As told to: Greg Thomas
At fifteen, I went to try out for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Bill Gadsby was the coach and it was pretty exciting to be at the camp. They were so damn big and I was just in Bantam and overmatched. I came back to play in Irrigation Senior League. Some of the coaches from Lethbridge in the Alberta Junior Hockey League had their eye on me and invited me to come to training camp. I ended playing there for three years.
I could have played major junior in the WCHL. But with all the travel involved schooling was just out. So my dad said, “No, my son is going to get his grade 12.” And there you had it; I stayed in the AJHL with Lethbridge and graduated.
It wasn’t like now where it is all scripted; you do this and then you do that and then you go to major junior and then this and then that and bingo you are a pro hockey player. If I got on a team, I was happy to get on the team. And I was happy in Lethbridge.
My draft year, I was focused on Lethbridge winning the Memorial Cup. For a team from a league that wasn’t supposed to be any good, it was a fantastic experience. We beat the Red Deer Rustlers to win Alberta and then we had to play the champs of the BCJHL. Everybody said how great the league out there was. Well, we played the Victoria Cougars, who had just been killing everybody, and ended up taking them out in six games.
We get on a plane in a snowstorm to head to Regina to play the Pats. They had a great squad with the likes of Larry Wright and Ron Garwasiuk. We finally arrive an hour and a half after the game is supposed to start and get smoked seven to two before we’ve shaken the snow out of our hair. We play again and they win again and the talk is sweep. Well, we head back to our little barn in Lethbridge and lose the third game in the last minute then win two straight and lose game six in the last minute again and we’re finished. If we could have won, who knows what we’d have done.
But the whole time, I was concentrating on the game in front of me, anything else regarding my future or whatever, I was going to get to in the summer.
I never really set goals and maybe I should have but for me, it was just, if it happens it happens.
But I certainly was hoping to play hockey; I didn’t like to do a lot of schoolwork. I was more interested in just playing hockey so going to a university hockey program meant four more years of schooling. At the time there wasn’t any college guys other than Red Berenson in the NHL. There was stigma with the college guys. When I went to Montreal’s camp and we had a guy who was all state at North Dakota State and the boys all nicknamed him, Ned Harkness, after a college hockey coach at the time.
When draft day rolled around, I was working maintenance at a community pool in Lethbridge; it wasn’t like I was waiting by the phone. If the draft didn’t work out, I was going to go to St. Lawrence University. A guy I played with my first year in Lethbridge told me he had a partial scholarship for me. I thought that was great but you had to sit out your first year because freshmen don’t play. All of a sudden, you go from playing 90 games a year to thinking you might sit a year and play rec hockey twice a week until your second year of university. I decided that if I get a chance to get drafted, I am going to go.
I get drafted and it is no big deal. I thought I was going with Boston. The Boston scout had told me, “Yep, we’re going to pick you up, Darrel.” So at least I had an idea that I was probably going to get drafted. I didn’t have any idea of what round I might go and it didn’t matter, as long as I got drafted. There were no agents, I had no contacts, if I hadn’t have been drafted, I imagine I would have stayed in Lethbridge or went to St. Lawrence University and gotten a college degree.
There was nothing like now with all the bell and whistles. Even all the way up, all I got was a letter from Montreal saying, you’ve been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens show up on September 8th to the Montreal Forum and here’s the hotel and that was about it. It suggested maybe I should do some running and stated they expected me in pretty good shape. Now remember, we didn’t have any ice in the summer then and I thought, okay I guess I’ll go do some laps around the golf course. I had never been on a plane before and I flew in to Montreal, showed up at the Forum. All the press was there and you went through the physicals and all that stuff before they picked teams and away you went.
I guess the biggest thrill was seeing my idols that I enjoyed listening to or watching on the CBC on the ice right there with me. I was there with Jean Beliveau. Let me tell you, he walks in the room and he’s got a suit and a tie on and it was like the seas had parted. I mean, there was a guy you just stopped and looked at him and said, ”Wow.” But you don’t realize when you are in that situation at the time, you just say, okay I just gotta go out and play hockey. But you look back on it and Yvan Cournoyer, Pete Mahovlich, Henri Richard – all these guys. It was quite a thrill, now that I look back on it, to even get drafted.
In Montreal, there were a hundred guys in camp when I showed up. Physically I was a boy amongst men. We didn’t lift weights or anything. That first camp, I am talking to Al MacNeil about wanting to lift some weights but he tells me not to because it’ll make me muscle-bound. So right then, I’m thinking, “What’ll I do?” And guys are saying, “Look at Bobby Hull, he got all those muscles just lifting hay.” “Yeah, right,” I’m thinking, “I’m not going to get chiseled like Bobby Hull lifting hay.”
A few days into camp, I catch a pass at the blue line and I start up the ice and Terry Harper catches me perfectly and my skates fly up and I smack my head on the ice. All I know is that the goal posts are now at the top of the Montreal Forum and the players look twelve feet tall. Nobody thought to check how you were doing in those days with head injuries. I played a couple more shifts and started to feel a little better so I finished practice.
Later on I am feeling pretty sick, I am laying around in the hotel room when my roommate comes in and he starts screaming at me. He says I am pasty white, look horrible and need to go to the doctor. So I took a cab to Montreal General and they told me I had a concussion and I’d be okay. I went back to training camp the next day a little more aware of where Terry Harper was on the ice.
You get out there and all these guys, now I wouldn’t say they were faster because that was the one thing I always had, speed. But physically on the puck, they were strong. The other challenge was my defensive game. Growing up, you’re scoring all the goals and basically, guys just fed you. Now you’ve got to play position, do the little things that, watching these kids come up now, they all know before they get out of bantam.
At camp, I didn’t think I did that bad. It wasn’t like I was lighting it up or anything. What they did was split up everybody onto 6 teams and we had scrimmages twice a day. I was a centre so I couldn’t play with Beliveau or Lemaire; but for part of the camp, I played with Cournoyer and Claude Provost.
I remember when Lafleur came to camp; I don’t know what training camp it was, I went to three, so it tough to keep everything straight. Lafleur looked out of place at the start, he sure didn’t end up out of place. In fact, the word was they were going to send him down to Halifax but it really only took a few games for him to get used to the NHL game and the rest is history. But it shows you that if you don’t make it right away, there is a good chance you’ll get lost in a place like Muskegon in the IHL.
After about two weeks, I went down and played with the Voyageurs. That went for another two weeks and I was wondering how I was doing. I was playing on a line so it wasn’t like I was sitting in the stands.
Eventually, we go into a hotel room and Ron Caron comes in tosses three or four contracts on the table and says, “Take the contract or go home, one or the other.”
Eventually, we go into a hotel room and Ron Caron comes in tosses three or four contracts on the table and says, “Take the contract or go home, one or the other.” There were about six of us in there and there were three contracts. I thought, “Now what do I do?” So I signed the contract and they sent me to Muskegon. That’s how easy it was. They just tossed it to you. I didn’t have an agent, they didn’t tell me, okay here’s what we’re going to give you. It was just a standard fee and they were all the same contracts and if you wanted it, sign it.
I spent my first year as a pro in Muskegon in the IHL. I wasn’t ready; I needed some seasoning but I still averaged a point a game. The following season, I won the IHL scoring title but the Habs still said they were going to send me down to Muskegon again for a third season. That pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of any future with Montreal. They wouldn’t even send me to the American League. When Montreal finally thought I was ready after my third year in Muskegon, the WHA had come along. Chicago’s WHA franchise offered me double what Montreal did me to go to Halifax. Montreal claimed it would all even out if I made the big club. Yeah right. Well, it was a no-brainer. I went to Chicago and the WHA.
I was happy to get out of the Montreal chain and head to Chicago. That year we got off to a pretty slow start in Chicago with a lot of guys moving in and out. Eventually, Marcel Provost, the coach, sent me down to the farm club in Rhode Island around January. “I’m gonna send you down to Rhode Island. You’ve got a lot of tools but I’d like you to get a little tougher,” he told me. I went down and played in the Eastern League and if you remember the movie, Slapshot; it was just like it. I don’t know if I got tougher but I sure got used to guys trying to spear me in the face. Our whole team down there needed to get tougher! 36 minutes in penalties made you the goon on our team in Rhode Island and I looked up the stats of the other teams in the league and they had guys with 400 minutes in penalties. I knew it was not going to be good.
It turned out I got 22 goals in 30 games. What I mainly remember, however, were the vicious playoff battles we had with Syracuse. They were just terrible. They had a big team and they’d start a skirmish then just jump out over the bench. The guys from our team on the ice were always at a disadvantage because they’d have two guys stand by our bench holding their sticks like axes saying, “Anybody comes over the bench, we’ll knock your heads off.” Everybody on our bench was too scared to move. So our guys on the ice are getting two-on-oned as one bench emptied and the other didn’t. In this particular game, I’m on the ice. I’m holding onto a guy for dear life and Dave Shultz’s brother, Ray, is out there running around. He pretends he’s got his hand hurt and he’s got a cast on his hand with the fingers cut out. All of a sudden, I’m getting suckered on one side by this cast of Ray Shultz’s. Luckily, my helmet had fallen over my face as they beat like crazy on me. When I managed to look up, I see our goalie, Jim Armstrong, who was probably the toughest guy on our team. I look up and he just flattens one of the Adduono brothers. The other Adduono brother two-hands him over the head and basically knocks Armstrong unconscious. The first of the Adduono brothers skates over his face as he is laying on the ice cutting him for thirty stitches. The second period ends and we just get on the bus and go home.
I head back to training camp in Chicago the following year and Pat Stapleton is now the coach. After camp, he told me I’d be going down to the farm club in New Jersey. At this point, I am twenty-four years old and I’m thinking to myself, “I’m not ready to go back down to that Eastern League and play against Syracuse again.” The coach I had in Rhode Island, Larry Kisch, had a team in the SunCoast League. He had a spot for me down there and I went and played in St. Petersburg. The league folded in December.
The NHL, of course, isn’t on my radar at all anymore. Playing hockey is now a way of living and the contracts weren’t that big at the time. At the end of the year, I just decided to see if something was available in Europe. I got a hold of Carl Brewer’s brother; he’d been playing over in Austria. Through him, I contacted a coach in Salzburg, Austria and signed a contract with them for the ’74-’75 season.
The hockey was not American League or even International League quality but it was quite an experience. They treated me like a king. They fly me in, there’s media waiting on the tarmac, we don’t even go through customs. They give me a car, an apartment, a food allowance – the whole nine yards. I’m thinking, “This is great.”
We get settled in Salzburg quite quickly but not before a frightening experience at the apartment. We had brought the dog over to Austria. That darn dog cost me more to bring over than the mother-in-law in freight. Well, we get to our apartment and I’m wondering why all these policemen keep on circling our apartment area and parking. There were three or four little Volkswagens with these 260 lb policemen in them, two or three to a car. Later, we are up on the balcony and I’ve got the dog there and I’m watching them and I just think they must have nothing better to do than sit in the parking lot killing time.
Two days later my doorbell rings at six in the morning and it is a policeman, says he wants to get into my room. I take him up to the room and all of a sudden the dog gets a little growly and the cop pulls a gun on the dog. My wife is getting a little jumpy and we still have no idea what is going on. I shove the dog in the bathroom and ask what the heck is going on. The apartment had been, it turned out, rented out previously to a car thief. They thought I might be him. That was the first time we made the paper in Salzburg!
For the first four or five practices all we did was play soccer and run around a track. Finally, I ask the coach, Del St. John, I say, “Geez, Del, when are we going to get on the ice?” He said, “We’ve got an exhibition game coming up in Germany.” It turned out that it was an outdoor rink. And though it was artificial ice, they didn’t flood the ice until the tennis season was finished. The only problem was they laid the pipes for the rink to close to the restaurant and so four feet on the far side of the boards were natural ice but the stairs going into the restaurant were artificial. To make it worse, it rained the first five games. You had to raise the puck just to get a pass over to your teammate. Worse still, they didn’t count assists, just goals.
But, hey, I am having a good time. A month goes by when an article turns up in the local paper. Now, I don’t know any German but it says, ‘Der Kanadier ist Nichts Gut’ and I figured that didn’t mean I was too hot. We had played five games and I had a couple of goals and a tonne of assists but they didn’t count. The article was a bit of a wake-up call for me. The next game I scored five goals against Vienna and all of a sudden the next article says, ‘Der Kanadier ist Sehr Gut.’ As it turned out, I won the scoring in Austria.
The season ended, the Salzburg team was on the ropes financially and they simply couldn’t afford to have an import. I wrote to Innsbruck to see if they needed an import. They replied saying they were going strictly with Austrians. I knew Greg Pilling and he was coaching in the Southern League in Roanoke back in the States and he was moving on to coach a team in Philadelphia, the Firebirds. He says, “Yeah, Darrel, get an apartment.” So I do and I just get my bags in the door and I get a phone call, “Darrel, I traded you, you are going to Syracuse.” I said, “Forget that, I’m not going to that place, I’ve got too many bad memories from damn Syracuse.” So I just packed it in.
I said, “Forget that, I’m not going to that place, I’ve got too many bad memories from damn Syracuse.” So I just packed it in.
It got to a point where I was asking myself why I was bussing around getting my head beat in when I could get a job with some security and raise a family. My wife was from Muskegon and we met when I initially played with the Mohawks. We went back there and I spoke to a fellow I knew about work. He needed a jeweler. He offered to train me and I thought it was hard to beat that. I had to head back to Canada and wait to get my green card. Once I got the green card, I went and worked twenty-seven years for him. Did all repairs, setting stones, you name it, sizing rings. It was so much different than playing hockey.
Somebody would come in with a broken down ring, or a stone missing or a prong off it and they’d be ready to throw it away. And I’d fix it up and, let me tell you, the looks on their faces was the thrill to me. That always made my day.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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