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Rice parlays hockey into fine career

Hockey helped Murray Rice become the person he is, and he has paid that debt with a career helping others.

Now 54 and serving as a police officer in Moose Jaw after time as a psychiatric nurse, the Brandon born-and-raised Rice played with the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings for four full seasons from 1984 to 1988.

Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Murray Rice celebrates with Derek Laxdal after the veteran forward notched his 50th goal of the season, which came in an 8-5 victory over the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors on Dec. 12, 1985.

BRANDON SUN FILEBrandon Wheat Kings defenceman Murray Rice celebrates with Derek Laxdal after the veteran forward notched his 50th goal of the season, which came in an 8-5 victory over the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors on Dec. 12, 1985.

“I’m a person who likes to help people,” Rice said. “That’s where I get my enjoyment. We can even relate that to hockey with being a captain over the years and someone my kids could look up to. I pride myself on the fact that I hope I helped those teenage boys become responsible, mature people and learn some life lessons but also set them up for success.

“In my nursing career, I liked working with people and helping people, whether they were having struggles or just needing some assistance with whatever curveballs life has thrown at them.

“… When I changed to policing, it was definitely the same aspect of work. You’re working with people, you’re helping them with problems, you’re dealing with them when they’re in crises and trying to help them through that.”

Rice is the youngest of his parents Lorne and Marjorie’s four children, who also include Wayne, Garth and Sandra. They grew up in the city’s south end on Fifth Street, a short walk from the South Community Centre. His folks helped out at the community centre, but his father also flooded a rink in the backyard.

“My mom always used to talk about me pushing around a chair and skating on my ankles,” Rice said. “They used to tease me about it.”

Rice, who always a defenceman, was a big fan of the Wheat Kings growing up, and has clear memories of the legendary 1978-79 team, even watching the Memorial Cup final on TV. He and his father didn’t miss many games in those years.

“There were a lot of big names there, (Brian) Propp, (Ray) Allison, (Bill) Derlago, and I remember both the McCrimmon boys being out there,” Rice said.

He focused on the defencemen, and was a big fan of Brad McCrimmon and Don Dietrich. Naturally, he wanted to one day have his chance to skate with the Wheat Kings too.

“It was always on the back burner,” Rice said. “You wanted to play hockey and you would watch the NHL on TV and it became a goal in life.”

In the pre-draft era, Rice was listed by the Wheat Kings by the time he was 15. He was also listed by the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Melville Millionaires after playing in a tournament in Melville at 14.

He attended camp with the Wheat Kings in 1982 at age 15, but was released and encouraged to play in Melville.

It was a big step. His dad drove him 289 kilometres to the community of 4,500, which is located southwest of Yorkton.

“He dropped me off in front of the high school and said ‘Well, I’ve got to get back to Brandon, you better go in there and get yourself set up with classes and make sure you’re at the rink by 3 o’clock for practice,’” Rice said with a chuckle. “In a town I had never been in, somehow I did it … It was definitely a challenge. I was young and I was hanging out with 19- and 20-year-old guys too. It was interesting.”

Rice said he was one of the fortunate people who quickly matured in a situation that can go the other way.

He stayed with the coach for a couple of weeks until they found him a good billet. He also hit a growth spurt around that age, sprouting up from 5-foot-10 to six-foot-two.

Rice contributed three goals, 15 assists and 62 penalty minutes in the 1982-83 season, and he also pulled on a Wheat Kings jersey for the first time as a WHL player when they called him up for a game in Prince Albert on Dec. 10, 1982.

“They picked me up in Yorkton,” Rice said. “Somebody had to drop me off on the Yellowhead Highway in Yorkton and I climbed onto the bus at whatever time it was and we headed up to P.A.

“I remember Ronny Hextall losing it in the dressing room. He was mad at the boys and how we were playing and we ended up winning (7-4). I remember Hexy busting sticks on the wall.”

It was certainly a more rugged era of the game. In today’s game, the WHL penalty leader hasn’t eclipsed 200 minutes in a season since 2011-12. In the 1980s, there was only one year the penalty leader didn’t have more than 300.

Fortunately, the 15-year-old defenceman wasn’t called on to fight.

“That wasn’t expected of me,” Rice said. “I know that was probably one of the reasons Melville kept me there. In the camp, when they called me up I ended fighting a 19-year-old and did pretty good with him … They were impressed by a 15-year-old dropping the gloves.”

Murray Rice

SUBMITTEDMurray Rice

Rice tried out with Brandon again in the 1983-84 season, and narrowly missed earning a spot again. This time it came down to other one other guy, who got the job.

It ended up hurting in a couple of ways.

“I went back to Melville, and I wasn’t there too long and ended up breaking my wrist,” Rice said. “I sat out quite a bit of the season because it wouldn’t heal up for me.”

Rice managed five goals, six assists and 108 penalty minutes in 26 games, and after appearing in two more games that season with the Wheat Kings, was called up for Brandon’s playoff run after Melville got knocked out.

The 1983-84 club was arguably the franchise’s most talented of the decade, boasting a lineup that included Ray Ferraro, Cam Plante, Byron Lomow, Kelly Glowa and Hextall in net.

In the final year of the goofy post-season format used at the time, Brandon beat Lethbridge 4-1 in the first round, went 2-2 in the East Division round-robin and then fell 2-1 to the Regina Pats in the division semifinals.

Rice got into five games and had his eyes opened wide.

“I remember the guys being great,” Rice said. “Ray Ferraro was a standout but also a very great person. He was personable and would talk to you, and Cam Plante was the same way because he was a hometown Brandon boy so he knew me.”

But it was Hextall who had the biggest impact on his game. With one of the finest puck-handling goaltenders in hockey history behind him, it was almost like having a third defenceman.

“Being a defenceman in front of Ron Hextall was, I felt, a lot easier because most times you didn’t even have to turn around and go get the puck because Hexy would get it for you and could hammer it as hard as anybody could,” Rice said.

“Back in that day with the clutch and grab that defencemen could do, it was dump the puck and chase. When the other team would dump the puck, all you had to do as a defenceman was to get in front of them and slow them up. You knew Hexy could get it and snap the puck overtop of everybody.”

In fact, Rice’s teammates told stories of Hextall nearly putting the puck over the far glass one time.

The next fall, Rice made the 1984-85 edition of the Wheat Kings in his 17-year-old season, beginning an eventful four-year run. It was a special feeling skating with the team he had watched as a kid.

“It’s pretty cool, especially being your hometown,” Rice said. “You see a lot of people in the stands, whether it’s your family, mom or dad, or people you went to school with or old coaches and minor hockey players. It’s pretty empowering. It was a lot of fun.”

It didn’t take long for him to make an impact, with Rice potting a pair of goals on Oct. 13, 1984 in an 8-5 win over the Victoria Cougars. (Derek Laxdal scored four times that night.)

It did prove to be a challenging season, however. On Dec. 19, 1984 in an 8-2 loss to P.A., Rice took a hit near the end boards in the era when icing calls still needed a defender to touch the puck. He left the ice on a stretcher with a concussion and torn cartilage in his knee after being hit by five-foot-eight, 176-pound Raiders forward Brad Bennett.

“He came up from behind me and it was lights out,” Rice said. “I remember going to the hospital and then we rode the bus the next day to Moose Jaw.”

He also had shoulder issues and was suspended that season as the Wheat Kings bottomed out, going 17-54-1.

“We didn’t wear out too many W buttons on the typewriter that year,” Rice joked about the word win.

“You get together with your teammates and you support each other and you persevere through but it was challenging at times. We had sort of a revolving door of personnel. We were living the dream of prairie boys but it would have been nice to have a few more wins.”

One online source suggests the team dressed 37 players that season.

One of the four goalies that played was Eldon (Pokey) Reddick, a Halifax product who went on to play six seasons in the NHL.

“Pokey was a quiet guy and a unique individual,” Rice said. “He was a phenomenal goaltender. We had great goaltenders come through Brandon over the years, and even in our years, we weren’t the greatest, most talented teams, so we let the boys see a lot of rubber.”

Rice also played with starters Kelly Hitchins and George Maneluk during his time in Brandon.

Murray and LeeAnn Rice have five children in their blended family.

SUBMITTEDMurray and LeeAnn Rice have five children in their blended family.

In the 1985-86 campaign, Brandon went 24-46-2 and Rice took on a new role.

Former Wheat Kings defenceman Gord Lane returned to the team to coach with Jack Sangster, and in December 1985, Rice was named team captain.

“Whether Gordie liked defencemen or saw something in me, he wanted me to have a bit more influence,” Rice said. “It was an honour to have that. I can almost remember the first game skating out on the ice, I was probably skating 200 miles an hour.”

His leadership abilities also manifested themselves off the ice. He was named Brandon’s most community-minded player, something he took very seriously.

“I felt that was an important obligation to give back to the community,” Rice said. “The community supported us so much during those years. I wanted to give back and be a role model that kids could look up to. Maybe they could become a hockey player or self disciplined and work hard. I spent as much time as I could in schools or volunteering for anything I could.”

In an era of junior hockey when academics didn’t receive the same attention they do now — the scholarship program was introduced midway through his career — Rice went to Neelin and remained an excellent student. It took him an extra year to graduate because the team’s practice schedule restricted how many classes he could take, but on Oct. 9, 1986, Rice was named to WHL’s all-scholastic team.

He was the first Brandon player to receive the fairly new honour, beating his teammate Kevin Cheveldayoff by a couple of years.

“You had to have self discipline back then, and that’s one of the things where I pat myself on the back, being that self-disciplined person,” Rice said. “Education was always every important to me.”

He got along with everybody, but he got especially close to Lee Trim, who was best man at Rice’s first wedding, Jeff Waver of Minnedosa and his fellow Brandonite Chad Silver.

In an era when the team certainly didn’t lack for characters, one of the people who stands out in his mind is trainer Craig (Zinger) Heisinger, who is now the assistant general manager of the Winnipeg Jets.

“The influence that he had on so many of us kids, the positive influence,” Rice said. “… Zinger was there for all my years in Brandon.”

He also appreciated the efforts of front-office staff Jerry Greaves and Ken Coleman, CKX radio staffers Dean Jago and Rick Dillabough, the team’s one-time stick boy Darren Granger plus bus drivers James (Slick) Caldwell, (Diamond) Dave Baker and (Emerald) Jim Moggach.

Rice was also thankful for Rocky Addison, the Brandon boxing instructor who put players through their paces at his small gym on the corner of Eighth Street and Victoria Avenue. At the time, those were necessary skills, especially for a bigger defenceman like Rice, who was expected to step up to defend his teammates.

“I don’t think it was difficult to accept that role,” Rice said. “It was part of the game of hockey. Sometimes it was a part that weighed on your mind after while. Is this really what it’s all about and what it’s going to be? But then again, on the other side of it, it kind of kept the game of hockey under control back then. Guys knew they weren’t going to get away with certain things: There was a consequence if they did.”

Brandon certainly never lacked for team toughness in Rice’s era. While he earned 167, 149, 121 and 140 minutes during his four seasons — a total of 577 career penalty minutes, 13th most in the franchise’s WHL history — Rice never led the team in penalty minutes. He played with some tough characters, including Trim, who piled up 213 penalty minutes in 1984-85 and 171 in 1985-86, plus Cheveldayoff (259 in 1986-87, and 265 in 1987-88) Jeff Odgers (202 in 1987-88) and Cam Brown (185 in 1987-88).

Rice always knew someone had his back.

“That’s what teamwork is about, and that’s how teams should always be,” Rice said. “… On any given night, someone else might pull up and take the role on. Instead of it just being one or two, we probably had three, four, five guys on the team who could step up and maybe not win every fight, but at least were there for the challenge.”

One of the players Rice was protecting was a youngster from Mather who joined the team full-time as a 17-year-old forward in 1985-86. It didn’t take Rice long to appreciate Terry Yake, who actually stayed with Rice’s parents for a couple of weeks until a billet could be found.

“Terry was a quiet kid, not cocky, not arrogant, but he certainly had some skill,” Rice said. “As his body matured and his hockey sense got better, he was a phenomenal player. He was very quiet but very productive, and he would always put team first instead of himself.”

Lane left after one season and new coach Mark Pezzin came in for the 1986-87 campaign. He replaced Rice as captain, instead making him an alternate captain for his final two years in Brandon.

It was important the team had strong internal leadership during Rice’s era because in the seasons he was there, Brandon won 17, 24, 19 and 26 games.

“It was difficult on the boys,” Rice said. “They get frustrated. You’re dealing with teenage kids and sometimes your frustration comes out in maybe not a positive way or a way that it should. For the most part, the boys just enjoyed playing the game of being out there. The wins would have been so much nicer and made some of the trips a bit better.”

Rice also had the good fortune — or misfortune, based entirely on your opinion — to play during the brief move to Cooperall hockey pants that stretched down to the skates, and to the move to aluminium hockey sticks.

“I think we broke four or five shafts from our first set of aluminium sticks and Zinger said ‘This is stupid,’” Rice said.

Rice came to camp for the 1987-88 season facing a four-way battle for three spots with Maneluk, and forwards Terry Menard and Neil Pogany. The latter was dealt, and after Rice got over a pinched nerve in his back that September, he settled in for his final season.

The Wheat Kings went 26-43-3, and in his fourth season Rice finally had a brief taste of the post-season, with Brandon facing the Prince Albert Raiders in the first round.

“It was pretty nice to put on your equipment versus booking a tee-off time,” Rice joked. “It was short but I sure know the city of Brandon got on board when we finally made the playoffs that year. I remember the crowds being good and the signs were made and there was a lot of support.”

Brandon fell 3-1 in the best-of-five series and Rice’s junior hockey career was over. It wasn’t easy.

“It was really tough,” Rice said. “I played into my 20-year-old year, so I would have been 21 that final year. It’s something I had been doing now in Brandon for those four years and a couple years in Melville before that so that is what life had been, was playing hockey and being dedicated to that and the day-to-day routine.

“All of a sudden that’s done and it was definitely a time for me to reflect on life and make some life choices.”

In 241 regular season games, which is tied for 38th in franchise history, Rice has 29 goals and 64 assists.

Rice wasn’t drafted, and while he talked to the Vancouver Canucks at one point earlier in his career, nothing ever came of it. He decided to head to Brandon University and initially committed to the Bobcats, but changed his mind and decided to focus on the books instead.

While he was in university, Rice instead skated with the Tiger Hills Hockey League’s Wawanesa Jets with his brother Garth. Wawanesa won the league title in 1989-90, the only one the community ever earned.

“We had the two Rice brothers on defence,” Rice said. “It was a fun two years playing with my brother.”

Murray started in general studies at BU, but with a provincial initiative on to recruit men into psychiatric nursing, he moved into that field, graduating in 1991.

Rice headed to Churchill, working for four years as a community mental health worker. After a year in Thompson and another on a work exchange in Australia, Rice decided to change careers and go into policing.

He’s been on the job with the Moose Jaw Police Service for 23 years, most recently as a crime scene investigator for the past nine years.

“I always had an interest in the science of policing and the science of crime scene investigation, which is similar to nursing, where science had a lot of involvement,” Rice said. “I’ve had a rewarding career in both so far.”

Despite living in Warriors country, Rice remains a Wheat Kings supporter, coming home to Brandon for the 2010 Memorial Cup, and catching a game in Red Deer during the 2016 Memorial Cup.

He has two children from his first marriage, daughter Madison and son Joshua, and three stepchildren, Brayden, Carter and Kendra with his wife LeeAnn.

Rice jokes that he can’t wait to have grandchildren so that he can tell them he was a Millionaire for two years and a King for four years.

He will also have some hard-earned lessons he can share one day.

“I was always a person who led by example and gave 110 per cent,” Rice said. “I was disciplined and that discipline carries over into life … I remember getting off the bus — I think our shortest trip then was to Regina — you would get off the bus at 2 or 3 in the morning and I was up and at ‘em, ready for school at 8 in the morning.

“Then I would get school done and be at practice at 1:30 or 2 o’clock. It taught you a lot of discipline, which is important in life, and teamwork. The careers I’ve gone into, teamwork is very, very important. You have to get along with people.”

He also learned on the ice how to do his job under pressure while being scrutinized.

He notes that hockey players give up a lot with early curfews and their careful diets, but also learned things like public speaking, which helped him a lot later in his career.

Rice was also able to play for four years with the team he grew up idolizing. With more than three decades of distance from that experience, it hasn’t become any less meaningful.

“It fulfilled a dream, and hopefully that inspired others too, other young kids when it comes to looking for role models or positive influences in their life,” Rice said. “They could see that I was able to do it and held my head and gave back to the community whenever I could.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve been successful in life from all the skills I learned over the years.”

» pbergson@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @PerryBergson

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