CATCHING UP WITH FORMER WHEAT KING & JET DEAN KENNEDY
Courtesy of Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun) — Long before Dean Kennedy would embark on his long National Hockey League career and even before he spent three seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings, he had a plan.
Now 55, Kennedy owns a cattle ranch near Pincher Creek, Alta., which is west of Lethbridge at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
But as a youngster growing up on the farm of his parents Ed and Elaine near Redvers, Sask., which is straight south of Moosomin and straight west of Souris, his immediate hockey destiny and the first steps in his path lay with the Weyburn midget team and later the Weyburn Red Wings of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
“When I left the farm I had four steps that I wanted to make,” Kennedy said. “First was making the midgets. The second step was making the Red Wings. The third step was making the Wheat Kings. And the fourth step, what I felt was the impossible step, was getting drafted.”
He would go on to tick off all four boxes, and played 753 NHL regular season and playoff games over 12 seasonsfrom 1982 to 1995 for the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers.
He started playing the game in Grade 1, although because Redvers didn’t put in artificial ice until he was 14, hockey season was at the mercy of the weather.
“Growing up on the farm, I dreamed of playing in the NHL like so many Prairie kids did,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy went to participate in Bill Lesuk’s hockey school in Weyburn two years in a row, and was introduced to Weyburn coach Dwight McMillan. In his 15-year-old season, Kennedy was offered a spot on the midget team.
“Dwight was really the reason that I ever played pro,” Kennedy said of his former coach, who had a 44-year relationship with the Red Wings. “Everybody was very well meaning in Redvers but you basically didn’t learn much. It was old-time hockey; you threw the puck out and whoever got the puck got it. There was really no system. Going to Weyburn for that first year, Dwight was a tremendous coach and teacher and had tremendous discipline. He had us shaking in our boots lots of times.”
He made the Junior A Red Wings as a 16-year-old in the 1979-80 season, choosing to play there instead of with Brandon so that he could get his Grade 11 year done at school. Kennedy did play a game with the Wheat Kings, angering the Red Wings, who promptly sat him when he came home.
Kennedy returned to the midgets in protest, later agreeing to play with the Red Wings if they promised to get him on the ice. He never missed a shift the rest of the year, and was in Brandon to start the 1980-81 season.
Brandon would only win 29, 34 and 21 games in his three seasons with the Wheat Kings, but Kennedy played with a number of high-end talents, including Dave Chartier, Kelly Glowa, Don Dietrich, Carl Mokosak, Steve Patrick, Cam Plante and Ron Hextall.
“These were men, they seemed like mature men, and to go in there as a 17-year-old I was scared,” Kennedy said.
Another of the talented players made his transition to Brandon easier. Ken Schneider was a couple of years older, but the two had been teammates in Weyburn.
“Kenny and I were great pals in Weyburn and still are,” Kennedy said. “I don’t talk to him that often but when I do talk to him, it’s like we haven’t missed a beat. Without question, it was way easier to have him there.”
The farm kid didn’t take long to make his mark. In his rookie year he had three goals and 29 assists in 71 games, but also had 157 penalty minutes, third on the team.
“One of Tiger Williams’ favourite sayings when I played with him in L.A. was that you either show up or disappear,” Kennedy said, noting that it was a different era of hockey. “I played hard and I tried hard and I knew that I had to fight because I was a big guy. I did a fair bit of fighting back in Weyburn so that was a role that I accepted.”
Kennedy noted that he also killed penalties and, beginning mostly in his second season, also played on the power play. He played well enough that the Kings selected him in the second round of the 1981 NHL draft with the 39th overall pick.
He had promised his parents that he would finish Grade 12, which he did despite playing in an era when you were a hockey player first and a student second, spending most of his spare time with his teammates.
Kennedy hurt his knee near the end of January in his 18-year-old season and didn’t play again. In 49 games he scored five goals and added 38 assists, with 103 penalty minutes.
It was also his first season playing in front of a volatile young goaltender named Hextall.
“It was interesting,” Kennedy said. “Todd Lumbard was our number one, and Hexy was there. He was a tall, stringy kid. I remember Hexy would grab somebody’s gloves and stick and skate around after practice shooting the puck harder than most of the guys on the team. I remember during skating drills, down and backs and stuff, with all the equipment on he would beat half the guys down and back, and not just once. He would do all the skating. Hexy was a different animal.”
In his 19-year-old season, Kennedy went to camp in L.A., and stayed there until the middle of November before he was sent back to Brandon. He went to Canada’s world junior camp, but was one of the final cuts.
In the middle of December, the Kings called him back up to the NHL under emergency recall, and he stayed there until the season ended. In the meantime, Brandon traded his rights to the Saskatoon Blades.
Because he was under emergency recall, when the Kings missed the post-season, he was returned to junior hockey, and played four playoff games with the Blades before they were ousted by the old Lethbridge Broncos.
The NHL subsequently changed the recall rule.
Other than a year-and-a-half in the American Hockey League, Kennedy would spend the next 11 seasons in the NHL.
“There were a lot of better players than me who deserved an opportunity to go to a higher level,” Kennedy said. “I was very lucky. I was in the right spots at the right time and had people who were in the position to make decisions who liked what I did.”
Kennedy met his future wife Tammy, who hails from Deloraine, when they were introduced by his Wheat King teammate Dietrich at his cabin at Lake Metigoshe. Her family also had a cabin there, and three years later they were married.
Kennedy spent two seasons as captain of the Jets, a special honour because he said the C is generally reserved for a high profile player.
“When I talked about the four steps and getting drafted was the impossible step, to play one NHL game was the impossible dream,” Kennedy said. “I consider myself to be very, very, very lucky to have played all those years.”
The end came quickly. After three seasons in Winnipeg, Kennedy spent the 1994-95 in Edmonton.
Kennedy’s time to step away from the game was utterly reminiscent of his gateway into the NHL. As a 19-year-old, he displaced an older player named Russ Anderson as the general manager faced pressure because some of his earlier draft picks hadn’t worked out.
Fast forward to training camp in 1995, and Kennedy is seeking a spot on a free agent tryout with the Calgary Flames.
Despite Kennedy thinking he had a good camp, Calgary instead decided to go with younger players.
“It was full circle,” Kennedy said. “I was a 19-year-old placed on a team by (L.A. GM) George Maguire, who was on the hot seat, and 13 years later I’m 32 and I’m on the other end. It was full circle. I knew that was coming and I knew that was the deal and I was fine with it.”
Kennedy was offered a chance to go to the minors and essentially serve as a player-coach, but he declined. After no offers came in during the next two weeks, Kennedy told his agent on Oct. 14, 1995 that he was retiring to the ranch, which they had purchased earlier that summer.
The impact of Kennedy’s NHL career became apparent when he asked his young son Matt if he wanted to play hockey. The youngster strongly resisted, and Dean and Tammy only found out why later a year later.
“Tammy finally got it out of him,” Kennedy said. “He said ‘I don’t want to play because I don’t want to leave home.’ There he is in Grade 2, and he thinks he has to leave home because that’s what he saw with me. I wasn’t around, I was gone because of hockey. When we said that we would be with him and I would coach, he was all over the game.”
The couple also has two daughters, Logan and Jayden.
Kennedy admits that he considered himself a hockey player for a couple more years after he was cut by Calgary until a mental switch flipped and he accepted his new life.
Kennedy said he had some bad concussions, a rebuilt knee and had lots of smaller injuries. His hands and his neck and shoulders are usually stiff, but he said he has a lot of miles on his body. Still, he’s able to enjoy what he does, which is to look after his cow-calf operation with 300 cattle. The calves come in June or July and are sold in the spring.
“It never seemed real that I had an opportunity to play pro hockey,” Kennedy said. “That was always the dream and something to reach for but it wasn’t the reality. The farm was reality. That was what paid the bills.”
As soon as his season ended, Kennedy would be back home sitting in a tractor, something he enjoyed.
He’s grateful for what’s proven to be his life’s work.
“I’ve always done what I wanted to do,” Kennedy said. “Farming turned into ranching, but farming and hockey are the two things that I always wanted to do. I was lucky I was able to do them.”