As told to: Josh Kloke1.
In the 81-82 season, Washington were scrambling. They’d brought in a whole bunch of older players from Philadelphia. They had Bob Kelly, Orest Kindrachuk, and a lot of guys in their 30s. I was 19 years old. Camp didn’t go very well for me. Back then, me, Mark Hunter and Dale Hunter got too big and too strong, and we didn’t play enough hockey in the summer. I was a little bit too bulky.
I started as a 2nd or 3rd line guy with Hershey, their AHL team. We started on the road and Washington went 1-7 to start their season. At that point, I’d played a few games with Hershey. We were in Fredericton and I scored two goals with an assist. I got in a fight that night with Claude Julien. I’d fought him in junior, so I knew I could beat him up. I did pretty good against him, and all the scouts were there. Of course, they called me up right away. They dropped me off at an airport, and I flew to New York to play against the Islanders, who were really, really good. For my first game, they threw me on a line with Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner. It was my first shift in the NHL! I faced off against Wayne Merrick, who came from my neck of the woods. He asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, “I don’t know.’2.
After my sixth game– and after a few goals, and a fight– I broke my leg. That was the day Washington fired Max McNab– who was the GM– Gary Green, and Bill Mahoney and a bunch of the coaching staff. Everybody I knew wasn’t there anymore. After the injury, they sent me in a taxi to the hospital. I came back to the arena, and no one was there. I drove to the hotel and my roommate, Terry Murry, told me everyone was fired. He went and grabbed me a six-pack because I was in so much pain. Back in the early 80s they didn’t care for you when you were hurt. I sat for about a month. I wasn’t working out or anything. I got hurt in November, and I went home. I kept getting sent up and down, sent up and down until I got traded to Edmonton at the trade deadline.
That weekend of the deadline, I played four pro games. I don’t think anyone has done that. I played Friday night in New Haven in the American League. They called me up Saturday afternoon to Washington to play against Quebec. Roger Crozier came into the shower after the game and said ‘Bidner, you’ve got to get back to Hershey, you’re playing Nova Scotia tonight.’ I drove all the way back to Hershey for a game. Then they called me into the office and said ‘Bidner, you’ve got to go back to Washington, you’ve got a game against on Edmonton.’” I was traded Tuesday on the deadline to Edmonton. I was young. I didn’t think about it.
When I got traded, they said ‘Go pick up your tickets, they’re at Harrisburg Airport.’ I hadn’t talked to anybody in Edmonton, not even my agent. So I go pick up my tickets, and they put me on a flight to Wichita! I thought I was going to Edmonton! I got on the phone with my agent. I didn’t even know there was a league in Wichita. I’m going, ‘Fucking Wichita?’ I get there, and John Muckler is the coach. Practice was like a game. Guys were taping their wrists in practice because they wanted to get in the game and get noticed. There were 11 guys not playing every game. There was a roster of 30.3.
I got traded from Edmonton to Detroit and played with Adirondack. I had a pretty good year and thought I was feeling good at 24. The trend back then was, after four years in the American League, you were too washed up, and you couldn’t play. A friend of mine that I went to high school with had been in Scotland the year before and made more money than I did in the American League. I was only making $20,000 a year, and they were making $30,000 in Great Britain with a house, car and bills paid. And that was cash, with no tax. It was a pretty easy decision. Garry Unger, whom I’d played with, went over as well. And he played in Dundee. I went to Kircaldy, Scotland, where the Fife Flyers were playing. We played each other a ton of times throughout the year.4.
Because there were only three imports on each team, you had to perform. That first year we made it all the way to the final and lost. So they cleaned house and got rid of all the imports. I was looking for a job and a team down in the South of England. Peterborough, near Cambridge, offered me a spot. Me and Garry Unger went down there at the same time. We played for a few seasons. We dominated because the really good imports were young college guys and Jr. A guys coming over, but there weren’t a lot of NHL guys there. That opened the door: Laurie Boschman, Doug Smail, and Mike Blaisdale all came over. They were paying better money in England and the English guys were getting better. There were more organized practices because of guys like us coming over, and the coaching was getting better too. There was a little more detail in terms of what they were looking for in a pro hockey team. And there were always thousands of fans there! Nottingham, Manchester, and Sheffield always had thousands of fans, and it was bad hockey! But fans just loved to see goals. And it was rough. It was like rugby to them.
We were in pretty good shape. When you’re playing against the other imports, it equals out. When you got on the ice against the British players, it might have been a little easier. I wouldn’t usually go on the ice for the 3rd period. It wasn’t as easy as it looked on the stats but it was a lot of fun. I think it was an 800-seat arena but they would jam 1500 in there, standing room, in the bar. Gary Unger eventually left the team and I was player, coach, and manager all in one year. I was only 30 or something. Mike Babcock had been playing in Whitley Bay, in England, and he and Scotty Morrison came over. I called them up because we needed imports. They came down to see the arena and see where they’d live. They came to my house and I tried to do a deal with them. And they wanted twice as much money as I was making! I said, ‘Babs, I can’t pay you £600 a week when I’m only making £400 a week!’ I’m part of the Red Wings alumni so when I see him now I say, ‘Yea, Babs, you’re in the NHL because of me.’
JOSH KLOKE is a writer from Toronto (VICE sports, NOW magazine) whose first book, “Escape is at Hand” documented a personal history with the Tragically Hip band.
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