'Some of those girls can shoot that puck'

Saturday, March 2, 2002 – Globe and Mail, Print Edition, Page F2

Boom Boom Geoffrion, inventor of hockey's slapshot, walks stiffly now. The arteries in his legs are hardened. He's had surgery on his neck. He's survived prostate cancer and a mild stroke. Ulcers have left him with half a stomach. Recently, he went blind in one eye.

"He's still pretty handsome," says Marlene, his wife of 50 years, appraising her husband's deep blue eyes, snow-white hair and still-imposing bulk.

"That's the least of my worry right now," Geoffrion replies, in charmingly ungrammatical English. At lunch, he's nattily dressed in a cinnamon Ultra-suede blazer, cream wool turtleneck, polished tasseled loafers and chocolate wool pants cinched with a Geoffrey Beene belt.

Younger Canadians sometimes assume Tim Horton makes doughnuts. Say "Boom Boom," and they might think: stripper. But Joseph Andre Bernard Geoffrion got his nickname from his thunderous slapshot, an invention that helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup five years in a row.

The legendary hockey player is now 71. He has spent more than half a lifetime in Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. He remains a Canadian citizen, but his French-Canadian accent now comes sweetened with a southern drawl.

In his time, professional players were barred from the Olympics. So he was especially thrilled last week when Canada's hockey teams won gold. "I was very proud of all the players, especially Mario Lemieux." As for the women's hockey team, he says: "Some of those kids can play in the NHL. They have lots of guts and talents. Some of those girls can shoot that puck."

Geoffrion rarely comes home to Canada these days, but he was in Toronto recently to spread the word about age-related blindness. "Not because I wanted to come. Not because I wanted to tell the whole world what I have. But I have an obligation to tell my people: You can prevent that."

By "that," he means age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of acquired blindness, and the reason he has zero sight in his right eye. "I was discouraged for three or four months. Then I decided to get off my butt and tell people."

There is no cure for his blindness. Some ophthamologists believe that a diet high in antioxidants may reduce the risk. So three years ago, to save his 20/20 vision in his other eye, Geoffrion began taking a multivitamin that includes lutein, an antioxidant compound found in broccoli, kale and spinach.

Centrum, which sells multivitamins, paid his way to Toronto and Montreal. But unlike other celebrity athletes who get paid gazillions to endorse products, Geoffrion isn't getting a cent outside of his travel expenses. That's because since transplanting himself to Atlanta, he's become a born-again Christian.

"You want to give back to society," he says of his midlife religious transformation. "It changes your heart. You think more of your neighbour."

It's a grey day outside, but he keeps sunglasses in his breast pocket because any ultraviolet light is harmful to his eyes. His blindness means he lacks depth perception. He now plays golf only once a week, and always with the same friend, on whom he relies to estimate the distance to the hole. He's given up driving at night. "How long I will be able to drive during the day, I don't know. I don't want to cause no accident."

At lunch at Grano's, he does not read the menu. Reading has become a chore. Instead, he listens carefully as the waiter lists the specials. Then he orders a glass of wine and splits a bowl of soup -- minestrone -- with his wife.

"Do you notice we're eating antioxidants?" Marlene says. At 68, she has blond hair and red nails. Around her neck is a heart-shaped pendant, with diamonds surrounding the number 35, for their 35th anniversary.

They met, naturally, on ice. Marlene, the daughter of hockey great Howie Morenz, was 17 and a champion figure skater. She was performing at the Montreal Forum and had her sights set on a European career. He was 19, one of several new Canadiens who would be introduced at intermission.

Marlene noticed him staring hard at her. "I thought: how rude." Just then, she tripped over an ice-cream cup lid someone had tossed on the rink. She went flying, sliding the whole length of the ice. "I looked up, and he was smirking." Miffed, she got up and performed a dazzling string of axels and spins.

From the sidelines, Geoffrion approached Marlene's brother. Impressed by the rookie's talents, he gave out her phone number. "I think he was thinking hockey tickets," she says.

Geoffrion spoke only French. She spoke only English. Despite the language barrier, they were engaged two months later, and married soon after. Their first of three children was born nine months after the wedding. "Everyone was counting on fingers," Marlene says. "But it wasn't. It was legal."

They're bilingual now. For Geoffrion, a Grade 8 dropout, it's the French interviews looming in Montreal that worry him. For one thing, he can't say "antioxidant" in French.

Years ago, they mocked him for a blooper on French television. He was in the hospital to treat bursitis in his shoulder. Michel Normandin, a French anchor, asked what was wrong with him. Geoffrion should have said "bursite." Instead, cameras rolling, he replied, "Surbite," which is slang for huge penis.

"For one year, everybody said, 'Way to go, Boom,' " he says, starting in on ricotta-stuffed crępes.

He grew up on Delormier Street in a working-class slum best captured by Gabrielle Roy's novel The Tin Flute. Geoffrion's father, a restaurateur, lost everything in the Depression. The family ate mostly baked beans, bologna and, sometimes, mustard sandwiches. He remembers his father trudging to work, lunch bucket in hand, at a wartime munitions factory.

"I told my mother, 'What I'm doing now, practising hockey outside, I'm going to make good,' " he says, ordering a second glass of red wine. "I'm going to make a better life."

Asked how much better, Geoffrion's face darkens. "The most I ever made in the NHL, after 16 years, was $27,000." As for the pension, "I don't want to talk about it. It's a disgrace," he says, pausing to sign autographs for the restaurateur's children.

Hockey players today flit from team to team. Geoffrion stayed 14 years with the Canadiens, part of the dream team that included Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau.

In those days, the men sometimes played when injured. Geoffrion remembers that the Canadiens were trying for their sixth Stanley Cup in a row when he tore some ligaments in his leg and had to wear a cast. On the train to Chicago, for a key game with the Blackhawks, his teammate Doug Harvey took care of him.

"Doug said, 'Come here. I'll fix your leg.' " Harvey cut Geoffrion's cast off with a knife. Alas, Chicago won that game, and eventually the Stanley Cup.

Then, in 1955, Maurice Richard was suspended for brawling. Fans rioted. They threw Molotov cocktails and rotten tomatoes. Hockey in Quebec, after all, was bigger than religion. At the time, the Rocket had looked like he would win the one trophy that had always eluded him: highest NHL scorer.

When Richard was suspended for the season, Geoffrion was only two points behind. The teammates had agreed that the scoring race was secondary; the main goal was to win games. On the second to last game of the season, Geoffrion got a goal, tying him for first place in the scoring race. In the last game, against Detroit, Geoffrion got an assist. "So I beat him by one point," says Geoffrion, shaking his head. "The fans never forgot me." He means they never forgave him.

"I went through hell," he adds. "It was like I became a traitor."

"Boom was very popular," Marlene interjects.

"But Maurice was God," Geoffrion says. He was booed on ice. He got threatening calls at home. His children were subjected to abuse at school.

In 1967, he was traded to the New York Rangers. After that, he returned to Canada, briefly, to coach the Montreal Canadiens. He left three months later, after the Canadiens lost six consecutive road games.

"Boom never made money in hockey," Marlene says. "We were always Mr. and Mrs. Bag Lady."

In 1979, Geoffrion went to Atlanta. Someone told him to see Ted Turner, who hadn't yet married Jane or invented CNN. "He picked up the phone and said, 'Put the hockey puck on the payroll,' " says Geoffrion, still astonished at Turner's generosity. He went to work in the public-relations department for $27,000 (U.S.) a year, the same he'd been making as head coach of the Canadiens.

The Turner job led to beer commercials, at $30,000 a pop, and a decent living. His sole line: One-third less calories than regular beer. "I kept saying 'one-turd,' " Geoffrion recalls.

"I said, 'Omigod, we're going to lose the commercial,' " says Marlene, who was standing by. Still, she discreetly asked everyone at the studio not to tease him. "Do not even let him know he has an accent." Eventually, he got it right.

Asked at lunch to say, "one-third," Geoffrion looks mildly disgusted. "One-third," he says perfectly. A few years ago, Molson came calling, but he turned them down because of his born-again beliefs.

Unlike Guy Lafleur, Geoffrion isn't interested in making commercials for Viagra. But wouldn't it be fun to say "surbite" once more? "C'mon," he says. "Give me a break." Marlene beams. She doesn't say a word.