Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Craig Geekie loves what sport can teach.
Now 45, the Strathclair product played with the Brandon Wheat Kings for parts of three seasons from 1990 to 1993 before completing his Western Hockey League career with the Spokane Chiefs. The longtime coach and father of three athletically-gifted sons has theories about the benefits of teamwork.
“It’s about the compete, coming every day and managing the time and working together,” Geekie said. “You may not love the person, but you still have to respect the person, whether you’re at work or on a (base)ball team or hockey team. Each person will bring something different to the table and you will need that person at one point in time.
“To me, the game of hockey or the game of ball or any team sport teaches you a lot more than meets the eye.”
Geekie grew up on a farm eight miles north of Strathclair, where he and his older brother Scott learned to skate on a slough near the house.
As Geekie got older, he spent a lot of time at the rinks in Strathclair and nearby Elphinstone. He said his parents Bill and Bev were invaluable in facilitating his interest in sports.
“When you’re on the farm, it takes that little extra special effort, when it’s minus-30 and snowing and you have to travel back roads or side roads to get to the rink for me to fart around for two hours or whatever while mom or dad are actually watching,” Geekie said. “They would sacrifice their time, their evenings and afternoons and on Sundays and weekends for me to go in.”
He chuckles about his mother frantically trying to get him to Oak River for a tournament in a terrible snowstorm. They got stuck about half way.
“I think she was more ticked off that we didn’t get to Oak River than I was,” Geekie said. “You sacrifice all that time and energy and money and gas and food and everything else just to live out a childhood dream.”
Geekie said Scott also played a big role in his development because of a familiar thing, sibling rivalry.
“Whether it was street hockey outside or in the rink, it was fairly intense,” Geekie said. “He helped my game probably as much as anyone.”
Strathclair had plenty of kids to form teams so Geekie was able to play locally. While he watched the National Hockey League on TV with his dad, Geekie said he was aware of the Wheat Kings but it wasn’t anything he thought about too much. That changed in a hurry.
“Mark Johnston and Kelly McCrimmon strolled into the Strathclair rink one day and it was honestly such a huge moment,” Geekie said with a chuckle. “They were coming to watch little old me from Strathclair, a farm boy, and it was exciting. Still to this day, I see Mark Johnston at every rink and he’s one of the people that I honestly look up to. He helped me an absolute ton when I ended up getting on the team.”
Geekie played three seasons with the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League’s Yellowhead Chiefs in Shoal Lake, scoring 19 goals and adding 25 assists in 36 games in the 1990-91 season. During that final season in midget, he also played six games with the Wheat Kings.
Geekie calls his midget years a fun time, noting the guys he played with included Chris Low, Pat Falloon, Derek Tibbatts, Mark Wotton and Stu Scantlebury.
A season later, he joined the 1991-92 Wheat Kings for the first of three seasons he spent in the WHL.
Longtime Brandon fans may remember Geekie’s rookie season as the final one in an eight-year stretch in which the team missed the playoffs seven times. While the Wheat Kings went 11-55-6 that year, all the pieces were in place for a record-breaking 62-point improvement a season later.
“If you talk to any hockey player, I think you have a sense when you’re playing with guys of the level that you are at as a team,” Geekie said. “I just felt when we lost that many, and everybody had the same idea, that you know what, next year was going to be fine. But don’t get me wrong, that was by far the toughest year of hockey I’ve ever had.”
Geekie said he did some things well, but added stuff like his diet weren’t very good as he found his way in that first season. He also struggled with all the extra time he had on his hands.
“My upbringing was that you be on time, you work hard and you do all that stuff and that wasn’t an issue,” Geekie said. “It was a grind trying to fill in the day. I did try a little bit of school at university for a semester but didn’t stick at that very long. It was more the grind throughout the day. The hockey was just the way it was supposed to be.”
Looking back, Geekie wishes he would have taken a job just to fill in the extra hours and keep his mind busy.
He sensed a different feeling in the dressing room in his second season, a team he said had no cliques and featured a cast of characters that included Marty Murray, Bobby House, Mike Maneluk, Trevor Robins, Darren Ritchie, Jeff Hoad and others and would go on to post a 43-25-4 record.
Geekie said that Murray, who went on to play in two world junior championships for Canada and 261 National Hockey League games, is actually ideally suited for today’s NHL with his vision and play-making ability. But Geekie added that was only part of the appeal of Murray.
“He was a better person than he was a hockey player,” Geekie said. “He was such a joy to be around.”
Geekie said he wasn’t a good loser at that age, and that Murray’s business-like attitude during games and positive attitude after was a shining example.
Following Geekie’s 19-year-old year, he had a professional free-agent tryout, but the hard-nosed defenceman spent his final season in 1993-94 in Spokane after a trade.
“At the end of the day, I think that was the best thing for me,” said Geekie, whose oldest son Morgan has spent his WHL career with the Tri-City Americans in Kennewick, Wash. “I only realized that now or after the years have gone by that it was a good thing. It helps you mature as a person and a hockey player on your own. You either do it and buy in or you’re going to fade out. My hockey career probably didn’t go exactly as I planned, but at the end of the day I was a way better person coming out of that.”
He said his Spokane billet family was a big part of that, and he remains close to them.
After his final WHL season he came home, and since he didn’t have many pro offers, he went to school at Assiniboine Community College and played senior hockey in Foxwarren. He was soon contacted by the Central Hockey League’s Oklahoma City Blazers, and joined them for seven games during the 1994-95 season.
He was having fun and thought he was playing well, so he asked a couple of scouts what they thought lay ahead for him. They told him that after two or three years in the CHL, he could probably make the jump to a higher league.
It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, so he made the tough decision to leave.
“I was already kind of out of the hockey but it was nice to kind of see that I could play it, I guess,” Geekie said. “Ultimately I came back, finished the school and kept playing with Foxwarren. That was really it.”
He said a player’s body and mind will let them know when it’s time to set the dream aside, and he was comfortable with his decision. He took some time off from hockey but went on to play more with Foxwarren and then later with the Ile-des-Chenes North Stars when they went on to win an Allan Cup in 2003, the first Manitoba club to claim the Canadian senior AAA hockey championship since the Winnipeg Maroons accomplished the feat in 1964.
“It was really special getting to share it with Kelly Glowa, Ken Schneider, Pat Falloon and Chris Low,” Geekie said.
Geekie’s goal when he left pro hockey was to come back to the farm but he ended up instead working in sales at S.H. Dayton Ltd., a John Deere dealership in Shoal Lake. He helps his brother at the farm when he can.
“I enjoy what I do and the flexibility in the job is why I can coach as many teams as I do,” Geekie said. “I’m very lucky to have the support, whether it be my family, my brother, my mom and dad, or my bosses, Keith (Martin), Peter (Baydak) and Cal (Harrison). It’s absolutely phenomenal because I can leave at 3 (p.m.), no questions asked. That to me is a huge, huge reason why I can do what I do.”
Craig and wife Tobi have three boys, Morgan, 19, Noah, 17, and Conor, 13, all of them will be familiar to Westman sports fans.
Morgan has lit up the WHL playoffs with 15 goals and eight assists in eight games for the Americans as they swept their first two series against the Kelowna Rockets and Victoria Royals. The Carolina Hurricanes draft pick is in his third full year in the league.
Noah, who was drafted by the Calgary Hitmen, instead chose baseball, playing with Team Manitoba at last year’s Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg, subsequently attending the Okotoks Dawgs Academy prep school and recently committing to play baseball at Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas.
Conor may also have his choice of both sports. The highly touted hockey player, who will be eligible for next year’s WHL bantam draft, starred for Team Manitoba at the Canadian 13-and-under boys’ baseball championship in Quebec last summer.
Craig has coached all three, in part because of the growth he sees in all the young people, including his boys. After coaching the elder two with the midget AAA Chiefs, he took over the bantam AAA program last year to coach Conor.
“Kids playing sports today is a luxury,” Geekie said. “It’s expensive, it’s time consuming, it’s a ton of travel but there are so many good things about it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-year player or a five- or 10-year player, it’s going to teach you the same things. That to me is what guides me, seeing the kids get better on and off the ice, seeing them grow, and having the ability to say hi or text them 10 years after you’ve coached them.
“It’s pretty darn cool, and it keeps me honest, because I need to make an impact in that kid’s life in some way, shape or form. It could be something small, it could be something big but I want them to have a positive experience.”
At the same time, Geekie and his wife help guide their three boys, but allow them to make their own decisions. He said in an age in which it’s so easy to communicate, it allows them to be readily available to the boys.
Those lessons from team sports are important, he said. But Geekie adds an extra bit of advice for youngsters.
“Everybody at those levels, whether it’s AAA and up, are good athletes,” Geekie said. “It’s whether they can handle the mental day-to-day stuff and just enjoy the game and continue to enjoy it. But you have to learn from the game, understand it, be a competitor every day, but the minute you walk away from the rink, you have to go have some fun.
“Go enjoy every minute of it and be a good person.”