My head knows that it is just a piece of cloth. But my heart knows that a hockey jersey is also the place where the game itself lives. It is where hockey players spend those brief minutes that nature, talent and hard work allow them to play the game I love. So finding, holding, perhaps even owning an original 1970s World Hockey Association game jersey for my hometown major league Indianapolis Racers had been a holy grail for me, for decades now.
A few days ago, I finally held one in my hands, and I let the royal blue polyester slide over my hands. I reveled at the obvious damage it had endured: black marks from stick blades and puck hits over the Racers crest, and snags and burns from collisions at such speed and force that the polyester literally melted in spots. There were holes, fabric runs and damage that comes only from a hockey player giving his sweat and his tears for his teammates.
And then I saw the blood of Gilles Marotte. He must have taken a blow to the face, because the trail of blood starts at the top of the jersey, just under the collar. It continues through the elegant Racers logo crest, and finishes at the bottom waist hem. Neither the team’s equipment manager nor time itself could mitigate the stains. They’re just faded brown spots now, but this piece of cloth, this Racers’ game jersey, this childhood dream of mine, would always carry with it a bit of Gilles Marotte.
A rugged NHL and WHA veteran for almost 900 games in 13 seasons from 1965-1978, defensemen Gilles Marotte will never again wear his final major league jersey – he died of pancreatic cancer in 2005 at age 60. The irony for me is that Gilles was never one of my favorite Racers as I followed the club like a religious cult in the late 1970s. He only played the last half of the 1977-78 season with Indy, the last stop of his long, tiring career. While I can still remember details of many Racers as they hopped over the bench onto the ice decades ago, Gilles Marotte is only a hazy memory for me.
But his legacy was handed to me, along with his last jersey, at the 2007 reunion of Racers players and fans brought together by the publication of my Racers book. One of the Racers Booster Club officers had kept the jersey safe and sound through the decades, and brought it to me after hearing of my pleas to somehow own one. It is no exaggeration of any kind to say that I stopped breathing and turned absolute white when it was given to me. No one ever expects to actually hold the grail they seek.
Matter-of-fact, quiet and full of true Midwest humility, my new Racers Booster friend wanted to believe this was no big deal, no giant favor, nothing but the act of giving an old jersey to a younger fan. But deep down, in her eyes, it seemed to me that she was delighted that it could bring such exhilaration. Perhaps she was delighted that the Racers, dead since 1979, perhaps would live again in this little way. She did know, by the way, that an Indianapolis Racers jersey such as this one fetches thousands of dollars at auction. But she also knew that money couldn’t buy the passion that flashed in my eyes when I saw it. It will never meet the auction block while I breath; heck, I might be wearing it when I meet up with Gilles Marotte in my hockey afterlife.
And I hope no one saw this next bit: I left the party briefly and went outside, in the autumnal Indiana sunshine, and put on the jersey. I jumped for joy like my Racers had just scored a game winning goal, like I was 13 again.
“Just a piece of cloth,” I tried to believe.
And once I saw the blood – this player’s sacrifice – on the jersey, I had to know more about Gilles Marotte. I understand that every hockey player will get blood on his jersey, and much of the time it’ll be his own, too. But it made even more sense when I remembered that Gilles Marotte’s nickname throughout the hockey world was “Captain Crunch.” He was renowned for his hitting, his gritty style, and his solid, thick physique.
I looked down at the sleeves of this size 48 Rawlings shirt, and saw how his 200 pound, 5′ 9” frame filled it like a fireplug. “Captain Crunch” was all about contact, and so I would have been surprised if his blood didn’t grace his work clothes. I also wondered: even when he played in the 1973 NHL All-Star game, did he hit the other team?
I’m pretty certain that this is the same blue Racers’ jersey Gilles wore in the official 1977-78 Racers team photo I have in my book, taken just after he joined the squad halfway through the season. The WHA has switched “home” and “away” colors for that campaign, so the beautiful blue shirts were the “home” apparel for the year. Based on the high amount of game wear, it’s a good guess that the team only issued this one blue “home” jersey for half of Gilles’ 44 Racers games. It even still had its name plate on the back when my Booster member obtained it from the team after the 1978 season – which is an extremely rare find for the era, and means it most likely was his last jersey.
My Racers friend attempted to give this jersey back to Gilles Marotte late in his life, but he declined. It was explained that he didn’t want to relive the end of his career, from a hard, difficult year.
So a final irony is clear to me – the jersey Gilles Marotte didn’t want to wear again will now assure that his memory will remain alive with hockey fans. He now holds a special place for me on my childhood team that will always be my favorite. So I’ll wear this simple piece of cloth at every hockey game I can, and when asked the inevitable “Weren’t the Racers Wayne Gretzky’s first team?” I’ll instead explain all about “Captain Crunch” – and the blood of Gilles Marotte.
Timothy Gassen is the author of the book “Red, White & Blues: a personal history of Indianapolis Racers Hockey 1974-1979” and a columnist for Inside Hockey.