(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — For Wayne Wilhelm, the lessons learned as a Brandon Wheat King would last.
Now 63, the Brandon resident played goal for the team for two seasons from 1972 to 1974. (second from the left in the photo)
“A lot of it was being a good friend and backing each other up,” Wilhelm said. “We stayed together, even in tough times. We had a great group that way. When we had our reunion a good number of years ago, our group from that couple of years had the best turnout. I think that was it. You just learned to stick together, help each other out.
“It’s just like real life. If you’re winning, everything is easy. If you’re losing, things get tough and you have to learn how to get through those tough times.”
Like many youngsters, Wilhelm’s earliest hockey memories are actually off the ice as he spent his early years in Stoughton, Sask.
“I always wanted to be a goalie,” Wilhelm said. “I would play in the back lane with my brothers. They would shoot pucks on me and I would just have a baseball glove and a homemade goalie stick. That was it. When we moved to Yorkton, in organized hockey the first year I played defence and then the following year there was no real goalie, so my arm shot up and I’ve been a goalie ever since.”
The journey he began as a goaltender in atom eventually led him down some interesting paths, but he didn’t have a local junior team to look up to.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Yorkton Terriers didn’t begin play until the 1972-73 season, so Wilhelm grew up with a senior team, also called the Terriers, as the big dog in town.
Wilhelm admits he had very little awareness of what was then called the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League, later shortened to the Western Hockey League, which began play in the 1966-67 season.
His peewee and bantam teams would sometimes play in Weyburn, where the Red Wings played in the new league for two seasons between 1966-68. He knew about the Wheat Kings from the standings posted in some of the rink for the two seasons when Brandon played in the SJHL from 1964-66.
Wheat Kings head of player personnel Ron Dietrich scouted Wilhelm when he was playing Junior B in Yorkton when he was 16 and invited him to Brandon’s camp. The Wilhelm family had move out to Fernie, B.C., that summer, so the goalie came back east for camp prior to the 1971-72 season.
“They contacted me and I was coming to Brandon,” Wilhelm said. “I had never been to Brandon or through Brandon because we always went from Yorkton to Winnipeg via the Yellowhead (Highway).”
At camp the first year, there were more than a dozen goalies. Wilhelm made it down to the final three, but lost the battle to Dave McLelland, a well-known netminder the team had traded for, and George Silva.
Wilhelm was sent down after a month of the season to the Brandon affiliate Melville Millionaires of the SJHL, where he played with and against many guys who he grew up with in Yorkton.
A year later he made the Wheat Kings for his 18-year-old season, joining the 1972-73 team that had Ron Chipperfield, Robbie Neale, Rick Blight, Dale McMullin, Dwayne Pentland, John Paddock, Doug Murray and others.
“Chipperfield and Blight scored a lot of goals and that was the way that league was at the time,” Wilhelm said. “Every team had two or three guys. Regina had (Dennis) Sobchuk and (Mike) Wanchuk. Swift Current had (Terry) Ruskowski and Tiger (Dave Williams). He was a late bloomer but he was a good player too. Saskatoon had Bobby Bourne and Pat Price.
“You remember all those guys because every team had two or three superstars and I guess you knew they would be moving on up and you were just hoping you could stay with them.”
In a very different era of hockey, without all the defensive systems, Wilhelm played 19 games in his rookie season, posting a 5.83 goals-against average as the backup to Jim Rankin.
“It was kind of wide open,” Wilhelm said. “You got as many goals as you could. If you could hold them to less than four, that was good. The top goalie at that time was John Davidson, who was unbelievable, and Ed Staniowski, and they were the only ones who had averages around 3.00 or just below 3.00. That was unheard of then.”
While some of his teammates would go on to have fine National Hockey League or World Hockey Association careers, one remains a familiar sight for Wheat Kings fans.
Paddock played 87 NHL games, and went on to serve as an assistant coach, head coach and general manager in the NHL and American Hockey League for three decades prior to taking a management position and becoming head coach of the Regina Pats for the 2014-15 season.
“John was a guy who was always going to protect his teammates,” Wilhelm said. “He was actually with the (Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Brandon) Travellers at the start of my first year. Him and I lived together for a short while too while he was on the Travellers and I was on the Wheat Kings. That didn’t work out well for our billet. He ended coming up and staying up with us. He just progressed. John was a big guy, growing into himself.”
Wilhelm and his 1972-73 teammates had a special treat that season as the Wheat Kings moved from the Manex Arena into the brand new Keystone Centre.
“That was wild because our training camps the first two years were out at Shilo or the Manex Arena,” Wilhelm said. “To get into the Keystone Centre and see the first clock go up and then to have the place sold out the first game, that was crazy for us. It was sure fun.”
One thing the team didn’t have was a place to work out. The team now has a well-appointed room with bikes, weights and assorted workout options.
It was a little different in 1972.
“Rocky Addison was a coach for a short while and also a physical trainer and we hung a heavy bag in the dressing room and punched on that for a while,” Wilhelm said with a chuckle.
The Wheat Kings would go to finish 29-30-9 in his first year, losing in the quarter-finals 4-2 to the Saskatoon Blades.
Wilhelm took over the starting job the next season, playing 42 games with a 5.11 goals-against average. He said he relied heavily on his positioning.
“I never thought of myself as having a great glove hand or agility but I had to learn the angles and take away as much of the net as I could,” Wilhelm said. “And of course then, you were told to stand up. And (coach) Rudy (Pilous) would always say ‘Keep your plank (stick) on the ice.’ You weren’t supposed to be going down. It was just a matter of learning to stop the puck the best way you could.”
Brandon missed the playoffs in the 1973-74 season with a 27-37-4 record, but Wilhelm’s work was noticed.
He was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the ninth round of the 19-round WHA draft, which also saw teammates Rick Blight, Ron Pronchuk and Jim Chicoyne taken.
It proved to be a mixed blessing.
Since overage players weren’t allowed in the WHL at the time, Wilhelm had to turn pro.
“At that time in the WHA, they had no farm system,” Wilhelm said. “There were only 27 players at camp and four goalies, and I think of the 27, there were at least 16 or 18 who were tied to no-trade, no-cut contracts. I was there as the fourth goalie. I had to borrow equipment to get there because I didn’t have my own pads or anything. I had to borrow Joe Daley’s old set. There was Joe Daley, Ernie Wakely, Curt Larsson, who was the first Swede goalie there, and myself.”
Wakely and Daley had both played more than a 100 NHL games before moving to the WHA and each had more than a decade as a pro. Larsson ended up spending three seasons with the Jets.
Without a farm system, Wilhelm was sent to the Southern Hockey League’s Roanoke Valley Rebels, who were getting players from five different teams. He was released the day before the season started, and the Jets had nowhere else to put him.
He returned home to his family in Fernie, B.C., and played junior B as a 20-year-old. Wilhelm had met his wife June in his last year of junior and they married young, so Wilhelm came back to Brandon the next year to begin work for his father-in-law at the Brandon Sewing Centre.
“I didn’t want to have to chase that dream,” Wilhelm said. “I didn’t want to work out in the coal mine in B.C. all my life doing shift work, so I came back and settled in Brandon.”
Wilhelm helped start the Brandon Olympics that played in the Central Senior Hockey League from 1975 to 1979. The Brandon Sportsmen were started a couple of years later, and they would go on to play in the South West Hockey League.
He stopped playing goal 10 years ago and finally gave up playing out as a forward a couple of years ago.
Wayne and June have three daughters, Angela, Lisa and Dana, and four grandchildren.
They have worked at the Brandon Sewing Centre since 1975, with the pair set to celebrate their 43rd anniversary at the business in July.
The Wilhelms are season ticket holders for the Wheat Kings.
“These young guys can shoot the puck like crazy, and the speed,” Wilhelm said. “They learn to play at a high speed, especially the way the defencemen move the puck. It was a game that had to change because before the defencemen used to just hook and hold and slash and clutch and grab and now they have to be good skaters to turn with the guy and not take a penalty. I think that’s a huge change, how the defence have to work.”
He also notices a big difference in goaltenders.
“I remember when they said Ken Dryden was too big to be a goalie and now anyone who is six-foot-one is considered a small goalie,” Wilhelm said. “The style they play, they’re on their knees, but they take away a lot of the top of the net too because they’re so big.”
While the NHL dream wasn’t to be for Wilhelm, he has no regrets. He enjoys watching hockey now and being on the ice as a Wheat King back then.
“I just wanted to play the game and go as far as I could,” Wilhelm said. “It was all fun for me.”