Dave’s Dis N’ Dat: A Crisis In Junior Hockey? And the Winged Wheel In Weyburn!

Boy has it been an interesting past seven days! However, yesterday’s announcement by the Weyburn Red Wings that this could be their last season in the Opportunity City blew my socks off.
Today’s Dis N’ Dat take you through my journey with the club.

The Weyburn Red Wings are my home town team. Growing up in what was then known as the “Hospitality Capital of Saskatchewan,” the Red Wings were my heroes. My love affair with the team started when I 8 and the Wings won the 1984 Centennial Cup. The team featured; John Corrigan, Mike Spencer, Marc Casavant, Yvone Prefontaine, Troy Arndt, Ward Edwards and legendary Head Coach Dwight McMillan.

At the time, it seemed unreal that hockey was continuing into May when we were riding our bikes, playing on the swings and starting our soccer and baseball seasons. Never the less the Wings had won the SJHL, the Anavet Cup and the Doyle Cup and were playing the Orillia Travelways for the national title. Orillia were, as I remember, a big bad and dirty team, or at least that’s an eight year-olds impression of a group of junior players that are trying to beat “your” team. Heck for some reason it seems like they had all beards, ala Duck Dynasty, and looked like they were in their 30’s (that’s old for an 8-year old).

The community was buzzing with the chance for the Winged Wheel to win their first ever National championship. The Wings game day board was on full display outside Benning’s Sports and Paint, choir risers were erected in the West end of the arena and the fire marshal was slipped a sleeping pill so that as many fans as possible could cram into the Colosseum, well beyond the capacity of 1400.

The Wings of course won the game the series and the celebration was on. I can’t tell you the score in the game but the lasting memory was the celebration on the ice with the player’s sticks being collected and stuffed into the net by equipment manager Ed Istace. I also remember the delinquent kids rushing the ice to get in on the celebration and help themselves to some Sherwood sports memorabilia. I wonder who those kids were? All that said community pride was instantaneous and the Wings were forever put to the top of the pedestal.

That love affair would continue throughout my elementary school days. From our school sponsored skating lessons where we would get to skate in the Wings rink with the two Winged Wheel logos on either side of centre ice, to the school visits by the players where they would come and read to the class or if we were lucky would take part in our gym class. Those visits were always accompanied with two-for- one tickets which meant that our family was going to the game. While I remember having to wear seemingly five to ten layers of clothes to stay warm in the old barn, as per mom’s instruction, I also recall my Dad being furious as the games where the tickets were valid for always seemed to feature at least one line-brawl which was appalling to him. We quietly loved it and let’s say those games served as motivation to make our street hockey games very “interesting” for the next couple of weeks.

Fast forward to high school and he Wings players became classmates and friends. We got to learn the life of a hockey prospect and broaden our knowledge of the country, as at that time General Manager Ron Rumble was able to recruit a number of Quebec players, the likes of Eddie Lowe, Leeor Shtrom and Alain St. Hillaire. Their arrival infused life into our classes and made French class the must attend in grade 12 as they played stump the teacher. Probably torture for her but definitely a lot of fun for those of us who were privy to the interpretations prior to class.

It was also around that time that I had a chance to meet with late broadcaster Perry Folk. At that time he just became the Voice of the Red Wings and a chance run in at the rink with him gave me an opportunity to look at the equipment that he was going to use to, “call the game.” Being as shy as I am/was I probably said two words the entire 10 minutes but the experience obviously was inspirational.

While, I never played for the Red Wings I did have an opportunity to get on the ice with them for their games. At that time my friend Steve had been recruited to announce at the Red Wings games and he gave me the opportunity to learn about volunteerism and how to fill out an SJHL scoresheet. I would run the clock and open the visitors gate for penalties. I learned a lot about the game and picked up a number of its nuances simply through observation of some great coaches from Dwight MacMillon on the Wings side to Marc Habsheid, Kevin Dickie, Dean Brockman, Perry Shockey, and Don Chesney. All that being said former teacher and now a man that I am proud to call a friend Bill Rudachyk asked me to be the mascot for a game. Being as shy as I was/am I truthfully didn’t think this was a great idea. However, the veil of anonymity allowed me to come out of my shell skating on the ice throwing chocolate pucks to the fans, putting “hexes” on the opposition net and getting the fans to clap along with my drum beat. The experience was huge and so was the confidence I gained!

The next experience for me with the Wings was not only behind the scenes but also behind the broadcast. Perry Folk and Cam Birnie were the voice of the Wings and for two-and-a-half seasons I was fortunate enough to be on the other end of the phone back at the station learning all about the broadcast of a hockey game and ensure that it made it out on the air-waves. I also had to make sure that commercials were there and played when called for. (Harder than you think with only a few screw-ups.. lol) From there an opportunity to move to the booth with Cam was afforded to me. I’m sure after the first night, a home game against Melville, he was wondering what the heck he had gotten into as I was nothing short of a disaster. However, I somehow was able to fool him into letting me ride shotgun for the next three seasons. The opportunity to be a part of the team, ride their bus and get the inside scoop was priceless considering where the hockey broadcasting journey would take me.

It also showed me the passion of the community for the team; With notes left on the bus’ windshield wipers with line combinations for Dwight MacMillan to consider, to the entertaining exchanges in the stands between Weyburn fans and others around the league, especially the unmistakable voice of Ron Fellner and his heckles of the opposition goaltender, priceless! The position also allowed me to establish numerous relationships as I joined the Red Wing board for a season where I had a chance to work with Maurence Pierce, Bob Heath, the legendary late Tommy Houston, Bill Rudachyk, and many others. All are associations that I cherish and do my best to maintain to this date. That experience at the board level, however, was invaluable (albeit for a short time) and taught me how to work in that type of social setting.

Today junior hockey teams, not just SJHL and WHL but all across Canada, are trying to find their way in the changing climate of hockey. No longer do we need to go to the cold rink and grab one of Myrna’s bacon cheeseburgers with a pop for $5, please tell me she still makes them (I’m guessing the price has gone up though) to get our hockey fix. Instead, we can hunker down in front of our large screen LED tv’s in the comfort of our homes with the ability to pause and rewind “live” NHL games at no cost and almost every night.

While a generation of hockey fans may be enjoying the convenience of the NHL at home here’s a salute to those that volunteer their time on boards, as program and 50/50 sellers and as ushers and game day staff to ensure that teams remain viable on the ice. The experiences are priceless and define what it means to be a part of the community. The challenge now is to reengage the fans to allow for these experiences.

The $200,000 deficit announcement by the Weyburn Red Wings yesterday was a surprise but it shouldn’t be a shock as they are not the only ones struggling through these challenges as most junior teams in the province are in similar, just not as public, situations.

So to those who will do what they can to save not only the Wings but the experience of a lifetime for those you touch I offer you my unwavering support and respect.