As told to: Greg ThomasMy dad built me a rink when I was five years old in the backyard in Sarnia. It was only a small rink but I played all the time. In those days, the winters in Southern Ontario gave you ice from early December all the way to March. You could get in a lot of hockey but nothing organized until Peewee. If you were good enough you could try out at 10, but most kids were 11 or 12 years old. So, if you didn’t get started on outdoor ice as a youngster, you were in deep trouble if you decided you were going to try out for the Peewee team.
I don’t think my dad saw me play a real game until Peewee. He may have come if I stayed too long at the rink in our neighbourhood. A guy had a big backyard rink up the road from me in North Toronto, about 150 feet by 60 feet. It was down in a ravine and there were a number of stairs you had to go down to get to the ice. As soon as I got home from school every day, I was right over there. My mother used to trudge all the way from home and stand at the top of the stairs with a flashlight and yell for me to come up.
I remember my mother saying to my father that she wasn’t sure if they should let me go and skate because I stayed after the big kids arrived and the language was horrible. My dad, who had been a little bit of a hockey player himself, got a little chuckle out of this saying, “It was all part of the game.”
I kept playing and eventually made it to the junior Marlboros where Leafs great Turk Broda was my coach. He was a jolly guy yet very, very demanding. His practices weren’t a day at the beach, that’s for sure, but we all loved him. Sometimes we didn’t think what he was doing to us was fair, but I think this is true with every coach. Turk had a great sense of humour and he really loved his job. I thought he was on the way to being a coach in the NHL with the Leafs. He had won two Memorial Cups, and I was lucky enough to be on one of those teams. About seven or eight players that played on Turk’s Memorial Cup winning teams moved on to careers in the NHL. I wasn’t one of them but it certainly was a wonderful experience.
Back in those days, there was no draft and if you played for a team sponsored by the Toronto Maple Leafs, like the Marlboros, from Peewee up, then you were their property until you were 18 years old.
Back in those days, there was no draft and if you played for a team sponsored by the Toronto Maple Leafs, like the Marlboros, from Peewee up, then you were their property until you were 18 years old. At that point, for 100 dollars, they would sign you to a “C” form, which meant for the rest of your hockey career, unless they released or traded you, you were a Toronto Maple Leaf employee.
I played Peewee hockey for Shopsy’s, which was the Marlboros’ Peewee team, so my pro rights were owned by the Leafs. Now it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out how many kids were the property of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs owned the rights to every player that played for the Marlboros and St. Mike’s. They also had teams in Noranda, they had teams in Sudbury, they had teams all over the place, and if you happened to play for one of them, you were Leafs property. Montreal, of course, had the rights to all players in Quebec. It wasn’t a very fair situation but there were only six teams in the league. Eventually, they realized they had to cut out the sponsorships to create the fairest environment.
I dreamed of being an NHL player from the beginning. I’m so old that I listened to the game on the radio as a boy. We got the Toronto Maple Leaf game but the broadcast didn’t begin until the end of the first period. My dad would send me to bed – this was when I was seven, eight, nine years old living in Sarnia – and he knew I had a little portable radio. He didn’t pay any attention to it but he’d come and check to make sure I hadn’t fallen asleep with the game on. So, of course, when I was playing ball hockey in the driveway or hockey on my little rinks, I was broadcasting the game to myself and imagining I was playing for the Leafs.
I came reasonably close to having success in the pros. When I finished my junior career, I could have turned pro with Toronto. I went to their training camp and they wanted to send me to Rochester, which was their American League affiliate at the time. I’d finished my first two years at the University of Toronto while playing my last two years of junior. My dad kept telling me I was too small and couldn’t skate and I better stay in school. Finally, the day before I had to reregister for my third year at U of T, I phoned him and said that I was coming home from the Rochester camp in Montreal and going back to school. I had never seen him so happy as when he picked me up at the airport.
I attended the University of Toronto for two years playing for Jack Kennedy’s Varsity Blues. Of our 15-man roster, 13 of us had played junior hockey. The hockey was better than in junior. I could never believe that the University of Toronto could beat the Marlboros. We played against them in a fundraising game while I was a member of the Marlboros. I remember thinking: “This is going to be a joke; we are all going to play pro and none of these guys are. ” Well, we couldn’t match them: they were 22 or 23 years old and we were all teenagers. So while I was at U of T, it was always fun to see the look on their faces in that fundraiser game when they realized those smart-alecks from the University of Toronto were better hockey players.
Whether or not I could have had a playing career if I hadn’t returned to U of T, I don’t know. By the time I finished Maple Leaf training camp – which was held in Sudbury that year – I was confident I could make the Rochester minor league team. But I saw then how far away I really was. My father, whose opinion I always respected, said to me that it was my business if I wanted to turn pro, but I was going to end up playing in the minor leagues. In those days, in the minor leagues you made 2500 bucks. You could get a job that paid you more than that, and most guys who played in the minors had to work in the summer. So it wasn’t like it is now: a fairly well-paid occupation for a couple of years while you try to find out if you are going to make it or not. I know I made the right decision and I’ve been lucky enough to stay in the sport since I was five years old. Not many players can say they have had seventy years in the game.
I got a job teaching at a high school in Hamilton. I taught and coached the hockey team there for six years. The coaching meant you were still in the game even though you weren’t in the game. At the same time, I was a partner with Billy Harris and Dave Keon and Mike Elick in the Dave Keon/Bill Harris Hockey Schools. That was my summer job and we had hockey schools are all over the place. We had a permanent location in North Toronto and then we would travel all around Canada doing weeklong sessions. Hockey was my life, even though I was teaching.
Glen Sonmor was also a teacher in Hamilton at the time. He coached high school hockey as well, so we used to spend quite a bit of time together. We played in a old-timers, Monday night hockey games. I can’t say the hockey was any good but it made us thirsty enough to go to a tavern at the end of the game.
He got a chance to go to Ohio State when they were beginning their hockey program. I don’t know how he ended up down there but I think it may have been Johnny Mariucci who connected him. Johnny was the coach at the University of Minnesota, where Glen lived for a while after losing his eye playing pro hockey. Glen coached at Ohio State for a couple of years and when Johnny retired, he took the University of Minnesota job. That’s when my phone rang with Glen asking me if I was interested in taking the job at Ohio State. I went down there, coached, took my Master’s on a very slow course and taught in the physical education department for six years.
Ohio State needed to build a new rink to compete against the other hockey schools like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other Big Ten hockey schools but the university was not prepared to do it. But we just couldn’t compete with schools offering 15 scholarships.
I decided to move back to Toronto to run the Harris/Keon hockey school and ended up coaching one year of junior hockey in Hamilton. This is the year before the inception of the WHA, and Glen Sonmor was managing the Minnesota Fighting Saints and readying for the inaugural season. He made me the unofficial Fighting Saints OHL scout. I kept my eye out for players who might have a chance of playing pro. The next year, when the league started, he invited me to come down and work as an assistant coach for him. He was the manager/coach, but at midseason, I took on the head coaching duties and Glen focused on stealing players from the NHL as the general manager. We had a great time in Minnesota. I was there until it folded.
I often tell current players that they should be thanking the WHA because we doubled salaries by paying them twice as much to leave and the NHL paid them more to get them to stay. Some of the players we signed were excellent players, like Dave Keon, for example. This was the first time that there was any major increase in salaries in the NHL because there was competition. It didn’t last very long but while it did the players were the beneficiaries. Furthermore, it meant the creation of six or eight pretty good NHL-level teams as well. The Hartford WHA team I coached after Minnesota folded was much better than the NHL team in Vancouver I moved to, no doubt about it. But by then, the WHA was on shaky ground so when I got a chance to go to the NHL I took it. If those circumstances hadn’t occurred, I would have stayed in Hartford. I loved living there and coaching there; not to mention, we had some excellent players.
For a lot of players, the WHA was a chance to make more money and play quality hockey. But for a unique group of 18, 19, and 20-year-olds that weren’t allowed to play in the NHL – – including Gretzky, Messier, and Gartner – the WHA offered a chance to play pro. There must have been at least a dozen or two of these young fellas in the WHA. The WHA was pretty good hockey. Not as good as we thought but a lot better than the NHL thought, that’s for sure. If you look at how many players that moved onto the NHL from the WHA, the numbers speak for themselves.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *