Among the ritual announcements that resound through the public-address systems at the beginning of all big-league hockey games is the inevitable list of players who will be absent from the ice because of injury. If you play hockey in the National Hockey League you're bound to make that list sooner or later; probably sooner, because big-league hockey is a rough game and skates are sharp and the puck moves as fast as a cannonball and the ice is hard and tempers run high and hot. So how is it that Andy Hebenton, one of the hardest skaters that ever scratched the ice, played nine straight years of National League hockey without missing a single game?
With the eloquence of an old-time athlete more deft in the performance than the promise, Andy explains it this way:
"I guess I was just lucky. Sure, I had some hurts now and then, but when I got them bad enough to miss a game I was always lucky enough to have a break in the schedule—a few nights when I could rest up."
A scarred, craggy-faced veteran of 18 years in professional hockey, Andy, at 37, has grown too old for the NHL. They sent him down to the minors a couple of years ago, but even though he was pretty angry about the demotion he went on showing up for every game. In the middle of the season that has just ended, standing nervously at center ice in Memorial Arena in Victoria, B.C., Andy was honored for having played in 1,000 consecutive professional hockey games.
On ice stacked with $6,000 worth of color television, golf clubs, stereo equipment and birthday cake, the bruised old campaigner shifted from one skate to another and glanced bright-eyed at his wife, Gail, while everybody applauded. Then, awkwardly, he stepped to the microphone and said, ""Thank you very much, but I really don't deserve all this."
Big-time hockey is played by men who take great pride in being bloodied beyond recognition one minute and getting stitched and patched to go back on the ice the next. But Joe Evans, a retired defenseman who played with Hebenton when he was on the way up, believes there were nights when Andy carried the tradition a bit too far. "He says he's been lucky," says Evans. "He says he's managed to escape a lot of injuries other guys got. Well, hell, I know Andy and I know some of the guys he played with up there. They said there were nights he should have quit—just like everybody else—but that he went out and played anyway. They also say nobody's ever goin' to do what he's done again."
Hebenton was playing with Victoria in the Western League when New York brought him up in 1955. He played with the Rangers for eight years, and then he was traded to Boston. During his nine NHL years Hebenton averaged 21 goals and 22 assists per year. During the 1958-59 season, skating on a line with Red Sullivan at center and Camille Henry at the other wing, he scored 33 goals and set up 29 more.
When the Bruins demoted him to Portland, Ore. in 1964 Andy was bitter about it. He needed one more year to become eligible for the pension awarded all players completing 10 or more seasons in the NHL, and he knew he was better than many of the players Boston kept. But he dutifully went to Portland, scored 74 points and led the Buckaroos to a sea-son's-end playoff championship.
Hebenton was in the big league long enough to establish a record for consecutive games played—630. The closest he ever came to missing a game was in 1957, the year in which he won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for being the league's most gentlemanly player. In a game in New York, Andy caught a stick in the eye. Afterward the lid started to puff up. "It shut so tight I couldn't see at all," Hebenton remembers, "but somehow our club doctor managed to squeeze drops of some kind into it the next night in Montreal. The eye opened up a little—just enough so that I could get into the game." Hebenton played a year at Portland, then was brought back to Victoria, and since returning to the Western League he has played in more than 400 consecutive games. Including playoff games, which neither the National nor Western League recognizes as part of his record, Andy had actually played in 1,076 games on the night he was feted.
If there was a year when it appeared Andy would finally sit one out, the current season appeared to be it, the way things were going for Victoria. Of Andy's 21 teammates, 18 missed games with everything from broken toes to headaches and the virus, but Hebenton kept right on going. One reason may be his off-season regimen. Instead of playing golf or lying around on some beach, Andy spends his summers carrying and laying cement for a Victoria contractor. This, he says, has been a major factor in keeping him in games he ordinarily might have missed. "How long has he been playing pro?" asks Victoria Coach Frank Mario. "Eighteen years? Well I'll tell you, the physical condition this guy's in, it'll take another eighteen years for him to get out of shape."
Exploiting his physique to its full advantage, Hebenton, 5'9", 185 pounds, patrols his wing with the style and finesse that only a player who has spent ample time in the NHL can acquire. From Vancouver to San Diego, in the smaller arenas up and down the West Coast, Hebenton is respected as one of the boss men of the Western League. They call him a "hip skater"—not in the jive sense, but because he shuffles forward like a hippy old washerwoman. But he can sweep powerfully into the corners, chasing the puck and sending swift, true passes to his linemates. Andy is still hoping for one more year in the big time—perhaps with one of the teams added to the newly expanded league. "Sure I want it for the pension," he admits, "but I also got the biggest thrills of my life when I was up there playing against the best. Hockey is all I know. I'd like to play it with the best just once more."