As told to: Greg Thomas
I played and enjoyed the game immensely. The trouble with me was that I was too competitive and serious. Sometimes you have got to know where to draw the line. That was one of my weaknesses. I only played to win.
My nickname was Buzzo. An old fella, a junk dealer named Jim, gave me that name when I was 6 or 7. A family friend he was. It is hard to believe but when I was in school, the teachers didn’t know my real name. That nickname traveled with me wherever I went. If you came to Kenora tomorrow, you’d have to call me Buzzo. Even my kids call me that.
I always played a little higher caliber than my age and had some wonderful hockey experiences. In 1967, I played in the Air Canada Cup, the national midget championship. We also went to the All-Ontario’s in high school hockey and played against the boys from St. Mike’s, down there in Toronto.
I started playing Junior in Fort Frances but before the end of the year, they shut down for financial reasons. I ended up in Kenora and played the rest of my junior hockey there. We played against some pretty good players. It wasn’t a Mickey Mouse set-up. Butch Goring was playing in Dauphin, for example. He was one heck of a hockey player. Rick St. Croix was our goalie, not to mention countless other fellas with great skill played in the league.
Me and my dad and my brother used to do a lot of fishing. We had come home on a Sunday night from fishing and my mom said that somebody had called. But my mom wasn’t a hockey person so she didn’t know Gordie Howe from Joe Blow. She said, “Some fella named Cliff Fletcher called and said something about you being drafted.” Then my buddy from hockey, Kenny George, called and he congratulated me. That was the moment I knew I had been drafted.
She said, “Some fella named Cliff Fletcher called and said something about you being drafted.”
I was excited because somebody thought I had the talent to become a hockey player. St. Louis had just lost in the Stanley Cup final to Boston. Glen Hall and Red Berenson were there when I went, as was Noel Picard.
In 1970, I had an operation to correct problems in my shoulder prior to training camp. The Blue’s camp was in Ottawa. When I had my physical there, the doctor wouldn’t let me play until I had approval from my specialist. So they sent me back to Winnipeg to see the person who had operated on me. He checked me out and said I was fine.
By the time I got back to the team, it was in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. We stayed there for a week and practiced. We flew back to Ottawa for the second stage of camp. Unfortunately, I hurt my shoulder again and I had to go home.
I am glad the junior hockey these days is now supporting the educational futures of the players because most careers only last a few years. There is a lot of life to live after you are done with hockey.
When my shoulder recovered, I headed down to Toledo, a farm team for St. Louis, and made the team. I’m not saying I would have set the world on fire but, based on my time practicing and playing with them a little bit, I knew I had the talent to play there. Third line, maybe, but I could have played.
I had just gotten married and I had a little one on the way. My life would be better, I thought, if I looked to do something else. Also, I just wasn’t comfortable staying there.
I never really was that focused on hockey as a career. I enjoyed the game a lot. The one thing about playing sports is that it helps you get to know people and start up friendships.
The draft wasn’t really what I would consider a high point in my career. I think the camaraderie and friendship from my amateur days are worth more that anything that happened regarding the draft or pro hockey. Pro hockey was a business and I wasn’t very seasoned when it came to treating it that way.
I mean, geez, I would have played for nothing. Money never meant anything to me. Now, that may have been different if I was a first-stringer in the pros. Then maybe the money would have mattered. But for me, I knew where I stood and the friendships had the greatest value.
You do compare yourself to players that made it and wonder what might have been. Lots of times, when it comes to sports, there isn’t much between players. It is just whether or not you get the right break. In hockey, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. To a great degree, somebody really has to believe in you, but if they do, there is a good chance you could make it.
For me, the timing didn’t work out. And as I said, I wasn’t really the type to treat it like a business. We moved back to Fort Frances and then to Kenora a little later on and we have been here ever since. I worked as a maintenance man in the arenas and swimming pools and got to know every kid. When you work around the recreation centre, you get to know everybody. It was a great place to work and be part of the community.
I like to watch my hockey on TV. I watch a fair amount of it. They don’t have the individual players that we had in our day. When we played, if you had an individual who was an especially good stickhandler, for example, he could do his thing and get away with it. Today, everybody can skate, everybody can shoot, everybody’s strong and sometimes watching the game just isn’t as entertaining. There aren’t many plays where players take your breath away.
I went to Minneapolis to watch Bobby Orr play and it was amazing. He had four or five different gears. Heck, Phil Esposito would go out there and stay on for four or five minutes. You wouldn’t get away with that today. It was a different type of hockey.
Not that different is always better. I remember watching those Flyers and the way they used their sticks was heartbreaking. Everybody was trying to intimidate. It is more of a complete hockey game now.
I got involved in coaching. I took two Pee Wee teams to the All-Ontarios. One year, we played Stevie Yzerman and his boys from Nepean. Christie Cookies from Toronto, a team from Sarnia and a team from Welland were there.
People helped me when I was growing up and playing minor hockey and so I always give back. I coached minor hockey even though I didn’t have any kids playing. I was active and paid back the game for what it gave me. That is what I am most proud of.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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