As told to: Greg Thomas
I was just playing hockey with my pals. I didn’t have dreams of going to the NHL or anything.
We were a town of 6000 with dads coaching. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I realized you can go play junior.
It all just seemed so far away. I went to the Edmonton Oil King’s camp. I had a good camp but I was so darn young. I went back to Fort Saskatchewan and played the year for the local team. Then later that season, some fella from the Saskatoon Blades scouted me at the provincial championships in Coal Lake. I had no idea what he was even talking about, he said, “Come to camp,” and I was thinking, “What?”
I was young to be at those camps and it could get a little hairy. I remember Darcy Rota running me and I stood right up to him. I was always tough. I was always a tough, little, miserable prick. I can’t remember the guy’s name but he said, “Eh, you’re doing well.” And then, “Maybe”, you think to yourself, “maybe I am a little better at this.”
I stuck up for myself; I didn’t take any crap. I always could fight. My dad was always a tough little guy. I grew up in a small town and I was always kind of tougher and just wasn’t afraid of anybody. I never really thought about it much. People think I can fight off the ice but I never did. I was never out looking for trouble; I was always having fun.
But really, I wish somebody had said to me, “You don’t have to be the toughest guy in the world.” I had skill. I could score goals. I was generally the captain of the teams I played on, even my junior teams. But back then, I think, we didn’t understand the game the way they do today. I wish somebody had sat me down and told me, “Quit trying to be the toughest guy in the world because you’re not.”
Saskatoon wanted me to play for their club in North Battleford. My parents put me on the Dayliner and I rode it from one end of the line to the other and got off in North Battleford. I remember being there at the station in Fort Saskatchewan with my parents and my girlfriend. I gave her a hug and I think I was crying. And my poor mother having to send me off to these people she didn’t know. Now that I have four kids, I think, oh my God, how the hell did they do it.
You start down a path and you can’t quit, whether you like it or not. I can remember not wanting to get on that train to North Battleford but you can’t be a coward. It is part of growing up. You get on that God damned train and you do it.
The Boscoes were my billets there. They were wonderful to me, just wonderful. I look back now and I know there were guys on the team who had billets that put a lock on the fridge at night. If I had a different billet in North Battleford, I likely would have never stayed, being so young. But I would come home from a road trip and there’d be a mountain of sandwiches on the table. They were so pivotal in my life. It isn’t until years later that you realize how instrumental they were.
I stayed with them for two years before making the Blades in my grade twelve year. But I quit and came home to Edmonton and played with Spruce Grove with my buddies. Mark Messier was our stick boy, his brother, Paul, was my centreman and his dad was the coach.
To this day, I don’t know why I quit the Blades. I had worked hard in North Battleford with the whole idea being to make the Blades. I don’t know why to this day. I think I just wanted to come home. Because those guys in Saskatoon: Freddie Williams was there, Blair Chapman, Bernie Federko, were a super bunch. I was on a great team and those guys were fantastic but I’m an Alberta guy. I say that but I really don’t know why I left. I remember my dad was ready to kill me.
I guess one thing was I was living in a hotel for about a month and a half in Saskatoon. I was going to school and living in a hotel at 16. Eventually, they got me a billet and moved me in there.
They were good people but I wasn’t terribly comfortable and that may have contributed to my leaving. All that said I don’t regret leaving. I think it worked out fine. That is the way life is, you make a decision and you live with it.
My draft year I played for the Calgary Centennials and we had a pretty good year. I wasn’t really thinking about the draft. I hoped for a future in hockey but I was 18 and kinda dumb. Things were so different then, I mean, I guess I was thinking about it a little bit but I was realistic. I wasn’t going to go number one or anything, but I thought it would be cool if I did get drafted.
There was a fella, Lou, who worked for NHL Central Scouting. Only when he was around would we talk about the draft. I remember asking him to please put me down as 5’10” and he did. Other than that we were partying and playing and going to school. School was important so there were options other than hockey.
I was at school with my buddy, Roy Summers, when I found out I had been drafted. He said, “I got drafted,” and I said, “So did I.” I think we heard about it on the radio and then a fella from Detroit called my house. It was kinda neat but I didn’t talk about it much.
I just kept going to school with my buddies and carried on. That summer, I worked out a little bit and I had a job for my dad as a carpenter’s helper at the jail. I skated with my buddies twice a week and I lifted weights, but I hated running.
Camp was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They treated us really well and I was playing pretty good. I remember after the intersquad game, I had on a Detroit away sweater. I looked at Lefty, the trainer, and asked him, “Can I keep the jersey?” He let me and I still have the sweater to this day.
There are so many good players. A guy would be at training camp and you’d think, “Man is that guy ever good”, and then the next day he’d be gone. And you know, it was just something he was missing and you were only noticing that he could skate like the wind or stickhandle really well. But the guys making the decisions realized he couldn’t think the game, so he’d be gone.
Dan Maloney was there at camp with big arms on him seventeen miles long. Freddie Williams was there. They had some crazy buggers too like Steve Durbano. Geez, you know, it was a pretty wild camp. I think Ted Lindsay’s motto that year was, “Aggressive hockey’s back in town.” And it was; you were lucky if you got out of that camp alive. I think I had a couple fights. There were some big horses there, no doubt about that.
Near the end of camp I hurt my back. It was like a cement wall. So one of the trainers drove me down to Ann Arbour to see a doctor named Dr. Bailey. They stuck me in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I was in traction. I remember Ted Lindsay coming to visit me. The Red Wings were very, very good to me.
Then I went back to Kalamazoo but I couldn’t play. I actually roomed with Ted Lindsay. I roomed with him because they didn’t a have another room for me. We were roomies. He was such a great, nice guy. I remember asking him who he thought the greatest hockey player in the world was. And I remember him saying, “Without a doubt it’s got to be Gordie Howe.” Ted Lindsay made you so comfortable. It wasn’t like you were in the room with the great Ted Lindsay. You were just in the room with an older fella who was really nice.
I ended up coming back to Fort Saskatchewan and played for the Traders and had a really good year. I think I was tenth in league scoring playing only 32 games. I was the most valuable player in the league and it was just a good year. And then the Red Wings called again and invited me to come back to camp again the next fall.
The Red Wings put me with the club in Kalamazoo and I played with a couple of guys and we clicked. They called us up to the American League team in Adirondack. I think we played twelve games there. This whole hockey thing is all timing. When we went there the team was really struggling. I think I got two points in twelve games, which isn’t impressive. We didn’t make the impact we should have and ended up back in Kalamazoo for the rest of the year.
Leaving Adirondack was a little difficult. I remember thinking, “Geez I screwed up here.” It is one of those things, a puck goes off your arse or one goes off your skate into the net and you get a little confidence and get on a roll and then you really believe you can play. But that is just timing, that is just life. I went back to Kalamazoo and was happy. Kalamazoo was a lovely place.
The hockey in Kalamazoo and the IHL was good. In the International League, at that time, you were only allowed 16 players on a roster because it had become a really aggressive kind of goony league. So what they did was shorten the roster to two lines of forwards, five defencemen and two goalies and that is what you played with. It is a really neat concept. Now they have 900 people on a roster because everybody is getting hurt.
We had a really good squad. Tommy Ross who was an All American from Michigan State, Tommy Milani, Mike Wanchuk, who won the Memorial Cup with Clarke Gillies. We won the league championship both years.
I had resolved to give it three years. I didn’t want to be down there in Kalamazoo or wherever I ended up and be bopping around for 15 years, look up and be 45 with nothing.
It was made a little easier by being bought out by Kalamazoo – they bought everybody out. I was a realist too. Like I said, my mom was a teacher and was always planting in the back of my mind that this hockey was fine for now but I needed to have something solid.
I mentioned Tommy Milani and Tommy Ross; they were teachers. They taught while playing pro in Kalamazoo. I’d think to myself, “Geez, they’ve got careers, what do I have, I’ve got nothing.”
I guess in the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Kalamazoo forever. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Well, my mom sent me for one of those aptitude tests and it said I’d be good working with people.
I went back home initially and ended up coaching the Tier 2 team in town for a year and a half, the Traders. It was good but I was young. I had come back to town after playing pro and they had fired the coach and asked me to replace him. Well, I had never coached in my friggin’ life. I was only 22 years old and was coaching guys I had basically grown up with. I don’t think I taught them a whole lot at that point. But the next year I got a little bit better. We had pretty successful years; we made the playoffs both years but that was that.
I returned to school the next year at Grant McEwen College and took night courses at university. I became a social worker and was hired at the Royal Alex Hospital in Edmonton. I have been there for 32 years. I love working with people, all walks of life. I work in emergency ward. I deal with families to help manage their time at the hospital, trying to help guide them through the process. The work is very rewarding.
I think more than anything, I always liked people. I liked the people in Kalamazoo, in the sense that I liked the family across the street. But I don’t think people really understood me because I was such a crazy little bugger on the ice. And everybody now says, “God, you are a social worker?” But I was different off the ice, and I like people. I can see where they are coming from when they see me as a social worker they kinda think, “Holy man, he was a wild bugger,” but that was just part of a game.
It has been a completely rewarding career. You do things in life and they end up being a saviour for you in a lot of ways. And social work, for me, has been just that.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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