(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun) — Bob Leslie first entered the family business at age six or seven at the Pilot Mound Arena.
Now 69, the former Brandon Wheat Kings forward parlayed those first steps into a lifetime in the game that has extended to his sons Boe and Nate. Like all great journeys, the single step that set him in motion was a phone call to see if he could try out with the team.
“It’s a great thing,” Leslie said. “A simple call to a club where I didn’t even think I could make it is always a little lesson in giving it your best and you never know what could happen. That goes for everybody.”
Leslie was born in Carberry but grew up in Pilot Mound, a community of more than 600 people located 150 kilometres southwest of Brandon.
“I did all my schooling there and of course played every sport,” Leslie said. “It was a pretty active sports town and still is now. At the time it was baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter, and that’s what we did.”
Leslie chuckles that he and his friends would sneak into the rink by the back door and get on the natural ice almost every day. His father Dave was a longtime coach, and mother Violet also supported his passion for the game, as did many others.
“Those guys were passionate and just loved the game,” Leslie said of his coaches growing up. “They drove us all over the countryside in that old car. It was fun, a lot of great memories.”
Leslie, who had two sisters, usually walked over to the rink with his equipment.
He doesn’t remember playing goal, spending his time on the blue-line and up front in an era when every small town had a team.
As he finished high school, Leslie played for the local juvenile team and also with the senior Pilots, who played in the old South East Hockey League.
At the time, he had interest from a couple of Saskatchewan teams but he approached the situation a little differently prior to the 1968-69 season, making that fateful phone call for a tryout.
Leslie said it was an aspiration to play for the Wheat Kings because fellow Pilot Mound residents Rod Collins and Ken Hicks had skated in Brandon a few years earlier. He also would get a chance to attend a game or two every year.
“I always wanted to play for them but the reality of it is that I didn’t know if I ever really could,” Leslie said. “As it happened, it worked out.”
There were about 90 players in camp that year, Leslie and a guy who would become a close friend, Bob Fitchner, both made the club.
The Wheat Kings were in their second season in the three-year-old Western Canadian Hockey League, and featured a roster led by top scorer Chuck Kelner, plus local players such as Jack Borotsik, Ray Brownlee, Roy McLachlan, Ted Temple, Jim Trewin of Deloraine, Terry Marshall of Virden and Don Coombs of Hamiota.
“I loved my first year,” Leslie said. “We were still playing in the old Wheat City Arena, and that was a tradition… It was exciting. I loved it, I really loved it.”
The Wheat Kings went 18-40-2 that season, finishing fourth in the four-team East Division, well behind the powerhouse Flin Flon Bombers (47-13-0) and Estevan Bruins (40-20-0).
Leslie contributed six goals and 22 assists in his 59-game rookie campaign as an 18-year-old, earning five minutes in penalties.
“At the time, I was a very good skater,” Leslie said. “I could compete with anybody in the league and I guess I kind of thought of myself as a playmaker. I chipped in a few goals. All in all, I was a mid-pack player on our team. Certainly on offence I could move the puck but I wasn’t a scorer. I wasn’t one of those guys who was going into Flin Flon and knocking everybody on the ice, that’s for sure.”
The team made one of its two moves prior to the 1969-70 season when it shifted over to the Manex Arena from the legendary Wheat City Arena, which was demolished in 1969 at the current site of the Brandon Police Service headquarters.
The Manex Arena, which sat at the current site of the Great Canadian Roadhouse in Canad Inns, was a temporary measure for the team until they moved into the Keystone Centre during the 1972-73 season. Leslie said it was tough to take up residence in the Manex.
“For me personally, it was disappointing having to move over there,” Leslie said. “Obviously it wasn’t a very good setup. It was as good as it could be — it held maybe a couple of thousand people at maximum — but there were no real dressing rooms or weight room facilities or anything like that.”
The team improved slightly that season to 23-34-3, finishing fourth again and facing another quarterfinal exit.
Leslie’s improvement was dramatic as he finished sixth on the team in points, scoring 15 times and adding 34 assists while mostly centring a line with Moe Brunel and Brian Harding.
“We seemed to click pretty well,” Leslie said. “Maurice Brunel was a left-winger who was drafted by Boston after and he was a goal scorer. I was pretty sure that if I could get him the puck it would work out pretty well. Brian Harding was a hard-nosed two-way guy so we actually did pretty well together.”
Leslie was never drafted into the National Hockey League but was invited to a couple of training camps by the Los Angeles Kings and played some exhibition games.
After 13 games in his 20-year-old season in 1970-71, Brandon traded him to Flin Flon, but the move north simply didn’t make sense to him.
“Mr. (Pat) Ginnell was trying to talk me into going there but I was already in (Brandon) university so I ended up not going,” Leslie said. “I went to university and played hockey there for a year and a half and turned pro the next season. Ginnell was a great guy to talk to but his teams were unkind to play against.”
Leslie had started taking university classes in his second season in an era where school wasn’t the priority it would later become. It became particularly difficult when they would go on long road trips, in part because only a couple of other players were taking courses.
“Being realistic, I saw the really top players in our league and I realized I was a decent player — I was actually not too bad — but with those top guys I realized I better get an education and the opportunity was there,” Leslie said. “It worked out.”
Leslie earned his degree at BU in 1972 before heading south for the 1972-73 season for stints with the Saginaw-Fort Wayne Comets of the International Hockey League and the Phoenix Roadrunners of the minor pro Western Hockey League.
He signed with Phoenix — “That was a great place to play and a great league” — but after six games he was sent down to the IHL.
“That was a pretty tough league and I don’t think I lived up to their expectations or my own,” Leslie said. “I just felt I was going nowhere fast so when I got the opportunity to go play in Europe, I took it, as simple as that.”
One of his Phoenix teammates had gone to Europe a couple of years earlier, and when the team called asking if he knew any players who would do well there, Leslie’s name came up and he joined Villach in Austria for one season.
“It was a great place, great experience,” Leslie said. “I loved it and had fun. It was a totally different hockey world. Then it was time to come home.”
Leslie and his wife Barbara settled in Carman.
“I would have liked to gone back and they wanted me but it was just time,” Leslie said. “We wanted to start a family and it was time. It was a hard decision.”
He certainly never stepped away from the game. In his 17-year career in schools, including the last 11 as a guidance and career counsellor, he continued to coach and was involved with Hockey Manitoba’s Program of Excellence.
In 1988-89, Europe beckoned again. His old friend Andy Murray invited him to join his coaching staff in Switzerland at EV Zug.
Before Leslie arrived, however, Murray was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers. Still, Leslie went for two seasons before returning to Carman for three more years.
Early on, he spent a lot of time in Switzerland working with junior-aged players. He quickly noticed how well organized European practices are, but he was able to add a teaching element. He spoke some German — the dialect of Swiss German is different than German, so he learned both at the same time — and he is fluent in those languages.
Brandon Wheat Kings forward Bob Leslie is featured in a special section of the Brandon Sun released on Oct. 10, 1969.
“It was interesting but it was a helluva challenge and fun,” Leslie said.
In 1994-95, Leslie rejoined Zug as he kicked off a coaching career in Europe that would last until after the 2010-11 season. In that time, he attended numerous Spengler Cups with his European club teams or Team Canada, winning five times. One of the head coaches he worked with was former Brandon University Bobcats player Mike Johnson, the current head coach and GM of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.
His coaching career took him to Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom, and he ran into some former Wheat Kings along the way, coaching Trevor Robins, Marty Murray, Jeff Hoad, Robert McVicar, Justin Kurtz, Richard Mueller and Mark Kolesar.
“They were good guys,” Leslie said. “They had both feet on the ground.”
He also worked as a consultant with former Bobcats goalie Gary Clark in a youth hockey program in Budapest.
During that time, Barbara had her own career teaching in the international school system in Switzerland so she usually stayed there. The boys also travelled to Europe when they were younger prior to their junior hockey careers.
In 2012, Leslie formed a company in which he does leadership training with corporations around the world. He has worked with more than 70 companies and more than 4,000 people in the last seven years.
“It’s all about leadership and high performance teams in business,” Leslie said. “I’m normally working with corporate. They can be upper level management and sometimes CEOs of different companies, and it could be 10 different men and women from 10 different companies in a seminar or it could be a team of 25 or 30 people from (one business). I do some keynote speeches where it might be 400 or 500 people opening a seminar.”
About 70 per cent of his work is one- to three-day interactive seminars, which he does in both English and German.
“The mindset of people in business is very similar to the mindset of a professional athlete,” Leslie said. “You deal with stress, performance, changes in the landscape, results, teamwork etc. You could list 10 or 15 things, so the mindset is very similar.”
People sometimes resist change or are unable to adapt, and Leslie introduces the fact that he was fired as a coach and learned to make do with another team that could be located in another country.
His love of the game was certainly passed on.
Both Boe and Nate went on to play for the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Portage Terriers. Boe played at Union College for two years before heading to Europe for several years, while Nate spent seven years playing in Europe.
Boe operates Northern Roots Hockey out of Washington, D.C., while Nate runs Leslie Global Sport out of Vancouver. They operate a project in Mongolia together and also work in New Zealand and across North America.
While hockey has become the family business, Leslie admitted it has been a bumpy ride at times.
“In the middle of it all sometimes I was discouraged,” Leslie said. “It’s tough. There are ups and downs in hockey. Everyone has ups and downs, but we just really tried to keep our feet on the ground and do a good job of what we were doing and being proud to do good work and having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously. People tend to do that.
“It’s a step at a time, and we are a family who really understands how lucky we are. There’s never been one expectation.”
The Leslies live in Vancouver in the winter when they aren’t working in Europe, and also own a cottage at Ditch Lake, which is located just south of Onanole.
It’s a life made possible by hockey, and the self-confidence he said he gained a Wheat King as a teenager.
“It was a little bit by chance, the chance of a phone call and the chance of a tryout, and in retrospect, I was really excited to play for the Brandon Wheat Kings,” Leslie said. “That was a real big deal when I made the team. I look back at it that maybe it built self confidence. ‘I actually do this.’ You get some self confidence and meet new people and guys rub off on you, you get ideas from other guys you played with. That’s why I believe hockey players are pretty well grounded …
“Making the Brandon Wheat Kings, meeting great guys, having fun, understanding the team, all those things build on you. It was probably a life changer.”