In the late 1960’s, he was the Golden Boy of the Detroit Red Wings.
With flowing blond locks, boyish good looks, mod clothes, and a lifestyle that included motorcycles, horses, and girlfriends galore, Garry Unger not only turned on the red light but also the hearts of admiring women.
In one of the all time blockbuster deals, twenty year old Garry Unger was traded by Toronto in March of 1968 with teammates Frank Mahovolich and Pete Stemkowski to Detroit for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.
“I was so excited because Gordie Howe was my idol growing up,” said Unger. “Suddenly, I’m centering Howe and Mahovolich.”
In his 13 games with the Wings that year, Unger had five goals and 10 assists. He then scored 24 goals in the 1968-69 season, and finished second in the league with 42 goals the following campaign. He was also scoring off the ice. The fan favorite became Detroit’s most eligible bachelor, even dating Pam Eldred, Miss America of 1969.
“A lot of people thought I might have been wild because of my look and all the girls I was dating. But I rarely drank and never let my lifestyle effect my play,” Unger said. “Our team really jelled and I was having the time of my life.”
But before the 1970-71 season, Unger and the reenergized Red Wings were shocked to find that a 47 year old Ivy League coach named Ned Harkness was hired to lead the team.
Unger’s love fest with Detroit quickly began to unravel.
On Labor Day, Unger reportedly injured his back on a diving board at a Dearborn motel causing the star center to miss all of training cup.
“I broke three bones in my back, but I made up the diving board story with a friend,” Unger said with a chuckle. “I was actually thrown off a wild horse on my property near the airport when my reins broke. I hit a tree half way up. I fibbed about it because I didn’t want the Wings to tell me I couldn’t ride horses anymore.”
When the injured Unger met Harknesss while visiting training camp, he knew problems lay ahead. “Ned took me to lunch, and instead of asking me about my back, he drew a picture on a napkin of the acceptable length for my hair. I got three haircuts before he accepted it.”
As the season started, Unger and the Red Wings quickly tired of Harkness’s nitpicking and the team floundered. After a 13-0 drubbing by Toronto on “Hockey Night In Canada” a mutiny developed when the players signed a letter to management stating that they would not play for Harkness.
“He may have been ahead of his time with the X’s and O’s, but we were tired of being treated like little kids and he had no credibility with us,” he said.
When owner Bruce Norris refused to let GM Sid Abel fire the coach, Abel resigned, Harkness was elevated to GM, and former Wing Doug Barkley was named coach. Within 30 days, Harkness struck back by dismantling the powerful team with three major trades. The last occurred when Unger and Wayne Connolly were sent to St. Louis for Red Berenson and Tim Ecclestone.
While the Wings entered their “Darkness with Harkness” period, appearing in only one playoff for the next 13 years, Unger starred for 14 more seasons. The seven time All Star, inspired by a younger sister with polio, even broke the iron man record by playing in 914 consecutive games, a prodigious feat since surpassed.
After Blue’s teammate Bob Gassoff was killed in a motorcycle accident while leaving a party at Unger’s ranch in 1977, the Golden Boy’s life changed forever.
“A month before Bob’s death, a kid asked me at the arena if I knew where I would spend eternity,” he said. I blew him off, but after Bob died it made me think. I became a born again Christian. For many years I’ve been very active in sports ministry.”
After completing his NHL career in 1983 and a two year stint in broadcasting, Unger moved with his wife Beverly and their three daughters to Great Britain where he was a player coach for five years. For several years Unger coached minor league hockey in the CHA and today he is the Director of Hockey Operations for the Banff Hockey Academy in Banff, Alberta Canada.
“I loved Detroit and wish I could have stayed. You know if the money had dried up at any time during my career I would have said, ‘drop the puck.’ I’d have played for nothing.”