ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: FORMER OILER, NORDIQUE BOB FITCHNER
(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun) — Life is full of barely missed opportunities, but sometimes everything turns out exactly as it should.
For Bob Fitchner, another hockey player’s decision to forgo a tryout with the Brandon Wheat Kings gave him the chance to join the club from 1968 to 1970, play 11 professional seasons and earn a spot in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
“The Brandon experience was really good,” Fitchner said. “It was tough because we lost more games than we won and tough to accept sometimes, but if it wasn’t for Brandon and that fortuitous invite to camp, I probably never had a professional hockey career.”
He got his start north of Brandon.
Fitchner’s mother Gladys grew up in Roblin and his father Alfred was from Springside, Sask., which is located just north of Yorkton. In October of 1950, just prior to Fitchner’s birth in December, the family moved to Sudbury, Ont., from Roblin.
His father worked in the mine, but they didn’t care for living there, so the Fitchners moved back to Roblin when Bob was a few months old.
He took to the ice at public skating at the old Roblin arena when he was five or six years old. There weren’t any outdoor rinks in town, so he went to the natural ice arena three or four times a week.
Fitchner began playing hockey at age seven, and when he was 11 the family moved to Canora, Sask. It proved to be very good for his athletic career.
“I was kind of fortunate because I fell into a really good peer group in Canora in both baseball and hockey,” Fitchner said. “We had some success. We weren’t dominant but we were a pretty good team for a smaller town.”
He was an excellent skater, so his coach put him back on defence. With a small roster, he seldom came off the ice.
The family made another move when he was 14, this time to Nelson, B.C. Once again, it was a boon for Fitchner.
“When I was talking at the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame (induction ceremony), one of the things I said was that it was a lot of hard work and perseverance and good fortune,” Fitchner said. “The good fortune was that it seemed every time I moved, it was a positive outcome. The positive outcome in Nelson was that I moved to a bigger city for the first time, and it was the first time I ever skated on artificial ice. Growing up in Roblin and Canora, it was three-month ice at best.”
It also gave him a chance to watch the senior Western International Hockey League’s Nelson Maple Leafs.
In Nelson minor hockey, he played his final bantam season with his peers in a midget league, and then played two years of Junior B at ages 15 and 16, winning a title in the Kootenay Junior B Hockey League.
At the same time, the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League had started play in the 1966-67 season. Fitchner had read about it in the Hockey News, and knew of players such as Bob Clarke, Reggie Leach and Jim Harrison.
One of the RCMP officers stationed in Nelson happened to be from Brandon and he did some scouting for the Wheat Kings. He was tasked with finding four players to attend Brandon’s camp, and dutifully assembled his list, which didn’t include Fitchner.
“Four guys were going, and one guy decided not to go, so I filled his spot,” he said.
Fitchner headed to Brandon, a city he had never even visited before. The family didn’t have a lot of money, so his wardrobe was slim pickings. He had finished Grade 12, and since mother assumed he would be home in a couple of weeks, he didn’t take many clothes anyway.
That quickly proved to be a problem. On the night before camp started, the players got together for a pre-camp skate on a Sunday night. Nobody was in full gear, and Fitchner was wearing a pair of blue jeans.
“Halfway through the skate, I ripped the whole crotch out of my pants,” Fitchner said. “I stayed on the ice. I wasn’t embarrassed, I was just trying to make an impression. That night the coach, Buster Brayshaw, called me over and asked me what my name was so somehow, whether it was hard work or the crotch being ripped out of my pants, something caused him to take an interest in me.”
Brayshaw made a good decision hanging on to Fitchner, who would ring up 21 goals, 24 assists and 83 penalty minutes in 60 games as a rookie, good for fourth in team scoring.
Fitchner quickly warmed to playing in the old Wheat City Arena, which was built in 1913 and demolished in 1969.
“It was far and away the biggest rink I had ever played in, size wise,” Fitchner said. “I didn’t know the history if it, but had some idea that hockey had been there. It was an older building and I knew that New York used to hold their training camps in Brandon. It was a bit of a nostalgic trip stepping into that rink.”
The last junior game played in the Wheat City Arena took place on Nov. 19, 1969, with Fitchner assisting Dale Cook on the final Brandon goal in a 9-6 win over the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings. Two weeks later they moved into the Man-Ex Arena, playing their first game on Dec. 4, 1969 in their temporary home until the Keystone Centre was built.
“It was considerably smaller than the Wheat City and other arenas in the league,” Fitchner said. “I remember they tried to shoehorn as many fans as possible in there, and a balcony that hung over the players’ boxes. You get 1,400 or 1,500 fans in that rink and you were just crammed in there. The fans were close. They almost right on top of you and you could hear everything that was said. The change rooms weren’t real pretty. We had to go upstairs into a balcony area to get changed. It was no fault of anybody’s but it just felt like a second-rate arena.”
Despite the change, Fitchner’s success remained. He scored 20 goals and added 44 assists in his second year to finish second in team scoring behind Butch Deadmarsh.
He was also there for one of the odder chapters in Wheat Kings history that year.
The national team disbanded that season, and its players dispersed. Butch Goring went to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Dauphin Kings and the Wheat Kings landed Winnipeg product Chuck Lefley. In seven games, Lefley scored six goals and added six assists, providing an immediate spark to a team that would finish the season 23-34-3 and fall 4-0 to the Flin Flon Bombers in the quarterfinals.
“We were a different hockey team with Chuck in our lineup,” Fitchner said. “The Western Hockey League let Chuck play on one tour of the West Coast and when we got back to Brandon, they deemed him ineligible to play. We wouldn’t have beaten Flin Flon in the playoffs but we probably would have given them a much better run.”
Both Fitchner and Lefley would land in professional hockey a season later.
On June 11, 1970, Fitchner was taken in the sixth round, 77th overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was aware the draft was going on, but didn’t know much about what had happened.
“I think it was Cliff Jones or somebody at The Brandon Sun called me at probably 8 or 9 o’clock at night wanting some comments about what I thought about the draft and being drafted by Pittsburgh,” Fitchner said. “I think that was the first I heard of it.”
In his first Pittsburgh training camp he joined a club that had a multitude of greying hockey heroes such as Andy Bathgate, Eddie Shack and Dean Prentice, and was sent down. Fitchner spent the next three years playing in the Central Hockey League, American Hockey League and International Hockey League.
Oddly, in his season with the Amarillo Wranglers of the CHL, Fitchner wanted to take a quick break to fly home to Brandon to get married to Beverly (nee Whitford) in January.
Wranglers coach Rudy Migay did everything he could to discourage the union.
“He said ‘It will ruin your hockey career’ and I said ‘Rudy, I have three goals and six assists in about 24 or 25 games. How much worse can it get?’” Fitchner said. “He did everything so that I couldn’t go on the road trip to catch my flight out of Omaha, Neb., but I had already made these arrangements with Jack Button, the father of Craig Button. He was the assistant GM of the Penguins and he had OKed it.
“The good part of the story is that we got married and went back to Amarillo. I would say my play picked up quite a bit after that. It’s credit to good cooking and a happy life.”
He was playing with the Fort Wayne Komets after Amarillo folded when the World Hockey Association held a massive draft. The list was posted in the Komets dressing room, and he and a teammate weren’t on it.
“I remember thinking ‘We must be the two crappiest players in the league,’” Fitchner said. “It didn’t look promising.”
That would change. After winning the Turner Cup with Fort Wayne in 1973, he was offered a contract by the WHA’s Alberta Oilers.
He spent a season there before landing with the Indianapolis Racers a year later through an expansion draft. Following two seasons with the Racers, he played in the WHA’s final four campaigns with the Quebec Nordiques, establishing a reputation as a hard-working checking centre. He won the Avco Cup with Quebec in 1977 when it beat the Winnipeg Jets in seven games in the final.
Fitchner said the optics weren’t always good for the league.
“Maybe there was a resolve to have too many teams too fast,” Fitchner said. “Some of these teams fell by the wayside and some of them amalgamated. I would say by the last three or four years, let’s say from 1976 on, the league had a lot of stability and the franchises were stable. Generally speaking, there was a little more certainty in the league.”
For a kid growing up playing road hockey in Roblin who once pretended he was Gordie Howe, skating against Mr. Hockey when he was a member of the Houston Aeros and later the New England Whalers was a treat.
“I played a lot against Gordie Howe,” Fitchner said. “It seemed we were on the ice against each other quite often. I treated him with the utmost respect, partly out of not wanting to get a slash or one of those wicked elbows to the head. It was a complete honour to play against Gordie and Bobby (Hull) and Dave Keon. I played with J.C. Tremblay and Pat Stapleton. To me that was just a real career highlight.’
The 1978-79 season was the final one for the WHA, and Fitchner joined the Nordiques in the NHL for the 1979-80 season. He scored 11 goals and added 20 assists in 70 games in a checking role against the top players in the league.
“You’re a little awestruck,” Fitchner said of the move to NHL.
A year later, Quebec sent him down to join the AHL’s Rochester Americans, in part because they were loaded at centre with Peter Stastny, Dale Hunter, Robbie Ftorek, Serge Bernier, Ron Chipperfield and Jacques Richard.
He was up with Quebec again and trying to prevent Mike Bossy from scoring his 50th goal in 50 games when he injured his knee. He returned for the playoffs, but knew it was time to hang up his blades when the 1980-81 season ended.
With three young daughters, Kim, Kerri and Chrystie, and the knowledge that the family had moved around a lot, Fitchner knew it was over with one year left on his contract. He was grateful to Beverly for her support.
“I always thought that the life of a wife during those hockey days was really a difficult time,” Fitchner said. “We were away so much and we didn’t have the advantage of charted flights. In all those years I played hockey Bev only missed two of my games.”
He added that she watched him closely and wasn’t afraid to share her opinion when he didn’t play well, which was input he valued.
The Nordiques and Fitchner struck a deal for a buyout, and the team even paid for the family’s move back to Brandon, where he always maintained his ties, working at Dunc McCallum’s hockey school in the mid-1970s and then holding his own with Andy Murray in the 1980s.
His wife went to nursing school, and Fitchner joined his former Wheat Kings teammate and close friend Ray Brownlee in the real estate business. But in a stunning bit of bad timing, interest rates were around 21 per cent and houses weren’t moving.
After a few months, he went to Brandon University and earned an education degree. At the same time, he joined Earl Jessiman’s coaching staff as an assistant coach with the hockey Bobcats for the 1982-83 season.
“It was a good transitional period going from a player to a coach,” Fitchner said.
When Jessiman found a job in the AHL the next summer, Fitchner unexpectedly became the head coach for the next three seasons.
The family moved to Carman in the summer of 1986 when both Bob and Beverly were offered jobs. After 14 years he got into the hotel business, and built a Super 8 in Portage.
After a decade there, he moved to Winnipeg 10 years ago and became part of another hotel venture, He has an interest in the business but isn’t active,
Instead, he has six grandchildren between the ages of two and 23 to spend his time on.
He also had an important engagement earlier this month when he was inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
“It’s just rewarding,” Fitchner said. “It makes you feel good that all the time and effort you put in there has been recognized and somebody thinks you’re worthy of being inducted. I was very honoured to be selected and inducted into the Hall.”
Fitchner chuckles when asked about a life without hockey if that fourth player had gone to Brandon instead of him.
“It almost happened,” Fitchner said. “I sometimes think back to those days and think ‘What would I have done?’ I wouldn’t have gone to university because school wasn’t big on the radar screen when I graduated. I may have gone and played in the B.C. junior league.