(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — George Maneluk’s hockey path would take him a long way, but the first step away from home would prove to be one of the biggest.
Now 50, the East. St. Paul product played two seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings from 1987 to 1989. He went on to an eight-year professional hockey career that included four National Hockey League games, but never forgot how tough that first year away from home was and the people who made it tolerable.
“It was a very eye-opening experience,” Maneluk said. “I was very fortunate that I became very good friends with one of the guys on our team; unfortunately he passed away, Chad Silver. His family (parents Cy and Dora) took me in like I was their own son, and that’s the major reason that I stayed in Brandon, because of how nice of people they were and what they did for me. It’s no secret that it’s not an easy thing to move away from home and know nobody.”
(Silver died of heart failure in Switzerland in 1998 at age 29.)
Maneluk started playing hockey relatively early. He first started skating around age five, spending plenty of time at the outdoor rink and on the driveway playing road hockey.
He began playing goal at age eight.
“Our goalie moved away out of the district and they had nobody else so I said ‘OK, I’ll try it,’” Maneluk chuckled. “That’s how I started.”
He played with East. St. Paul and River East teams growing up on Winnipeg’s northeast corner, entering an elite stream at age 10 when he joined the Winnipeg Colts. The Wheat Kings weren’t exactly front and centre on his mind.
“I always followed hockey, and I still am a big hockey guy, but I wouldn’t say I followed the Wheat Kings when I was younger,” Maneluk said. “I didn’t have any thoughts of what I was going to do or where I was going to play or even continue hockey.”
Maneluk’s eventual path to Brandon would prove to be an unusual one.
At age 14, infamous coach Graham James tried to recruit him to play with the Moose Jaw Warriors but he wasn’t ready to leave home.
At 18, he was offered a half scholarship to the University of North Dakota —where he would have joined fellow Manitoban Ed Belfour of Carman in net — but it just didn’t make financial sense
Instead, at age 18 he joined the University of Manitoba Bisons for the 1985-86 season, making a pair of appearances. One of the things he learned that season was that university hockey wasn’t the right choice for him as he played with older guys who weren’t as driven to further their careers in the game.
“You’re only playing on the weekends and I think the schedule was maybe (28) games a year,” Maneluk said. “It just wasn’t enough ice time for me to seriously consider playing hockey as a job. That was the reason I went to Brandon.”
He certainly didn’t have to worry about a lack of playing time in the Wheat City.
In two seasons, 1986-87 and 1987-88, Maneluk played in 58 and 64 games, an incredible workload.
“I played a lot,” Maneluk laughed.
He also faced a lot of pucks.
In his second season, he faced 2,133 shots, which stands as the franchise single season record.
“You can look at some of the Wheat Kings records and I think I still have the most saves in a year just because of the fact that obviously I played a lot, but our team was not the best record-wise,” Maneluk said. “I saw a lot of shots.”
While the team would only win 19 and 26 games in his two seasons, missing the playoffs both years, he did play with some talented players including Terry Yake, Dale Marquette, Jeff Odgers, Kevin Cheveldayoff, Troy Kennedy and Bob Woods, players he calls “great people.”
While it’s never easy to lose, he said he simply had to concentrate on the task at hand.
“You just go out there as a goalie and you’re your own person,” Maneluk said. “I played basically to see if I could take this to another level. I enjoyed being busy and the action and playing a lot. It got me noticed because I was playing and having more than an average shots per game.”
After his 19-year-old season, the New York Islanders selected Maneluk in the fourth round with the 76th overall pick of the 1987 NHL draft, five spots before his teammate Yake went to the Hartford Whalers, and two rounds after the Islanders selected fellow goaltender Jeff Hackett.
“I didn’t expect anything,” Maneluk said of his reaction to being picked. “At the time when I first came to Brandon, I never thought that was going to happen. I wanted to take it to another level but you never know. Some people get hurt, some people just never make it. I was very fortunate to be in the right circumstance at the right time.”
After graduating from the Wheat Kings following his overage season, Maneluk spent most of the next two seasons with the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League.
Maneluk remembers getting the phone call that he was getting called up to the Islanders for the first time, and telling his wife Lena “I’m going to The Show! I’m going to The Show!”
Maneluk arrived five hours before his NHL debut, playing 20 minutes against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 23, 1990.
A night later, he played a period in Montreal against the Canadiens, and three nights after he was in net for his one and only full game in the league, a 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in which he faced 26 shots.
He played two periods a night later, allowing seven goals in an 8-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 28, 1990 with an Islanders team that would miss the playoffs by 13 points.
Maneluk would never see NHL action again.
“I look back today and I feel a lot more fortunate being in the moment at that time,” Maneluk said. “That’s basically your job and you want to appreciate what you’ve done in your career. I look back now and even to play the four games, not many kids get to experience that.”
Maneluk went on to play five more professional seasons, spending time with seven teams in five leagues. Maneluk fractured a vertebrae in his back near the end of his career, which eventually healed on its own.
After the 1995-96 season, it was time to move on.
“It was family based,” Maneluk said. “My son was going to start kindergarten and it was time to let the dream go and find a real job, provide for my family and not move them around.”
He admitted it wasn’t the easiest transition, even as George and Lena, along with son Marcus and daughter Meghan, returned to live near family in Winnipeg.
“It was definitely an eye-opening experience to come into the real work force and try to find something,” Maneluk said. “I struggled with it, I’m not going to lie. Because all you’ve done all your life is play hockey, you don’t have a lot of skills for anything else or experience and I found that it was very hard to find people who would let you have a chance.”
After working for a while at a Maple Leaf plant cutting meat — “You have to do what you have to do” — he eventually found his way.
He’s been in his current job as regional sales manager at Battlefield Equipment Rentals in Winnipeg for 12 years after working for eight years with a similar firm.
Maneluk was lured back to the rink to coach Marcus for several years, and began to play some beer league hockey again.
Brandon’s link to the Maneluk family didn’t end with George. His younger brother Mike would also play with the Wheat Kings from 1991 to 1994.
George Maneluk said he’s never forgotten his time in Brandon, with certain things that come to mind first when he thinks about the franchise.
“I would say honestly the fans, for sure,” Maneluk said. “I think they have a very good fanbase. The city was very welcoming and the organization was so organized about making sure that you were set up with people, because obviously we were billeted. It was a very welcoming atmosphere.”
And while it didn’t all turn out like he might have hoped, he’s grateful for all that the game gave him.
“I don’t have any regrets whatsoever,” Maneluk said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Maneluk’s former club closes out a busy 3-game in three night WHL weekend Sunday afternoon in Moose Jaw.