To my way of thinking, you have to be pretty darn good hockey player just to skate a single 30-second shift in the National Hockey League. How good, then, would someone have to be to stick around for a total of 61 NHL games, despite not recording a single point in any of them?
That’s the question that popped into my mind when I recently came across Gordon Strate’s odd record for futility. His was the kind of oddball story that I’ve always enjoyed digging into.
Strate was a rugged defenseman who played parts of three seasons at Olympia Stadium in the late 1950s. Whether playing in the Western Hockey League (where he spent his early career) or suiting up for the Detroit Red Wings, the Edmonton native played the old-school, stay-at-home style of defense, which limited his chances for tallying points. But 61 games without getting on the scoring sheet? It was unprecedented. To this day, no other NHL player (except goalies) has skated in as many games without managing at least one point. The runner-up is Frank “Frosty” Peters, a New York Rangers blue-liner who played the entire 44-game schedule in 1930-31 without registering a goal or an assist.
Aside from Strate’s statistical quirk, I discovered another unusual aspect to his career. He belonged to the Church of Latter Day Saints. As a Mormon, Strate didn’t drink, smoke, cuss, or chase women, which had to set him apart from 99.7% of his contemporaries in the ‘50s. Strate, a second-team WHL All-Star in 1957, felt confident enough in his professional prospects to marry a young lady named Myrna. During their 56 years together they would produce six children and 33 grandchildren.
After playing 45 games with Detroit in 1957-58, Strate spent the next few years in the minors. Figuring his chances of returning to the NHL were slim, and with a growing family to feed, he left the game after one last season with Sudbury. He opened a tire shop in Fort St. John, British Columbia, which became a kind of local landmark. Upon retiring, he made his way back to his hometown of Edmonton. I intended to call Strate and ask him about his days in and out of hockey, to get his thoughts about his odd NHL record, maybe even get his opinion of Brother Mitt. But I was too late. He had died just a few months earlier, surrounded by loved ones. He was 77.
I decided against bothering his family. Instead, I scrolled through the dozens of reminiscences posted on the funeral home’s online book of condolences. I was struck not only by the number, but by the content. “As kids we were awed that a former, professional hockey player was in our home and such a gentleman and fun guy!” wrote a woman named Lona. “He was always such a kind-hearted man.” Said a fellow named Gene: “Gord was always a true gentleman who never failed to ask how you were, and how your family was.”
Surprisingly, there was not a single mention of Strate’s NHL career, and hardly any hockey references at all. The community knew the old rearguard for his beguiling half-smile, his love of gardening, his visits to sickly friends, his caroling of neighbors at Christmas, for a variety of small kindnesses. “The world would be a better place if more men were like Gordon Strate,” a person wrote. That sentiment was echoed by others, almost to the word. As an epitaph, it seems as good a way as any to close out this little story about Gordon Strate, the Wings defenseman whose life evidently was anything but pointless, even if his NHL career was.