(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Dwayne Gylywoychuk considers himself a tiny part in a giant turn-around. But he still takes a lot of pride in it.
The former Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman, who played five seasons with the team before later becoming an assistant and head coach, was there when the organization turned the corner from being a perennial loser in the late 1980s to an accomplished winner in the 1990s.
“I was just a very, very small piece but I’m very proud to be that piece,” Gylywoychuk said.
The born-and-raised Winnipeg product started skating at age four at a nearby community centre. His father Nestor and brother Dave, who was 11 years, both played hockey and his sister Wendy was in ringette, so it was an active family, which also included mother Joan.
“It was the traditional growing up watching Hockey Night In Canada with my grandpa (John Gylywoychuk) and my dad and then I started taking skating lessons when I was four at Roland Michener Arena,” Gylywoychuk said.
He also played baseball and football.
In hockey, Gylywoychuk was a left-winger until he was nine or 10 years old, but was ultimately shifted back to defence because of his size — “Once I was in Grade 3 and 4, I was taller than everybody else” — and his ability to shoot the puck.
He spent his 11-year-old season playing with a city and provincial-title winning Transcona Regents in what was then called Tier 2, and it was an important step.
“It was the first team success I had and that was my first taste that it was something that I continued to want to feel, and how can I do that?” Gylywoychuk said.
He graduated to Tier 1 the next season with the St. Boniface Saints, and a season later they played in the Vancouver Super Series, his first exposure to top-level players.
Along with that experience came a growing awareness of what being listed in the Western Hockey League meant. He started getting letters to attend evaluation camps, and participated in Prince Albert Raiders and Regina Pats events in Winnipeg. He went to a Brandon camp as well, and was listed at age 15 by his coach Dave Carter, who was a Wheat Kings scout.
He would actually crack the lineup as a 16-year-old in the 1989-90 season for coach Doug Sauter and general manager Bill Shinske in the old Manex Arena.
The most surprised person to learn that news was Gylywoychuk.
“I wasn’t coming to make the team,” Gylywoychuk said. “I didn’t pack for the whole year … It was just another camp for me to go to. I was really naive.”
Gylywoychuk had met Wheat Kings veteran Dwayne Newman in Winnipeg, and kept a close eye on what he did. He also had another terrific mentor in Kevin Cheveldayoff, who was entering his final season with the Wheat Kings after being drafted by the New York Islanders.
Cheveldayoff was returning from a devastating knee injury, and was the guy everybody in the dressing rooms watched.
“He was kind of the leader of the pack,” Gylywoychuk said. “I remember watching him prepare before the game and how he worked out in the weight room. He did things that I had never seen before from a hockey player off the ice and how much time he spent on the ice after practice. That was all new to me.”
He said an influx of young players that season were also led by veterans such as Cam Brown, Jeff Odgers, Troy Frederick and Newman.
“He was a big brother to me,” Gylywoychuk said of Newman. “He was the guy who kept everybody loose in the dressing room.”
Gylywoychuk also had a lot of help in his new home.
He lived for four years with Nelson and Shirley Baranyk and their sons Mike and Shane, and still considers them family. He also credited Wheat Kings staff such as Kelly McCrimmon, Mark Johnston, Darren Granger, Rick Dillabough and Lyn Shannon for making it a family atmosphere around the team.
His WHL career couldn’t have started much better. In his first game, Gylywoychuk took the puck into the middle of the ice along the blue-line and sent a slapshot into the net, setting him on a career 323-goal pace.
While it wouldn’t quite work out that way — Gylywoychuk finished with nine goals and 40 assists in 323 games — the Winnipegger’s focus on the ice lay elsewhere.
“I quickly realized that my game wasn’t scoring goals,” Gylywoychuk chuckled. “My game was to defend and get the puck out of my end as quick as I could and to keep the puck out of my net.”
He credits Johnston with spending extra time with him working on his skating and passing.
Success didn’t come as quickly for the team. In his first three season, Brandon posted marks of 28-38-6, 19-51-2 and 11-55-6 in 1991-92.
In that off-season, Bob Lowes was announced as the new head coach and team members made excited calls to each other about the hiring. In those pre-Internet days, Lowes had built a reputation as a hard-nosed coach who Gylywoychuk said you better be ready to work for, listen to, and be prepared to get better.
“That’s exactly what Bobby Lowes was, right from day one,” Gylywoychuk said. “It was a different way of doing things.”
The team would practise for an hour, rest while the ice was flooded and then go out for another hour. Gylywoychuk said that lesson of the value of hard work has never left him, and he credits it for the team’s success as they made an astonishing 62-point improvement to finish the 1992-93 season with a record of 43-25-4.
Early in the 1993-94 season, he suffered the worst injury of his career. Gylywoychuk was hit from behind by Saskatoon Blades sniper Frank Banham and sent flying into the boards between the Zamboni doors and the blue-line. He remembers being down on the ice, being aware of a scuffle on the ice and then waking up in the hospital.
He was diagnosed with a severe concussion, and missed the annual trip to the West Coast.
The Blades would beat the Wheat Kings 4-1 in the conference final that spring, and Gylywoychuk’s WHL career ended. He remembers talking to Johnston after their Game 5 loss.
“I said ‘Johnny, I wish I had more time,’” Gylywoychuk said. “I know everybody says that when they’re done their junior but I said I wish I had more time just to be able to have more success as a Brandon Wheat King. That was something I just got a taste of, but as I started playing somewhere else, I knew I had success in different ways. I had life skills, I had skills of what it was like to work hard and have success and what it was like to work towards something and have 23 other people in your dressing room. That was what the Brandon Wheat Kings taught me.”
He had gone to a National Hockey League camp with the Hartford Whalers in his overage season, and with the Dallas Stars after he graduated. Gylywoychuk was split into the International Hockey League camp and was playing well, but the NHL lockout at the start of that 1994-95 season sent an influx of top-level players down.
Gylywoychuk considered going home, but the coach of the ECHL’s Greensboro Monarchs scooped up a dozen of the affected players to kick off his pro career. He would play five more seasons in the Western Professional Hockey League and Central Hockey League before choosing to join the Romford Raiders in London, England in the second-tier British league for a farewell season in 2000-01.
“I knew I was getting to the end of my career because the game was getting too fast for a stay-at-home, slow-footed defenceman,” Gylywoychuk said.
With a bunch of his buddies such as Jeff Hoad, Trevor Robins, Troy Kennedy, Graham Garden and Mark Kolesar already there, Gylywoychuk decided to try it.
But he was also planning for what would come after hockey.
Since he had been 20, Gylywoychuk was one of the guys who would return to Brandon in August looking for ice time to get into shape before heading to a pro camp. Since McCrimmon had ice, he would trade access for coaching at training camp.
It gave Gylywoychuk his first exposure to coaching as a possible career, and after retiring, he joined the Wheat Kings’ front office.
After a couple of years, he was named an assistant coach for the 2003-04 season, the first of nine years in that role. He was promoted to head coach for the 2012-13 season.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” Gylywoychuk said. “For me to be able to coach the Brandon Wheat Kings, it was going from being (Dillabough)’s sidekick in the marketing area and billet person to being an assistant coach to being a head coach. For me it was my ultimate goal.”
Unfortunately for him, a diminished club three years removed from hosting the 2010 Memorial Cup fell to 24-40-4-4 and missed the playoffs.
After the season, he was relieved of his duties so that McCrimmon could return behind the bench. Gylywoychuk was offered a job as an assistant GM, but still had the coaching bug and declined.
He said there “100 per cent” isn’t any lingering bitterness.
“If somebody tells you that they’re not frustrated or not disappointed or there’s not emotion tied to it, I would have a hard time listening to them,” Gylywoychuk said of his dismissal. “For me there was a lot of emotion tied to it and a lot of stuff that I don’t want to talk about but through time and through talking to Kelly more, I know why he did it.”
Gylywoychuk moved on to coaching with Hockey Canada, serving as an assistant with the national women’s program from 2014 to 2018.
“For me it was an eye-opener because all of a sudden you’re coaching the best female athletes across Canada and they’re dedicated,” Gylywoychuk said. “You have to be prepared to coach because these players want to get better. It wasn’t so much a transition or a change, it was just another challenge in my coaching career.”
Gylywoychuk took this year off the road to spend time with his family — he and wife Cara have three children, daughters Madie and Emma, and three-year-old son Nickolas — and re-evaluate where his future lies.
He serves as a development consultant with the Rink Hockey Academy prep school in Winnipeg, helping coaches and players with skill development. He also started doing colour commentary on Manitoba Moose broadcasts with Mitch Peacock, a job he enjoys.
Gylywoychuk holds a piece of all-time Wheat Kings history after playing 323 games with the club, one more than Eric Roy. He said it’s not something he thought about much, but now that he’s back in the city and going to games, it’s on his mind a bit more.
“I’d have to say that I’m pretty excited that it’s me that holds that record,” Gylywoychuk said. “But I also know what that record means to me. What I take most from it is that those were the days that shaped me as a person and as a coach more than anything.”