(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun) — Gerald Stoughton’s life lessons and paths connected to the game of hockey never seem to fade.
Now 62, the Gilbert Plains product played parts of three seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings from 1973 to 1976, and has maintained close friendships with some of former teammates. One of them, Dave Semenko, died in 2017 after a battle with cancer.
It left an indelible impression on Stoughton, who lives in Austin, Texas.
“When (Semenko) passed away, it really changed me,” Stoughton said. “I said ‘I’m going to slow down,’ and do more fun things and enjoy life, as he did. He was just a great guy. It really, really hit home … I took that one kind of hard.”
A recurring thread in Stoughton’s life has been his ties to the hockey world and the outsized impact they’ve had.
It all started when he began skating at age three, both at the local rink and at a pond that froze near the family home. As a youngster he played with his older brother Blaine, until Blaine earned a spot with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Dauphin Kings at age 14 and moved on to the Western Canada Hockey League’s Flin Flon Bombers at 16.
Gerald played his early minor hockey in Gilbert Plains in leagues against teams from nearby towns like Grandview and Roblin. At age 12 he began to play house league in Dauphin, and there was a hullabaloo when Stoughton earned a spot on the travelling team over a local boy.
With an older brother first playing in the MJHL and then in the WCHL — which became the Western Hockey League in 1978 — Stoughton had strong awareness of both leagues. In fact, Stoughton came to Brandon to see the Bombers play the Wheat Kings in the old Manex Arena, and had a chance to serve as Flin Flon’s stick boy.
He almost earned a much larger role there.
Bombers head coach Patty Ginnell had heard a radio report when driving through Dauphin once that Stoughton had scored a hat trick in a tournament in the U.S. When Gerald headed up in the late summer at age 15 to spend some time with Blaine, he took his blades and skated with his brother and other Bombers.
Ginnell invited him to training camp, and then asked him to stay for the final game on a Saturday night.
“I knew I wasn’t going to make it, but just to be asked was the thrill of a lifetime,” Stoughton said.
Stoughton impressed Ginnell enough that he asked the teenager to billet in his home and play with the Flin Flon midgets. Stoughton called his dad to discuss it, but was thrilled with the idea.
It didn’t last long.
“Patty called the league to register me with the Flin Flon Bombers and the next day he said ‘I’ve got a bus ticket for you, you’re going home. Don’t tell anybody you were here,’” Stoughton recalled. “I said ‘What’s going on?’ and he said ‘The Brandon Wheat Kings own you. They’ve already protected you.’ That was the end of my Flin Flon career.”
(The WHL bantam draft wasn’t instituted until 1990. Prior to that, teams listed players they liked.)
He played midget in Dauphin that year, and was up and down between the midgets and Kings in his 16-year-old season. In a small world moment, Stoughton’s Dauphin squad met the Flin Flon team he would have played for in the rural midget qualifier to play the Winnipeg champions, and Dauphin won.
At age 17, Stoughton moved to Brandon for the 1973-74 season. He spent most of the year with the MJHL’s Travellers on a team that included Doug Murray, Mark Johnston Mike Bradbury, Guy Bieber, Glen Hanlon and Wayne Ramsey. Stoughton scored 25 goals and added 40 assists in 48 games. In that rough-and-tumble era of the game, he also piled up 148 penalty minutes.
The Wheat Kings called him up from their farm team for 11 games, most of which came out after the Travellers were ousted from the playoffs, and he posted five points in the WCHL.
The entire season was a big change.
“Obviously I was moving away from home like everybody else does, and I was coming from a small town,” Stoughton said. “The team was fairly new and there were some guys in the same boat who came from small towns in Manitoba for the most part. There were some guys from Winnipeg, but we were all new there and just seemed to bond. There were great guys on that team.”
Stoughton said one of the biggest things he learned that year was that his yappy, abrasive personality on the ice translated at a higher level of hockey.
He played two games with the Travellers in the 1974-75 season, earning five points, but skated with the Wheat Kings for 69 in the newly opened Keystone Centre.
The WCHL team featured a bevy of established stars such as Rick Blight and Dale McMullin, and would welcome a crop of rookies that included Hanlon, Ramsey, Semenko, Dan Bonar, Bill Derlago, and Ray Allison. While some would only see limited action that year, the future was unmistakably bright.
“You could see what was going on,” said Stoughton, who marvelled at Semenko from the start. “Derlago sort of turned out to be my nemesis in my final year because he came up and took a lot of my ice but he was just a great guy and a natural talent. You could just see he was naturally gifted, he was one of those guys.
“And with Ray Allison and (Brian Propp), the Wheat Kings were going to be in great shape in a year or two.”
Stoughton scored 16 goals and add 20 assists in 69 games despite having a six-foot frame and only carried 140 pounds. He chuckles that in his final season, coach Dunc McCallum walked by as he was being weighed and saw the result.
“He said ‘ Oh my God, that’s embarrassing. Don’t put that down. Make it 175 (pounds) or something,’” Stoughton chuckled.
Since the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers were in the throes of their rugged Broad Street Bullies period of highly intimidating hockey, the philosophy had trickled down. Stoughton tried everything he could to add weight, but it never happened.
“It was really tough,” Stoughton said. “I wasn’t much of a fighter and you had to be. The game was pretty crazy then, with lots of brawls before the games started, line brawls, and I was 140 pounds. You had to fight, it was just part of the drill.”
In those days, the referees weren’t on the ice for warmup so police and fans occasionally became involved.
He admitted hockey wasn’t as fun then, regardless of how much he enjoyed hanging out with his teammates off the ice.
Stoughton said if you happened to play on a big tough team like the New Westminster Bruins or Flin Flon Bombers, life was good. On a less physical team like Brandon, it was a problem.
That was remedied with the arrival of Semenko and Gary Soetaert, along with the Kaluzniak brothers, Gary and Gord, who skated on a line with Stoughton in his 19-year-old season.
“The player I was, I obviously would have had a lot easier time now with the way the game is as opposed to then because I could skate,” Stoughton said. “I just wasn’t very big.”
He chuckles at the thought of New Westminster defenceman Barry Beck, who would enjoy a long NHL career, simply picking him up and throwing him out of the way on one occasion.
Stoughton said another memory is the team bus breaking down near Kamloops, and players grabbing whatever they could to stay warm. By the time the bus was fixed and they arrived in New Westminster just before game time, the sleepy and cold players had to pull their frozen equipment from underneath the bus to face the toughest team in junior hockey.
For Stoughton, the wild experiences cemented friendships among the teenagers that remain strong 40-plus years later.
“It was tough but fun, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Stoughton said.
Stoughton would score 33 goals and add 40 assists on the 1975-76 team in his 19-year-old campaign. It was just the second time in eight WHL seasons that the squad eclipsed the .500 mark, and was the stepping stone to greatness like the 1992-93 and 2013-14 seasons would later be.
“We had Dunc and those young guys and we got tougher,” Stoughton said. “There’s no question about it, because it was in that era. Dunc realized the Wheat Kings had to get tougher and he did that. It was just the perfect mix of toughness and the Derlagos and Ray Allisons and Brad McCrimmons of the world.”
Stoughton said he had been labelled a penalty killer because of his speed earlier in his career, and McCallum gave him additional ice time. He was also more confident, in part because Semenko also skated on his wing that season.
McCallum asked Stoughton to fill the team’s single available overage spot in the 1976-77 season, until that is, Bonar unexpectedly returned to the Wheat Kings. Stoughton was offered spots elsewhere in the league, but had settled in Brandon and played instead with the senior team, the Olympics.
He played a couple of seasons of intermediate in Swan River — a job was part of that deal — and then was lured out to join the Kimberley Dynamiters, who played in the senior Western International Hockey League.
He spent six years there, working in his team-provided mining job and having a pair of boys with his first wife. He also played for three years with the Rammer International All-Stars, sometimes centring a line with Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt on Merv Bodnarchuk’s squad of NHLers that played charity games.
When Blaine was part of an ownership group that started the Austin Ice Bats in 1996 in the Western Professional Hockey League, he invited the now divorced father of two to head south and join him on the bench.
Stoughton actually played five games at age 40 because the team was short of players, and would coach former Wheat Kings Kelly Smart, Chris Johnston Brian Elder and Scott McCallum there.
Blaine and his partners sold the team after three years, but in the meantime, Stoughton had remarried. Naturally, he also made that connection indirectly through hockey.
Stoughton coached his friend Dave Anderson’s son Ryan with the Ice Bats, and when Ryan decided to spend part of the summer in Texas at Stoughton’s house, they went for a drink after he arrived. He met Joni and they married three months later.
That was 20 years ago, and he still marvels that he would never have been in that place at that time without Ryan.
Since he had learned to cook as a youngster at his parents’ gas station restaurant in Gilbert Plains, after the coaching job ended he joined his wife Joni’s catering business and did that until he retired.
“I knew how to cook so it kind of all worked out,” he said.
Stoughton’s sons Derek and Scott and Joni’s son Matthew Burr complete the family.
His brother lives in Cincinnati now, and one sister is in Calgary, but the other sisters are in Gilbert Plains, Dauphin and Grandview. They try to get together every summer.
He also tries to see his former teammates as often as he can.
Semenko had been talking about visiting Stoughton again for his 60th birthday, a trip he was never able to make.
When Semenko was with the Oilers, he would stay with the Stoughtons for anywhere from a week to a month to rest after the NHL season ended. It was a deep bond that dated back to their time as Wheat Kings.
Stoughton marvels that one son became a professor after graduating from the University of Texas, an unthinkable sequence of events for a kid from Gilbert Plains who dreamed of following in his brother’s footsteps into junior hockey.
“You don’t realize it at the moment, but when you’re playing with the Wheat Kings, the friendships you make expand into the rest of your life and you take paths because of hockey and/or the Wheat Kings,” Stoughton said. “If I had gone to Flin Flon, what happens? It’s life’s paths. Instead, I came to Brandon and met Dale Anderson and Dave Semenko and Murray Good and whoever. It’s the twists and turns, it’s coming to Austin and the Wheat Kings who come through here.
“It’s really unbelievable. I try and tell my kids and younger people who are involved in my life that you don’t know where it’s heading, but enjoy the ride.”