(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun) — Brian Propp arrived in the Wheat City as a hockey prodigy, and still elevated his game as a Brandon Wheat King.
Now 58 and a veteran of 1,176 regular season and playoff games in the National Hockey League in a career than spanned 15 seasons, Propp came to his first camp with the Wheat Kings already a bona fide star.
In his 16-year-old season with the Melville Millionaires of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1975-76, he shattered the team scoring record with 75 goals and 92 assists for 168 points in 57 games and was named league MVP. (His 168 points is still third in league history.)
The son of a preacher from Neudorf, Sask., he arrived in Brandon with one of the best cohorts of young talent in franchise history.
<t-1>”I was pretty young when I went there, but thankfully we had a couple of guys like Brad McCrimmon that was there with Ray Allison, so we grew up together,” he said.
“Just by sticking together for those three years, it made a difference for us.”<t$>
Propp’s success continued in the Western Hockey League as he played on a line with Allison and Bill Derlago. Derlago put up 178 points that season, Allison had 137 and Propp added 55 goals and 80 assists in 72 games for 135 points.
“The three of us led the league in scoring, one, two and three, so we had a good line,” Propp said. “We had a good team there with (goalie) Glen Hanlon, (Dave) Semenko, Dan Bonar and (Gord) Kaluzniak. These guys were a little older and gave us a chance to mature.”
Propp was never massive, standing five-foot-nine and weighing 185 pounds in his final WHL year.
He said Semenko’s presence scared some teams, giving other guys more room. But it was Derlago that had a direct impact on his numbers.
“Bill was a huge talent,” Propp said. “He could score whenever he wanted to. He was very good on faceoffs and he controlled the play all the time. But we had such a good team, we had lots of power plays and we had the best power play in the league at the time because we worked on it and we just complemented each other.”
After scoring 70 goal and adding 112 assists in his second year — the team went 46-12-14 but was eliminated in the playoffs in a round-robin format that served as division semifinals — the table was set for the greatest year in Canadian Hockey League history.
With Derlago’s gradation, Propp and Allison had a new centre in Boschman.
“He filled in really nice after Bill got drafted by Vancouver,” Propp said. “Bosch was used to us for a couple of years. He was a good centre-iceman too so we didn’t miss a beat. It was good to have a guy like that who plays the middle.”
In 1978-79, the team went 58-5-9, winning the WHL title as Propp led the league in scoring with 94 goals and 100 assists in 71 games. Allison, with whom Propp remains close, finished second with 153 points.
“We built our team so that our goaltending was strong, our defence was great and we had four lines,” Propp said. “Dunc McCallum was an excellent coach, so that made a huge difference for all of us because he taught us how to be a good hockey player and to understand what it took to play in the pros. He left us alone but we had hard practices so that we couldn’t become complacent. We had a good group that worked really hard. We challenged each other to get better.”
Brandon would go on to lose 2-1 in overtime to the Peterborough Petes in overtime in the Memorial Cup final. Propp still thinks that if the NHL playoffs hadn’t forced the game out of the Montreal Forum to the smaller rink in Verdun, the outcome of the final might have been different.
Incredibly, it was a season of success that nearly didn’t happen for the Wheat Kings.
After the 1977-78 campaign, the outlaw World Hockey Association approached Propp, McCrimmon and Allison about leaving junior early to play pro hockey.
Until the WHA and NHL merged for the 1979-80 season, the leagues had a 20-year-old draft, allowing players to improve at the junior level, but the WHA wasn’t above poaching younger players.
“We decided to stay at home and maybe win a Memorial Cup,” he said. “And then of course the two leagues merged, which didn’t help us at all because we had no bargaining power after the league combined. That’s why I made $50,000, $55,000 and $60,000 my first three years.”
Propp was in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers the next season, scoring the game winner in his first appearance and setting a new rookie scoring record for left-wingers with 75 points. The team went on a 35-game unbeaten streak and Propp appeared in the first of five NHL finals he would play in.
He would be named an NHL all-star in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1990. He represented Canada at the world junior tournament in 1979, at the 1982 and 1983 world championships, the 1987 Canada Cup and the 1992 Spengler Cup.
In his 11th season he was traded to the Bruins, and went on to spend time with the Minnesota North Stars and a final season with the Hartford Whalers. In 1994-95 he went and played a year in France, but he knew his career was over.
“After 15 or 16 years, the times change a little bit,” Propp said. “I had a couple of injuries and it was a little tough to work out in the summers. I wanted to quit when I was a good player. I didn’t want to be one of those players who hung on just for the money and didn’t get a chance to play. I was happy that I played my 1,000th game and got my 1,000th point. Those were big milestones for me.”
He said he had shoulder and hand issues, and some trouble with concussions, but considered himself pretty healthy.
In 1999, Propp was named the left-winger on the CHL’s all-time team, joining Bernie Parent, Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Mario Lemieux and Guy Lafleur. He’s also been inducted into three hall of fames in Saskatchewan and two in Philadelphia.
Last season he was named the 14th best player in WHL history.
The married father of two — wife Kris, daughter Paige and son Jackson — didn’t take long to establish himself off the ice from his home base in south New Jersey.
He served as chief operating officer at a large arena in New Jersey for four years before spending nine as a radio colour analyst on Flyers games.
After five years leading the Judge Group’s account management team, he landed with Wolf Commercial Real Estate, where he has a broker’s licence and has worked in commercial real estate. However, he spends much of his time in the community meeting people and drumming up opportunities anywhere in U.S. but focusing on Philadelphia.
He’s also faced a significant setback.
Eighteen months ago, Propp had a stroke that left him speechless and took away some of his mobility. He’s made remarkable progress since, trying a number of therapies — from occupational to hyperbaric chamber — that have largely restored his speech.
“I’m feeling really good,” Propp said. “The only problems that I have are that my right hand and fingers don’t work that well so I can’t write or type yet. It might just take a little time.
“I still play hockey twice a week. I can’t shoot that well but I can skate and some of those guys aren’t that good so I can still score once in a while,” he laughs.
With restricted range in his right arm, his six handicap on the golf course has become a 24, he adds.
It’s a challenge he faces with the optimism and good cheer that are inevitably used to describe him.
“My dad was always very positive,” he said. “I always worked as hard as I could and from that work ethic, you learn how to do better. I’ve been living here for 38 years and I know so many people. I’ve worked with big companies and I’m very, very active with charities that I have and help them out. I play a little bit of Flyer alumni hockey and have other charities that I work with. It’s good for me to get out there. It keeps me busy. I always have lots of things going on.”
His parents, Margret and Reinhold, still live in Saskatchewan, as do his two brothers and two sisters and their children.
He’s thrilled that Wheat King fans continued to remember him as the team picked its Dream Team from 50 years in the WHL. And he’s happy he made the right choice before the 1978-79 season.
“It means so much to me,” Propp said. “Ray, Brad and myself could have played in the WHA so it all could have been different. It was better for us that we all decided to stay there for that last year. With the stats we had, it makes it pretty easy for people to understand how good we were.
“But it’s still an honour in Canada to have these people see how well I did and the teams did and the pro players that we played with and how it really worked out nice.”