It was no surprise when Shirley Gilbertson reported that her husband, Stan, was late getting home from work. In his days as a hockey player, he kept some pretty irregular hours.
This time the reason was different, though. Gilertson explained the next day that the delay had been caused by the need to cement a few more details about the house he had eventually sold that night.
Stan Gilbertson, former Capital, is doing just fine these days as a realestate salesman. His base of operations is San Ramon, Calif., not far from the Oakland Coliseum where he spent three seasons as a California Seal. It was the longest tenure of any of 10 pro teams for whom he toiled in 12 years as a hockey player.
Gilbertson's hockey career ended Oct. 1, 1977, not on the ice but on a Pennsylvania highway. He was driving a jeep belonging to a Pittsburgh Penguin teammate when a car appeared headed straight for him in his lane. He swerved off the road, rolled over and came to a stop upside down, the jeep half over a narrow railroad bridge. His left leg was a bloody mess. He considers himself lucky that every part of his body was not a bloody mess.
The nerves in the leg were hopelessly shredded and doctors were forced to amputate. He almost died when his body temperature climbed to 104 degrees during surgery. The leg was taken off below the knee, but the stump failed to heal properly and more had to be removed at the knee, making it more difficult to use an artificial leg.
Gilbertson had been a happy-go-lucky guy, on the ice and off. His many friends wondered how he would handle this terribly serious situation. He wondered, too. Now he can look back and realize that it was his greatest achievement.
"I got a lot of publicity over it, but I have to tell people not to believe all of it," Gibertson said. "Actually, though, I'm proud of the way I handled it. Probably being an athlete had somethin to do with it. An athlete is always competing and I looked at this as another from of competition."
Unlike many of the teams for which he played, Gilbertson became a clear winner. After some problems with a temporary leg, he was fitted for a permanent one a year ago. A month later, he was back on the golf course.
Ask him whether he misses hockey and there is no hesitation about the reply: "No." Then the added touch of Gilbertson humor: "No one's running around at me in here."
Al Savill, then the Penguins' owner, offered Gilbertson a job in hockey, but it was rejected without consideration.
"I wanted to come back here; I consider California my home," said the 34-year-old native of Duluth, Minn. "Hockey is one phase of your life. I didn't want to stick around as a scout. Some people I had to listen to made me sick, always talking about the good old days.
"I'm happy I made it to the NHL and I'm proud I was one of the first Americans. But I was never one of the best. I was ready to try something else, anyway. How long can you play? Some guys don't know when to quit.
"I miss the camaraderie of it all and I did enjoy that that year with Pittsburgh, when we made the playoffs. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Even though we only got to play three games in the playoffs, that's what it's about."
In a rare display of brilliance on the ice, Gilbertson once scored four goals, still the Capitals' record, in a game against Pittsburgh. Asked if it provided his brightest hockey memory, he displayed a new maturity with a reflective answer.
"It was enjoyable," he said, "but deep down, because I was always kind of an individual, I'd have to say my brightest thrill was just playing in the league for a number of years. When I started, there was no draft system and not this number of teams. Now they sign a kid and tell him he's on the team. Looking back, I remember how happy I was just to get a few shifts, win or lose."
With the Capitals, Gilbertson was part of the fabled "Brew Line" with Tommy Williams and Ace Bailey. There is a memory of a delightful moment, after a rare Capital victory, when Gilbertson called a reporter aside to sheepishly request, "Hey, lay off that 'Brew Line' in the paper, will you, management is on us."
As coguardian of the Capitals' illicit training-camp beer supply, Gilbertson was nailed, along with Jack Egers, by Coach Milt Schmidt, who announced some heavy fines and departed. Gibertson and Egers then forced their way into Schmidt's room and engaged in a late-night shouting match.Remarkably, they stayed with the team.
"As players, we were never happy," Gibertson said. "We were always bitching about something and somebody. I played with too many bad teams and popped off too much. I missed too many curfews. I don't miss playing much, but I miss the guys and having a beer with them."
He and Williams hoisted a few when the "Bomber" visited California last spring for some golf outings with his old pal. But Gilbertson has not met Bailey since the current Edmonton Oiler visited his hospital room shortly after the accident.
"Ace's wife Kathy called me last month," Gibertson said, "but I missed the chance to see him."
Gilbertson follows the NHL standings in the newspapers, and he wonders why the Capitals have had so little brewing since their long-ago days as a bottle baby.
"You'd think they'd at least reach.500," he said.
Gilbertson chuckled, that old familiar chuckle from the days when life was just a bowl of cherries, preferably mixed with ice and a choice beverage. The listener got the feeling Stan Gilbertson had gotten a leg up on an even better life.