who do.

But my friends were not the only factor in the depth of my passion for hockey. There was also my adoration of Maple Leaf goalie Johnny Bower, who I met at the age of 9 or 10.

The meeting was set up through my father, who worked at a large advertising agency, where a couple of the secretaries also worked evenings as usherettes at Maple Leaf Gardens. It took place on a Saturday night, of course. I was taken into a small room and there he was, sitting in a chair, watching TV, The Beverly Hillbillies to be exact. After saying hello, he asked me if I liked the show.

“Yes, Mr. Bower.”

He went on to ask me how old I was, where I went to school, how my grades were, what I was interested in.

What I remember now is just how gracious he was. He listened intently when I told him about my goaltending exploits on the street. Since then, I’ve often thought about that encounter and what I have come to think of as that unlikely bond between disabled child and top athlete. Hockey players and professionals from other sports are constantly visiting disabled children in local hospitals.

I am sure there are some players who do it mostly for reasons of public relations, to show that they care, but I can never think of Mr. Bower that way.

Whenever you write a regular column, coming up with ideas is one of the most difficult things you do. On Boxing Day morning, I was laying in bed, on my back, listening to some jazz and thinking about what I would write about for this column. I went through several ideas and suddenly thought: the day I met Johnny Bower.

A few hours later, I was listening to the news and found out Mr. Bower had died. What are the chances: you think about somebody important in your life and on the same day you find out he has gone?

I did not know him well, but I am certain that connection between him and me, between every disabled child and great athlete, is a recognition that we each share one thing: an inner drive, against huge odds sometimes, to be the best we can possibly be.

Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor. He is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.