Larry Brown isn’t shy about sharing the role the Brandon Wheat Kings played in his long professional career.
Brown, 73, spent three seasons with the Junior A Brandon Wheat Kings between 1964 and 1967 before going on to spend parts of nine seasons in the National Hockey League. He said without the benefit of playing for his hometown team, it simply wouldn’t have happened.
“They started your career,” Brown said. “That’s where you started, so that’s one of your focal points. It was really fun and really competitive and it gives you that sense of teamwork and co-operation and all that stuff to make you a better teammate and a better person. Some guys are just out for themselves, but most of the people were really good, and that really helped.
“Eddie Dorohoy was a really good coach and a really nice person. He gives you a foundation to go on for the rest of your life, and obviously that’s where I went.
“It could have turned out differently but that’s what happened. It shows you how hard work can help.”
Brown grew up on 21st Street near Brandon College. His father Frank built a rink for Brown, his older brother Bill and younger brother David, with Larry first skating around age four. With the West End Community Centre just a couple of blocks from home, however, the boys headed over there after supper as they got older.
“We would walk over every night and shovel off the rink and wait for the guy to open up,” Brown said. “Then we would play hockey at night.”
They would sometimes light matches to warm up their skates.
He said his parents were big boosters of the trio playing the game.
“They came off the farm into Brandon and they were supportive,” Brown said. “My dad would drive me to the rink if we had to go a long distance. When I got older, we used to have to practise down at the old Brandon arena and he would drive me down and I usually walked back, which was a fair distance but not too bad. They were supportive but they weren’t pushy or anything like that. They would help me buy a hockey stick every once in a while. They were OK. My mom (Lillian) used to be with the St. John Ambulance and she used to be at the arena for all the events and hockey games.”
Brown, who played baseball in the summer, was well aware of the Wheat Kings growing up. The team played in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, other than during a hiatus from 1954 to 1958 when the squad went dormant and was briefly replaced by the minor pro Brandon Regals from 1955 to 1957.
“When you’re a little kid and played at the rink a little bit, we watched the Wheat Kings play,” Brown said. “I just liked playing. It wasn’t a goal of mine to make this and make that. I would just go out and play the best I could and see what happened.”
The centre of the Brandon hockey world at the time was the Wheat City Arena, which was built in 1913 and demolished in 1969 at its location on the southwest corner of Victoria Avenue and 10th Street.
“It was an old barn,” Brown said with a chuckle. “It was cold and drafty, and had terrible wire netting around it. You could get your face smashed into that but that’s the only place I played in. After I left was when they built the new arena (Keystone Centre) out at the fair grounds.”
After winning a city juvenile title in 1963, Brown spent the 1963-64 season with the Wheat Kings Junior B team, although the 16-year-old defenceman was called up to the MJHL squad on occasion.
“We used to scrimmage every once in a while with the bigger guys like Ron Huston, Rick Hextall, Bobby Ash and those guys,” Brown said. “They would need people so we would go out and scrimmage with them, which was kind of interesting. They were a little bit bigger and stronger and wiser than we were.”
He made the main Wheat Kings squad in the 1964-65 campaign, contributing two goals, 11 assists and 14 penalty minutes in 54 games as the team spent the first of two seasons in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. He scored his first SJHL goal on Dec. 11, 1964 in a 6-5 win over the Estevan Bruins.
“I was basically a defensive defenceman,” Brown said. “You take the man and clear the guy out in front of the net. Every once in a while I would get a goal. The hockey back then was a lot different than it is now. It was more playing your position, and everyone else was supposed to play their position and then you just waited for the breaks. I was stay-at-home. When I played later I rushed the puck up, but I just passed the puck up (in junior) and hopefully it goes where it’s supposed to go.”
The six-foot-two rearguard hadn’t started to fill out yet, describing himself as “scrawny.” His junior days came in a rugged era of the game in which the equipment wasn’t nearly what it would later become.
“It was kind of interesting with no helmets,” Brown said. “Now they have all the stuff. You were always getting whacked.”
During a game on Feb. 23, 1965, he was knocked into the boards by an Estevan Bruins forward and sent to hospital by ambulance with a cut on his forehead and a concussion. A year later, he badly broke his nose, prompting coach Ed Dorohoy to outfit him in a football helmet and mask to speed his return to the lineup.
Early on, Brown played for general manager Jake Milford, who the teenager used to see occasionally when he walked to Vincent Massey high school. Former NHL goalie (Sugar) Jim Henry was behind the bench.
“That was a different experience,” Brown said.
He remembered when Henry would stride into the dressing room when the Wheat Kings weren’t playing well and send flying the table of oranges set out as snacks. Henry wasn’t scared to let the players know what they were doing wrong at a volume they could certainly hear. With the windows open because the room was hot, Henry began to draw a crowd.
“All these people were standing outside in the cold listening to him yell and scream in the dressing room,” Brown said with a chuckle.
Brown remembers playing in Flin Flon against the Bombers one night, with Prince Albert the team’s next destination. The current link between the two communities, Highway 106, didn’t open until 1965, so the bus used another route.
“We took an ice road across the northern part of Manitoba,” Brown said. “For hours there was nothing but moose and wolves. Then we got to a little shack and (the driver) had to radio to Prince Albert that we had made it there so we would be able to make it to Prince Albert for the game.”
He recalls the old rink in P.A. being so cold that a puck that hit the post one time and broke in half.
It was certainly nice to play at home, however.
His dad came to some games and his younger brother attended when he could, but his older brother was already on the way out of town for a job by that time. Of course his mom was usually there with St. John Ambulance.
“We used to get good crowds and they were enthusiastic,” Brown said. “You were a kid out there just enjoying playing and getting caught up in it. Basically when you’re playing, until the whistle blows your mind is really on what you’re doing on the ice. Sometimes you forget there are people there, but the people were nice. They seemed to enjoy the games.”
So did Brown, in part because of the talented cast around him. Oddly, Brown would later play with the two Wheat Kings superstars of that era in the NHL too, Bill Fairbairn with the New York Rangers and Juha Widing with the Los Angles Kings.
“Bill was a really intense guy,” Brown said. “He played hard and was a good goal scorer. I played against him for years through school because he lived over by the fair grounds. I went to Brandon a couple or three years ago and went up to Clear Lake to visit him and it was just like 50 years ago. He’s supportive and a really good guy. He was a really good hockey player, and he let me sleep on his couch for a while when I came to New York.”
Widing was a curiosity. The Finnish-born, Swedish-raised forward moved to Brandon with his family in 1964. In three seasons with the team he developed into a superstar, scoring 70 goals and 74 assists in 43 MJHL games in the 1966-67 season.
“He could speak in broken English,” Brown said. “He was a really good teammate and a typical Swede. He could skate all day long and he had the moves. He was a really good goal scorer.”
Brown said the Wheat Kings teams he played on were all close.
After contributing what proved to be a junior career-high six goals and 18 assists in 59 games in the 1965-66 season, Brown and the Wheat Kings returned to the MJHL for the 1966-67 campaign. In 49 games, he had 10 points.
Impressively for a defensive defenceman who saw a lot of ice time, he drew only 37 penalty minutes in 162 regular season games with Brandon.
After graduating from the Wheat Kings, Brown attended his first NHL camp with the Rangers — the team that held the territorial rights to Brandon players — in 1967. He spent his first pro seasons with the Eastern Hockey League’s New Haven Blades and the CHL’s Omaha Knights prior to joining the American Hockey League’s Buffalo Bisons in the 1969-70 season.
When a Rangers defenceman was hurt, Brown was called up. On Dec. 11, 1969, Brown made his NHL debut with the Rangers against the visiting Boston Bruins.
He was returned to Buffalo, came back up to the Rangers virtually every weekend, played one more NHL game in January and then was called up for the rest of the season in February. On Feb. 15, 1970 in his first home game, they faced the Montreal Canadiens.
“On my first shift on the ice I had Jean Beliveau coming down on me on a one-on-one,” Brown said. “I just said ‘Oh my.’ I was kind of nervous. He didn’t score but that was my introduction at Madison Square Garden.”
He said it took a while to get acclimated to the top league in the world.
“It takes time when you haven’t played at that calibre of hockey,” Brown said.
He made the Rangers in the 1970-71 season but wasn’t there long. On Oct. 30, 1970, he was dealt to the Detroit Red Wings for forward Pete Stemkowski, a guy he later played with in L.A. during the 1977-78 season.
Brown said there was turmoil in the Detroit organization at the time, and it was his understanding the Red Wings were actually thinking they had acquired Arnie Brown.
It proved to be a short stint in Detroit, but one bonus was getting to know the legendary Gordie Howe.
“He was towards the end of his career before he went to play with his kids (Mark and Marty in the World Hockey Association) but he was such a nice man,” Brown said. “He was jovial and just loved playing the game. I got to room with him on the road. He would tell you stories and all that stuff. He was a gentleman.”
On Feb. 2, 1971, the Red Wings dealt him back to the Rangers with Bruce MacGregor for Arnie Brown, Mike Robitaille and Tom Miller.
It proved to be another short stay in the Big Apple because the Philadelphia Flyers claimed him with the seventh pick in the intra-league draft on June 8, 1971.
He went to Philadelphia and played 12 games but then came down with a bad case of mononucleosis, eventually heading to the AHL’s Richmond Robins to get himself back into shape.
“That’s something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” Brown said. “You have no energy and you can’t breathe. I went to Richmond and I had a relapse.”
Brown played just 21 games that season, and was in his parents’ kitchen with his mom with the radio on when he learned he was on the move again. On Jan. 28, 1972, the Kings acquired Brown, Serge Bernier, Jim Johnson and Bill Lesuk from the Flyers for Eddie Joyal, Bill Flett, Ross Lonsberry and Jean Potvin.
It proved to be a great destination for Brown, who spent the next six seasons with the Kings.
“When I first went down there, I had to see the doctors there and then I went to training camp in Victoria,” Brown said. “Bob Pulford was the coach and he had a bunch of guys. I think they carried six defencemen and I was like the seventh one but they kept four or five of us. We practised before games but then people get hurt and stuff like that and I went and played. They gave me the opportunity and you do the best you can. It worked out fairly well.”
Brown was tasked with defending five-foot-eight Rogatien (Rogie) Vachon, one of the decade’s best goaltenders and a man who went on to become the Kings’ general manager from 1984 to 1992. Brown said playing with Vachon was a treat.
“He was a little fire plug,” Brown said. “He made stops that were just unbelievable. He was very good. I didn’t know French but we talked and you did your best in front of him. I remember one night, I don’t remember who we played, but we won 2-1 and got outshot by 25 or 30 shots. He was standing on his head stopping everything.”
In 1975-76, the Kings swung a deal with the Red Wings to acquire disgruntled superstar Marcel Dionne. He went on to score at least 36 goals in each of the next 11 seasons, and currently sits sixth in all-time NHL scoring with 1,771 points and fifth in goal scoring with 731.
“Marcel knew how to put the puck in the net,” Brown said. “He came later. They made a few trades and obviously he was a very good player.”
Brown’s run in Los Angeles, and as it turned out the NHL, came to an end at the end of the 1977-78 season after 455 regular season games and 35 playoff games. He played with their top farm team, the AHL’s Springfield Indians, for the 1978-79 season, and on June 13, 1979 he was claimed in the NHL expansion draft by the Edmonton Oilers.
“I was getting old at that time,” Brown said. “I was 32 and the Kings could only protect so many people. Edmonton picked me up and I went up to Edmonton for training camp … Glen Sather was the coach and I played with him back in New York. They were starting out and I think they wanted younger guys. I played all their exhibition games but I was maybe a step slow and my age didn’t help a lot.”
He has two years left on his contract, so they sent him to the Central Hockey League’s Cincinnati Stingers. They folded at Christmas, and Brown finished the 1979-80 season, and his professional career, with the CHL’s Houston Apollos.
It was time to call it quits.
“You think about that a lot,” Brown said. “When you’re a kid, you’re playing for the fun of it. With me, I just played, and every year and every step that you went — the Wheat Kings paid $140 a month or something like that — then I went to New Haven and kept going to training camps and they kept paying me. I thought ‘I can just keep playing.’ It wasn’t a lot of money but at that time it was a good living.”
But there’s also a dark aspect to the pro game. In 13 pro seasons, he suited up for 13 squads and quickly discovered the reality of playing for pay.
“You learn the business side of it and it gets competitive,” Brown said. “When you’re starting out, you’re taking somebody’s job who was in New York or wherever you were. Then you’re playing and all of a sudden there’s people trying to take your job.
“And you get older. I got married and had my oldest son and I saw guys who played and had families and moved them all over the place. Every year, if they were lucky, they could stay in the same place … I didn’t want to drag my family all over the country every winter and ride a bus.”
Brown’s major health issue stemming from his long hockey career are the concussions he sustained, dating back to the earliest ones in Brandon. He takes medication to help with the side-effects.
For the last 45 years, Brown and his wife Jean have lived in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, Calif., which is northeast of San Francisco. The couple has two sons, Jason and Adam, and three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way.
They see lots of two of the grandkids, especially during the pandemic.
Jean, a retired teacher, is currently tutoring two of the youngsters three days a week in her parents’ old house, which she and Larry converted in a little schoolhouse. The other son serves abroad with the American government.
After retiring from hockey, Brown worked for a while with one of his neighbours, who was a contractor. After Jean got a job at a nearby school, Brown joined her there for half-days.
“It all worked out,” Brown said. “Everything is fine.”
Brown’s parents moved to Vancouver in 1972, so he didn’t come back to Brandon much after that. He admits he lost track of most of his former teammates over the decades.
“I left Brandon in ‘67 and just came back for a couple of years and then I got married and we came back a couple of years,” Brown said. “I’ve lived down here and there’s no hockey. All these other guys live around people and are involved in it. It’s just basketball and football down here. I lost contact.”
But he didn’t lose track of the lessons he learned as a Wheat King. He entered the workforce with knowledge that proved useful.
“Everybody is different,” Brown said. “When you’re playing with the players you play with, you’re a team and you want to do the best for you and for them. I really learned a lot about people.”
Another part of that lesson was how to read the folks he came in contact with over the years. In his long and winding pro hockey path, he encountered a lot of people, not all of whom had his best interests at heart.
“They would come up and slap you on the back and you’re this and you’re that, and once they walked away, they would put a knife between your fourth and fifth ribs,” Brown said. “I think I learned a lot about people and how to judge them in different situations.