Thoughts on the WHA’s 50th, a maiden road trip to Dauphin for the MJHL playoffs, bending elbows with the Soviets, and other recollections of a hockey life

Those of my vintage are sometimes reminded by friends and family of our distant bygones. You know people, days and events that generally generate this sort of comment: “Was it that long ago? Really?”

Then we curse damnable time for its refusal to stand still.

Mind you, some among us are accepting of time’s unstoppable strut, recognizing that there’s not a blessed thing we can do to prevent it and accepting that our glory days are behind us, but not necessarily our glorious days.

Either way, our power of recollection is triggered and memories surface, some sketchy and others as vivid as our first kiss.

For example, later this year a bunch of the ol’ boys will gather in Whistler to bend elbows and swap lies and, once they’ve slipped into full fib mode, it probably won’t seem like 50 years of water has passed beneath the bridge since the World Hockey Association gave the shinny establishment a shake, a rattle and a roll.

They’ll overdose on nostalgia and probably natter about colored pucks, zebras with red stripes, the Baby Bulls, Bad News Bilodeau, missed paydays, the dearly departed, and the night Cincinnati gendarmes hauled Frank Beaton of the Birmingham Bulls to the hoosegow. During a game. (Frankie had been on the lam ever since the night he cold-cocked a gas jockey for spilling fuel on his Corvette, and he once managed to escape the long arm of the law by squishing himself into an equipment bag. The night they tossed him in lockup, he’d been holed up in the Cincy Stingers equipment room.)

Guaranteed it’ll be a foot-stomping, fill-your-boots-with-hooch hoot, and I’m thinking they might need to put out an APB for a few of the boys come time for the farewell roll call, which will only add to the already plentiful and colorful folklore.

There’s an old TV show, The Naked City, that aired in the late 1950s/early 1960s, and each episode ended the same way: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” The same could be said for the WHA, and Frankie Beaton’s arrest would be a good place to start.

1978-79 Winnipeg Jets, final WHA champions.

I had a front-row perch for some of the silliness, working the Winnipeg Jets beat in the last of their three championship crusades (1978-79) and parts of the two previous seasons, so chatter of the 50th anniversary reunion surely draws my attention, yet it isn’t just the gathering of ol’ boys from the WHA that has me asking: “Was it that long ago? Really?”

For example, I took note this morning that the Manitoba Junior Hockey League is about to drop the puck on its post-season tournament, and I realized it was 50 years ago (really?) this very week that I covered my first playoff series for the Winnipeg Tribune.

It was also my maiden road trip and, although I don’t recall many of the intimate details other than a milk run of a bus ride from downtown Winnipeg to Dauphin, research reminds me that the Kings routed West Kildonan North Stars in four games, and Perry Miller was among the Westkay blueliners. (Quick aside: Percy, of course, graduated to wear Jets and Detroit Red Wings linen, and he and I formed the left side of the infield on a slo-pitch team. No ball got through us.)

Oh, one more thing: While in Dauphin, a lass speaking in a soft, sex-kittenish voice rang my hotel room after midnight and attempted to woo her way into my boudoir. Didn’t happen. (As I suspected, it was Gus Collins and the boys back in the Trib toy department who thought it would be a swell idea to prank me. Sheesh. Boys.)

Oddly enough, that Dauphin road trip does seem like 50 years ago, if not more, but the WHA start-up doesn’t. Not sure why that is.

Both, however, are reminders that I lived something of a charmed life working in jock journalism, and the majority of that time was spent roaming from barn to barn, from city to city, from province to province and state to state, from country to country, and to one continent on the other side of the Big Pond. Mostly, though, my base was Good Ol’ Hometown.

The erosion of recall doesn’t allow for flawless memories, but there are places, faces and events I can still reach out and touch:

The Old Barn On Maroons Road, circa 1979.
  • I was in the Old Barn On Maroons Road to witness the Jets whup rookie Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the final skirmish in WHA history, and I was in Pittsburgh to witness the Jets’ National Hockey League debut, a 4-2 loss to the Penguins.
  • I was in Indianapolis for Gretzky’s pro debut in October 1978. There were 11,721 people in the pews and the Jets beat the Great One and the Racers that uneventful night, 6-3. Overall, Gretzky’s debut was unremarkable. Mind you, he got better, in case you hadn’t noticed.
  • I was in E-Town the night Gretzky and the Oilers hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time.
  • John Ferguson and I were whisked into the Soviet Union equipment room to sip shots of vodka and munch on teeny wieners with the Soviet equipment guys one afternoon at the 1981 world hockey championship in Stockholm. This was during the Cold War, remember, so it was all very clandestine.
  • I swilled beer and sipped vodka with the Soviet equipment guys in the Viscount Gort Hotel at the 1981 Canada Cup. The comrades were mourning the death of legendary winger Valeri Kharlamov.
  • I had a one-on-one natter with Soviet goaltending legend Vladislav Tretyak in the kitchen of a home in River Heights. At one point, he informed me that I was “a hockey expert.” On my way back to the car, I said this to photographer Jon Thordarson: “Well, I guess I fooled ol’ Vladdy.”
  • I remember riding the iron lung on a road trip with the Winnipeg Clubs one winter night when we noticed something missing. Or, to be more accurate, someone. It was Kevin McCarthy, their best player, who’d been left behind at a McDonald’s in Regina. Yes, owner/GM Gerry Brisson ordered a U-turn and we fetched Kevin, safe and sound.
  • There was a night in the Old Barn On Maroons Road when Brisson fired his coach, George Dorman, mid-game and plopped equipment manager and bus driver Adam Tarnowski behind the bench.
  • I remember getting into it with Clubs coach Muzz MacPherson, who didn’t appreciate the tone of my post-game interrogation one night. He walked away in a huff, boarded the team bus and, midway between Winnipeg and Brandon, he stopped at a roadside pay phone in the wee hours to call me at home and apologize.
  • I was in The Old Barn On Maroons Road the night Muzz’s Portage Terriers hoisted the Centennial Cup in 1973.
  • I was in a dingy barn in Rochester, Minn., the night Canada rode a 3-3 tie vs. an uppity Czech side to claim its first world Junior hockey title in 1982. Tournament organizers didn’t have a recording of O Canada for the post-game ceremony, so the kids wearing the Maple Leaf stood along the blueline, cleared their throats and delivered the best rendition of the national anthem you’ll ever want to hear.
  • First byline story for the Trib was on the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association annual meeting of deep-thinkers in 1971, and my final byline article for the Trib was a full-page, up-close-and-personal look at Butch Goring in August 1980. Alas it never made it to print because the suits at Southam had the bad manners to stop the presses of our terrific paper. Dirty, rotten SOBs.
  • First interview was with Frank McKinnon, grand poobah of the MAHA.
  • I was on too many flights when Jets funny guy and prankster Willy Lindstrom cracked open a stink bomb. Willy was a hoot.
  • I saw the Jets hoist the Avco World Trophy, the Oilers hoist the Stanley Cup, the Portage Terriers hoist the Centennial Cup, two Canadian sides claim the world Junior title and, alas, Aime Allaire and the St. Boniface Mohawks fall short of the Allan Cup year after year.
  • I had the honor of sharing the radio booth with the legend, Friar Nicolson, for Jets games on CKY and CJOB. My color commentary could never match his play-by-play, but it was a fun gig while it lasted. And I had wonderful traveling companions: Friar, Sod Keilback and Reyn Davis.
Friar and Sod.

So many memories, too numerous to list or recall because that well ran 30 years deep.

I’ve only seen the inside of a hockey rink once since I left the rag trade and Good Ol’ Hometown in 1999, but I still follow the local shinny scene. I still write about it, too, although there are some among the rabble who, like back in the day, would prefer that I resist further urges to sit at my keyboard and allow my fingers to tap away.

I’ve given that thought, to be sure, but something always tugs at me and I can’t resist. Like the WHA’s 50th anniversary or recollections of my maiden road trip for the Trib, 50 years ago this week.

I won’t be there this year, because I don’t fancy the milk run from Victoria to Good Ol’ Hometown for the MJHL playoffs, but I suppose the WHA weekend in Whistler is a possibility. That’s next door, so we’ll see.

In the meantime, both occasions remind me that my career as a news snoop, and my hockey life, was a privilege. I was blessed. I hope today’s shinny scribes feel the same way. I’d like to think they’re enjoying themselves, and that they remember the guys and gals they write about aren’t hockey players who happen to be people, they’re people who happen to be hockey players.

It’s a great gig.

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