In a sport known for ruffians and scofflaws, hockey’s Andy Hebenton conducted himself like Gandhi on blades.
While others followed a Biblical code of matching a slash for a slash, a crosscheck for a crosscheck, the pacific Mr. Hebenton turned the other cheek, which then, as often as not, was struck by an opponent’s elbow.
His gentlemanly comportment infuriated some hockey traditionalists, who preferred the sport’s pugilistic interludes. Asked why he did not retaliate, he said, “I just don’t hate anybody.”
Mr. Hebenton, who has died at 89, was rewarded for his peaceable conduct. In a long career remarkably free of illness, injury or suspension, he played in more consecutive games than any other professional player to become the sport’s unchallenged Iron Man. For more than 15 years, from March 8, 1952, until Oct. 18, 1967, he did not miss a single match, a 1,062-game stint stretching across three Canadian prime ministerships and four American presidencies. The streak ended when he attended his father’s funeral.
As reliable as a punch clock, Mr. Hebenton’s perfect attendance somewhat overshadowed his consistency as a goal scorer. In a low-scoring era when 20 goals signified a star in the NHL, Mr. Hebenton recorded four 20-goal seasons as well as a 33-goal season in 1958-59, all with the New York Rangers. He skated in the 1960 All-Star Game and yet was returned to the minors after nine consistent seasons, showing how difficult it was to hold a roster spot in a six-team NHL. By the time the league doubled in size with expansion in 1967, Mr. Hebenton, then 38, was seen as too old, yet he continued to play professionally in the minors until the age of 46.
Known, too, for his Hollywood good looks with piercing blue eyes, a tall forehead and a buzz cut that gave his head a cylindrical shape, Mr. Hebenton’s bloodless approach did not entirely escape unpunished. He lost seven teeth in a fortnight of heavy NHL action, had an eye blackened and swollen shut from a high stick and suffered a severely bruised left shoulder in his 389th NHL game when Montreal’s Bob Turner checked him into the boards.
“I’d get more recognition if I was a mean guy,” he told The New York Times in 1961. “But when you go around knocking everybody down, you’re too tired to put a puck in the net. I was hired to score goals, not to sit in the penalty box.”
He was recognizable on ice for an awkward, choppy skating stride in which he tucked his chin to his chest, waggled his shoulders and stutter-stepped across the ice like a man jogging on a beach.
Andrew Alexander Hebenton was born in Winnipeg on Oct. 3, 1929, to Scottish immigrant parents – the former Isabella Bruce, a farmer’s daughter, and Robert Hebenton, a gardener and Great War veteran. They raised a son and daughter in a small house near the old Polo Park Racetrack at 580 Valour Rd., which had been renamed for three Victoria Cross winners who had lived on the street.
The boy spent hours on outdoor rinks practising his shot, while also playing soccer, softball and hockey for Isaac Brock School. At 17, he was named most valuable player of his juvenile hockey league and at 19, he led his junior circuit with 30 goals in 30 games for the Winnipeg Canadians. The 5-foot-9, 182-pound winger turned professional with the Cincinnati Mohawks, before spending five seasons with the minor-league Victoria Cougars.
The Cougars held an Andy Hebenton Night on March 9, 1955, in which the forward and his wife, the former Gael Beveridge, were presented with fishing tackle, a steak knife, electric fryer, sugar tongs, silver tea set, passes to local movie houses, dinette and bedroom suites, automatic washer and dryer, and a 21-inch television set, as well as a giant stuffed panda bear and a pedal car for their two-year-old son. The following month, the winger was sold to the NHL Rangers.
He ate so many potatoes at his first training camp that head coach Phil Watson nicknamed him Spuds.
Mr. Hebenton skated on the Rangers’ second line with Camille Henry and Red Sullivan. In eight seasons with New York, he served just 75 penalty minutes.
In the 1957 playoffs, he scored an overtime goal against Jacques Plante to win Game 2 of a semi-final series with the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal won the series four games to one on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
He was awarded the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy and a $1,000 prize for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play in 1957. In 1959-60, he was whistled for only two minor penalties.
After eight seasons with the Rangers, the forward was claimed by the Boston Bruins in the intraleague draft. He was with Boston when he surpassed Johnny Wilson’s consecutive NHL games streak of 580. Mr. Hebenton’s standard of 630 games was surpassed by Garry Unger in 1975. Doug Jarvis, who played his final NHL game in 1987, holds the current NHL Iron Man mark of 964 games.
Mr. Hebenton scored 189 goals with 202 assists in 630 NHL games. He scored six goals in 22 NHL playoff games.
After being demoted, he spent another decade in professional hockey with the Portland Buckaroos and Victoria Maple Leafs of the Western Hockey League, where he won the Fred J. Hume Cup as most gentlemanly player six times.
To stay in shape in the off-season, he hauled wheelbarrows of concrete on construction sites.
He was one of the original inductees into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame in 1985 and he has also been enshrined in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame (2009). The Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League awards the Andy Hebenton Trophy to the top team at the end of the regular season.
Mr. Hebenton died Jan. 29 at a care facility near his home outside Portland, Ore. He was predeceased by his wife of 62 years, Gael, who died in 2014, at the age of 82. He leaves a son, Clay Hebenton, who was a goaltender for the Phoenix Roadrunners of the World Hockey Association.
In 1966, Victoria held a second Andy Hebenton Night to mark his 1,000th consecutive professional game. (It was actually his 1,007th, or 1,076th, if you include playoffs.) He was presented with more fishing gear, golf clubs, snow tires, a stereo set, a buffet bar, a colour television and envelopes that contained $630 (a dollar for each NHL game) and $1,000.
Eleven months later, he missed a game in Portland against the Seattle Totems to attend his father’s funeral in Winnipeg. After returning to the team, the reliable forward skated in another 574 consecutive games.