(Mark Malone/Chatham Daily News photo)
Welcome to Blue Collar Weekly “Legends of the Past” which is an offseason edition of BCW where we honor legendary Blues alumni.
This week the “Blue Collar” goes to…
Gary Bruce Sabourin was born December 4th,1943 in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada. He grew up playing hockey with his friends and classmates on the ice of the Magnetawan River until he was 13yrs old because his family couldn’t afford to play travel hockey. The river flows 175 km from its source of Magnetawan Lake inside Algonquin Provincial Park to empty into the Georgian Bayat the community of Britt on the Byng inlet. The name of the river means “swiftly flowing waters.” Ironically when we think of the NHLer Gary, we can also notice he is a swift and robust player. He was a stout two-way forward that had to work harder than most because he didn’t possess the essential skills others had.
Source credit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetawan_River
The Big Move
By the time Gary reached the age of 14, his family had moved to Blind River. As a result, this move changed his entire life. He finally had a chance to play organized hockey for real-life teams in an actual organization. He could finally start working to make his childhood dream a reality. Hence with the long days and nights of hockey on the icy river still fresh in his memory, his plans were instantly set in motion. An inevitable destiny and a legacy that would later be remembered forever in the history of professional hockey.
After a tryout with the Chicago Black Hawks, a junior franchise in St. Catharines at 15, Gary played junior B in Orangeville where he signed a contract with New York. The Rangers assigned Sabourin to their junior affiliate in Guelph in 1962-63. The franchise would relocate to Kitchener in 1963-64. Guelph is where all his determination paid dividends because he scored almost a point per game in 96 games in the OHA-Jr league.
|1963-64||20||St. Paul Rangers||CPHL||6||2||1||3||9|
|1964-65||21||St. Paul Rangers||CPHL||59||16||22||38||92|
|1967-68||24||Kansas City Blues||CPHL||18||8||10||18||16|
From 1963-67 Gary played for the Ranger team affiliates. However, during the expansion draft of 1967, St. Louis selected Rod Selling from the Rangers, immediately trading him back to New York for Sabourin, Tim Ecclestone, Gord Kannegiesser, and Bob Plager. Furthermore, Gary started the season with the Kansas City Blues and scored 18 points in eighteen games. As a result, in December 1967 he finally got that call for which he had been waiting! The St.Louis Blues called him and Frank St.Marseille, and Terry Crisp to play in the NHL.
Introducing Scotty Bowman
New coach Scotty Bowman figured things out quickly coaching the Blues in their first year after taking over for coach/GM Lynn Patrick. He was the one that wanted those three players called up.
“Bowman and his players, captained by Arbour, would hit their stride in the West Division, which consisted of six expansion teams; Patrick gave his new coach free rein on personnel and Bowman immediately called up Kansas City’s Frank St. Marseille, Gary Sabourin and Terry Crisp, “who was better than our third line in St. Louis.”
Seven Years in Blue (1967-74)
A rookie at 24 and slipping into their first NHL playoffs
Gary Sabourin became an NHL rookie at the age of 24 and his linemates Crisp, and St.Marseille helped the first year NHL team narrowly slip into the playoffs. The West was competitive. The Penguins, six points behind the first-place Philadelphia Flyers at the end of the 74-game schedule, finished fifth and missed the playoffs. The Blues defeated the Minnesota North Stars twice on the final weekend to qualify and barely made it, finishing third, one point up on Minnesota, three on Pittsburgh.
The Blues would win their quarter and semifinals series vs. Flyers and the North Stars both in 7 games, consequently moving on to the Stanley Cup Finals against the phenomenal powerhouse Montreal Canadians. But the Blues would be no match for the Canadians. As a result, St.Louis got swept 4-0. Gary scored 6 points in 18 playoff games in 1967-68. He also had one game-winner and one powerplay goal.
The First 3 Years in the Finals =Hard Work
St.Louis would go on to play their first three years in the Stanley Cup Final matches. Though they got swept in all three series, they played with heart and showed the city that they loved the game of hockey. Sabourin was often noted to be a “hardworking spark plug.”At one point early in his career Sabourin took 100 pucks home in the offseason and practiced his shots, in turn, 4 out of the seven seasons with the Blues he ended with more than an 11% shot percentage. He finished with a 10% shot percentage in his seven-year total with the Blues. He also scored 20 or more goals four times as a St.Louis Blue, and he tallied 15 or more assists 5 out of 7 years with the team.
Gary In his own Words
“I’m just an average hockey player, so I have to hustle,” explained Sabourin of his hard-working style “I score goals, yes, but in spurts. Most of the time, I have to rely on hard work.”
Breaks Blues Career Points Record
On January 19th,1974 “Sabby” assisted on a Gary Unger goal in a 5-2 loss to Detroit, pushing him ahead of Frank St.Marseille as the Blues All-Time Goal Scorer, which was his 258th point as a St.Louis Blue player.
The Bowman Effect
Bowman went 110-83-45 with the Blues over four seasons. The demanding coach would get the most out of his Blues players and push them as hard as they could go. Bowman once left a hockey stick with a bell captain in a Detroit hotel, any player signatures collected on it after midnight would show him who had broken curfew. He was known for scheduling two grueling practices in a 24 hr period, one early morning and one late afternoon to maximize commuting. The results paid off in the long run and they at least made the Finals three years in a row.
Here’s what Gary had to say about his coach during an interview in 2019:
“You might have hated Scotty during the year, but on June 30 when you got your playoff check, you loved him,” Sabourin said. “… He treated you like (crap), then the next thing you know you were in the Stanley Cup final.”
Bowman knew how to get the most out of his players, he said. “He was just a tremendous coach,” Sabourin said. “We felt so confident playing for him.”
I believe Gary Sabourin fit right in with this coach and respected him and his authority. He bought into the hard-working mentality and became a Blues legend partly because of Bowman’s methods.
Departure from Blues
Gary was eventually traded to Toronto for Ed Johnston in May 1974, and after one season, the California Golden Seals traded Stan Weir and acquired Sabourin. During his single season in Oakland, Gary added a fifth twenty-goal season. When the Seals relocated, Sabourin became a Cleveland Baron, but unfortunately, a recurring knee injury brought a conclusion to his career after 33 games in the Barons, 1976-77 season. During his entire NHL career, he played in 627 games, where he scored 169 goals and tallied 188 assists. He had 30 points (19g 11 a) in 62 career playoff games, with five game-winners and a shot percentage of 11.3 in that time frame. He played in 1970-71 NHL AllStar Games.
Retirement and Hall of Fame Bobby Orr style
After retiring, Gary moved back to Britt, then settled in Chatham, Ontario and became a baker. He owned Buns Master Bakery until a fire destroyed the entire block on which it sat on March 10, 2011.
In 2003, the prestigious Bobby Orr Hall of Fame inducted Gary! Here’s a little of what he had to say about his journey in this video below. https://www.facebook.com/rogershometownhockey/videos/gary-sabourin-and-floyd-thompson-interview/1907620639378976/
My final thoughts
These are just many of the reasons I love Gary Sabourin and his style of hockey. I believe he is one of the pieces of Blues history that still shines in a city where the average blue-collar workers drive the city to success in a modern world. Sabourin can understand where his fans were coming from and shared a connection and familiarity to their everyday lives. I believe his story is unique, and I’m honored to have written about such a genuine human being and true St.Louis Blue! Thank you, Gary! I leave you with a quote from Gary himself.
“We turned St. Louis on its ear for three years,” said Sabourin, 75. “That place would be rocking. …
“They were the seventh man for us.” Gary Sabourin
I also want to shout out to https://vhlportal.com/ The VHL is a popular online hockey simulation league! Check them out its a whole bunch of fun for all hockey fans!