(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Bill Fairbairn may have been one of the best players to ever suit up with the Brandon Wheat Kings, but his motivation certainly didn’t come from overconfidence.
Fairbairn, now 70, played briefly with the Wheat Kings when the team was a member of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in 1963-64, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League for the next two seasons, and the MJHL again in his final year, 1966-67.
“I had some pretty good years with the Wheat Kings but every year when I went to camp I was scared I wasn’t going to make the team,” Fairbairn said.
“I would put in the extra effort throughout my career because I was always worried about not making the team. The way I was built and the way I played, I had to work hard and stay in condition. A lot of times a player would take a day off and it wouldn’t bother them but it would me. I couldn’t take a day off without thinking that it was hurting me.”
Even as team captain in Brandon, Fairbairn said he would stay after practice doing starts and stops.
He grew up watching players such as Bryan Hextall, Bob Ash, Ted Taylor, George Hill, George Peary, Dunc McCallum and Chuck Meighen, and looked up to them. He played a couple of games with Ash in the 1963-64 season and credits Peary with helping teach him how to hit, which became an integral part of his game.
“We had good coaching in Brandon,” Fairbairn said. “I couldn’t recommend a better city to grow up and play hockey in. You go over to the community centres there and you have 20 kids on the ice and one puck, and as you go up and up, you get better and better and you’re shooting for the Wheat Kings. And once you were a Wheat King, you had the support of your hometown backing you. It was a big thing for moving me on to pro.”
Fairbairn was signed to a contract at age 14 or 15 with the New York Rangers by Emile (The Cat) Francis.
“They gave you $100 and that was big money back then,” Fairbairn chuckles. “I was happy with that. I got $100 a year just for signing a piece of paper.”
Happily for Fairbairn, when he earned a full-time spot with the Wheat Kings in 1964-65, so did Juha Widing, the Finnish-born player who grew up in Sweden. While the two are synonymous in the minds of longtime fans, Fairbairn said Widing was a special player.
“To get the puck from him or even try to keep up with him was just about impossible,” Fairbairn said. “He had all the skills with the puck too … He was some skater and some shooter. I was pretty lucky to play with him that long.”
The Brandon-born Fairbairn, who stood five-foot-10 and weighed around 170 pounds, was a commanding presence on the ice who had 125 goals, 190 assists and 199 penalty minutes in 174 games in the MJHL and SJHL.
For Fairbairn, his game was based on hitting and protecting his own net.
“I worried about my plus-minus,” Fairbairn said. “I didn’t want to be scored against and had to work hard at defensive play. I was more or less classified as a defensive player and penalty killer rather than a goal scorer, but I did get my fair share of goals.”
Fairbairn enjoyed his finest season in 1966-67 playing with Widing and Erv Zeimer. He piled up 60 goals and 82 assists in 55 regular season games, earning a spot on the second all-star team as right-winger. The first team all-star was his future NHL divisional rival Reggie Leach of the Flin Flon Bombers.
Brandon lost the best-of-five league final 3-2 to Flin Flon — which also included Bobby Clarke — but Fairbairn’s season wasn’t over.
He and Widing played in the 1967 Memorial Cup when he was loaned to the Port Arthur Marrs of the Thunder Bay Junior Hockey League.
That wasn’t the end of the line for the dynamic duo, however.
Following three years with Widing in Brandon, they spent two more with the Omaha Knights of the Central Hockey League. (Fairbairn notes that he then played eight seasons with Walt Tkaczuk in the NHL, giving him just two centres in 13 years.)
Fairbairn was called up a lot from the CHL in his first two seasons — he played a single game in the NHL in 1968-69 — although he didn’t dress much.
In his rookie NHL season in 1969-70, he would skate on a line with Dave Balon and Tkaczuk, scoring 23 goals and adding 31 assists, finishing second in rookie of the year balloting to Chicago’s Tony Esposito for the Calder Trophy.
“Being up for the rookie of the year was a surprise for me,” Fairbairn said. “I know I couldn’t have beaten Esposito, he had 15 shutouts that year, and no other rookie has ever done that so he deserved it.”
Fairbairn admits it was initially nerve-racking playing against guys he had watched on TV.
He still remembers his first game in Maple Leaf Garden, which was also broadcast on “Hockey Night In Canada.”
“I got a telegram from Brandon with hundreds of names on it wishing me the best,” Fairbairn said. “I’ve still got that telegram. That was a big thing for me, getting it from all the fans in Brandon. That game, I remember The Cat told me to go out and watch (Paul) Henderson. I was a checker so I went out and watched him; the first shift against me he got two goals and that was the last time I saw the ice. I’ll never forget that.”
A bout with mononucleosis cut his production in the 1969-70 season but he rebounded with around 60 points in each of the next four years: His finest statistical season came in 1972-73 when he recorded 30 goals and 63 points.
Fairbairn said his biggest disappointment was never winning a Stanley Cup, despite playing in the final in 1972.
“Overall I was happy, except for not winning the Cup,” Fairbairn said. “You get that close against Boston, and you don’t get that many chances to win it. We had a good team in New York and just couldn’t finish off. Our last chance at it, (Jean) Ratelle got injured and he was our big scorer and they had Bobby Orr, who is a pretty hard guy to beat by himself, let alone the whole Boston team.”
The Rangers lost the best-of-seven series in six games to the Bruins, as Orr led the series in scoring and won his second Conn Smythe Trophy.
Fairbairn spent 10 seasons in the NHL, appearing in 658 games, scoring 162 goals and adding 261 assists with the Rangers, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues.
It was an injured back that ultimately forced him to call it quits after five games of the 1978-79 season.
“It came to the point where you would get hit and knocked down and you could hardly get up and you’re not helping the team,” Fairbairn said. “If you’re not helping the team, you shouldn’t be playing. That’s kind of the way I felt. I was too hurt to really help the team and I’m bringing them the other way if I can’t hit and play my game checking and keeping up.”
His injuries have had a lasting impact.
With the passage of time, he now needs help getting his shoes and socks on because he can’t bend over. He has had one hip replaced and the other is scheduled to be done. He also has Parkinson’s disease, something that may be linked to repeated concussions from an era when NHL players didn’t wear helmets and medical care was far different than it is today.
Fairbairn tried different things after retiring from hockey, including time as a realtor and running a sports store called Hockey Hut in the building now occupied by Brandon Photographics.
He and his wife Lloydene, who now live at Clear Lake, have three children, daughters Ashley and Corrie and son Brett, and five grandchildren, Kale, Tate, Tyler, Montana and Spencer.
Since retiring from hockey, he has been inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
He was also a talented baseball player, helping organize the Brandon Parkland Junior Baseball team that won a Canadian title in 1967. That led to Fairbairn and the team being added to the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.
“They were big honours,” Fairbairn said. “They sure were. To be recognized back in Manitoba here was a great honour.”
He admits that he thinks he actually liked baseball better but was less likely to play professionally in that sport. The 1967 baseball team included fellow Wheat Kings such as Jack Borotsik and Roy McLachlan.
He also participated in a ceremonial puck drop at the Memorial Cup in 2010 in Brandon, and again at the season opener in September. Fairbairn is touched the team has never forgotten him.
“It’s a big honour because that was my number one team. I still have friends off of that team and when you look back, that’s where it all began. I was just proud to be a Wheat King.”