Dave Stewart will forever be the one and only born-and-raised Brandonite on the greatest team in the Brandon Wheat Kings’ Western Hockey League history.
Now 61 and living in Calgary, Stewart is grateful for the opportunities he had in three seasons with the club, including the historic 1978-79 campaign when the team earned 125 points.
“It means everything,” Stewart said. “I don’t believe anybody is going to touch our record. I’m proud of that.
“To me, growing up in Brandon, hockey was my life. I remember going to the old Wheat City rink and seeing the old guys and that’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid. It worked out. After my junior career, I didn’t think there was anything else to be. I’m done. I’m good. It was like I just won a Stanley Cup.”
Laurie Boschman was the other Brandonite on the 1978-79 team, but his family moved to the city when he was nine.
Stewart grew up in the city’s west end and quickly gravitated to the nearby Valleyview Community Centre. After an early excursion when he couldn’t stand up — an older guy eventually told him his skates needed to be sharpened — Stewart was hooked.
“I loved that little rink,” Stewart said. “Talk about bringing back memories. When I go back to Brandon — it’s been a long time — but I make sure I walk down there. I park my car and just walk through the whole old neighbourhood.”
His older brother Mike also played for a bit, and was good, but didn’t last in hockey. Nevertheless, his parents Shirley and Gord were strong supporters of his interest in the game.
“They were the ones who got up at whatever time, six o’clock or seven o’clock, and drove us all over,” Stewart said. “I remember going to tournaments when I was younger, it probably started when we were nine, 10 years old when I was a part of the little Wheat Kings … We used to travel all over.”
Their journeys often led across the border, where they had a chance to meet American teams.
Stewart, who always played centre on Brandon’s all-star teams as he grew up, began attending Wheat Kings summer camps when he was 14, skating with guys like Wayne Naka and Rick Piche.
He also attended a lot of games with his father.
“I remember way back going to the old Wheat City,” Stewart said of the venerable building that was torn down in 1969. “It hosted the Winter Fair. I remember going there for lots of games (with) Ted Temple, Ray Brownlee and those guys.”
Stewart’s hockey ambitions were nearly derailed before his junior hockey career even began. He played in every sport he could find as a youngster, always giving everything he could, and eventually ended up with a spinal injury.
“I played a lot of sports when I was kid and it didn’t matter what I was in, I was into it,” Stewart said. “I ended up with a back injury that cost me down the line as far as my hockey career. I didn’t play when I was 16 for probably three-quarters of the year.”
He made up for lost time in his 17-year-old season. While he didn’t make the Wheat Kings, he found a spot on the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Brandon Travellers with Boschman.
Stewart played 45 games with the Travellers during the 1976-77 season, contributing 21 goals, 29 assists and 107 penalty minutes. It proved to be an important stepping stone for him.
“It was great,” Stewart said. “We had a good coach. First was Brian Boyle, but he was a little different, more tough, but unfortunately he got let go and of course Andy Murray steps in. He was a good coach and a good guy. It was a different philosophy.”
Unfortunately, the five-foot-10, 170-pound forward was suspended late in the season, including the playoffs, after getting into a fight in Portage. The linesman stepped into the middle of the fracas while Stewart and his opponent kept throwing punches, and one of them caught the official by mistake.
“It was dumb on my part,” Stewart admitted.
He channelled his disappointment into a busy off-season, preparing for what lay ahead in the Wheat Kings 1977 training camp. It took him some time to find his way with the 1977-78 Wheat Kings, who went 46-12-14 for a league-high 106 points, but he had some big helpers.
“You have to do it yourself,” Stewart said. “I had confidence as soon as I went into camp. I looked and it was ‘Ya, I can do this.’ Back then we had some pretty tough wingers and really tough hockey players who played there. I remember (Dave Semenko) came back in ‘77-78 and played overage. When I was playing, I was five-nine or five-10, 170 pounds but when (Semenko) came back and he played on my line for a while, I played six-one, 220.
“I remember him taking on three Regina Pats in the corner and pounding them. I was fortunate but I got into a couple of scraps and took a few and I remember getting some stitches.”
The biggest test came in the free-wheeling Whitney Forum in Flin Flon, home of the fearsome Bombers, who were in their last season in the Western Canadian Hockey League. At the time, the boards didn’t have glass around the edges, so fans weren’t above spitting at players.
In one game, a fan took that a little too far, so Stewart sent him a message by burying his stick in his belly.
“I wasn’t a big guy but you had to play like ‘I’m not taking this s…,’” Stewart said. “‘If you want to go, let’s go.’ I might take a few, but I’m going to give you a few. You had to earn respect, and I think I did.”
At the same time, Stewart quickly understood that he wasn’t playing on the first line ahead of guys like Bill Derlago, Brian Propp and Ray Allison, and wasn’t going to see the first power play. That meant he had to carve out his own niche on the penalty-killing unit, which often meant in those days getting possession of the puck and simply trying to keep it.
“I was always pretty good with the puck,” Stewart said. “I could play keep-away with the kids all day so that’s why I went on the penalty kill. I always had a knack with the puck. I was always told I was a pretty smart hockey player and I was a pretty good chess player when I was a kid, believe it or not.
“You have to think ahead so I always did that when I was on the ice. You get the puck and look at your options, and as far as penalty killing, I would get the puck and that’s probably why I was pretty good at it. You couldn’t get the puck away from me.”
The man he was trying to impress behind the bench was legendary head coach Dunc McCallum, the former National Hockey League player from Brandon who guided the team for five seasons, winning coach of the year twice.
Stewart, who attended McCallum’s hockey schools as a youngster, liked the coach, who died in 1983 at age 43 due to brain cancer.
“He was a good guy but hard,” Stewart said. “He let you know. I remember a couple games coming to the bench and I didn’t like it, but he would let you know or other players know to go sit down at the end of the bench for a while, and then you’re riding the pine. He was tough but fair. Like any good coach, you were going when you were going, and if not, you were sitting.”
In 72 games in his rookie 18-year-old season, Stewart put up 20 goals and 29 assists to finish sixth in team scoring. It all ended badly, however, when the Wheat Kings fell in the eight-game round-robin that also included the Pats and the Bombers.
All three teams went 4-4 but Brandon lost on the countback when Flin Flon was blasted in the final game by Regina in an unlikely outcome that led Wheat Kings owner Bob Cornell to take Bombers coach Mickey Keating by the neck in his dressing room after the game.
It certainly lit a fire in the Wheat Kings.
“We were over at Propper’s billet and we were sitting around having a couple of pops and we knew what they were going to do,” Stewart said. “We 99 per cent knew what Flin Flon was going to do, and sure as hell, listening to the hockey game, we’re done. It was ‘OK, this sucks’ but it was on us too. We should have played a lot better. Our team was a lot better than that.
“It was ‘OK, this ain’t going to happen again.’ It was big motivation and obviously you could tell.”
With the high-scoring Derlago gone but much of the team returning, the Wheat Kings went off in the 1978-79 season. Their 58-5-9 record remains the league record for points (125) and fewest losses.
Stewart said the fans were good, and the players were recognized around the community, although he adds the attendance wasn’t always great.
“We were so good, a lot of fans didn’t show up because they knew were going to kick somebody’s ass,” Stewart said. “‘Ah, Edmonton’s playing again tonight, it will be another 11-5 game.’ So we averaged maybe 2,300 or 2,400 per game, I’m guessing. We didn’t get the crowds we should have. If we played now, that building would be full.”
In contrast, Brandon averaged 4,212 in the 2015-16 championship season.
That season, if the Wheat Kings played their best game, Brandon was probably going to win without an incredible effort by the other team’s goalie. That wasn’t ideal.
“Unfortunately, we got a little complacent,” Stewart said. “You’re playing a lot of the same teams so I know we would go into Edmonton, for example, and go ‘OK, two points.’ We had so much confidence. I wish we had overtime back then because who knows what we would have accomplished?”
Stewart played the most on a line with Steve Patrick — the father of future Wheat Kings star Nolan — and Dave McDonald, earning 24 goals and 55 assists in 66 games.
It didn’t hurt that franchise defenceman Brad McCrimmon was on the back end. Stewart said there was one breakout play he really liked, and without fail, McCrimmon put the puck on his stick every time.
“It didn’t matter how many guys he had on him and where he has, it was on my tape and away we go,” Stewart said.
They last ran into each other when Brandon hosted the Memorial Cup in 2010. Just over a year later, McCrimmon died along with the rest of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in a plane crash in Russia.
“Brad was a super guy,” Stewart said.
After the playoff misstep a year earlier, Brandon made no mistake in the opening eight games of the 1979 round-robin, a playoff format that disappeared for good following the 1979-80 season.
Brandon went 7-1 to advance.
“We just had too much confidence,” Stewart said. “We lost one but there was no way (it was going to happen again).”
After that, they swept the Saskatoon Blades 4-0 in the division finals and posted a 3-1 record in the semifinal round-robin with the Portland Winterhawks and Lethbridge Broncos. The loss was a drubbing in Portland.
“When I came in (to the dressing room) I was pissed off but I was a little confident now,” Stewart said. “I remember saying ‘Maybe this will do us good’ and Dunc heard me and said ‘Stewy, what? How is this going to do us any good? We got our asses kicked and we lost.’ I don’t remember what I said but I still remember him saying that. But it turned around after that.”
Brandon won their round-robin game against Portland at home, setting up a final against the Winterhawks. The Wheat Kings ultimately prevailed 4-2 in a great series between two very good teams.
“I always said if they were doing the Memorial Cup now, and they had an extra team, Portland should have been there,” Stewart said. “They were twice the team of Trois-Rivieres (Draveurs).”
He wishes they could have won the league title in front of their own fans instead of in Oregon, but is grateful for the turnout at the Keystone Centre when they arrived, and the parade and reception at Brandon City Hall later.
“It was a pretty big deal,” Stewart said.
After a pair of trips to Portland, a tough six-game final and 94 games in the regular season and playoffs, it was a weary Wheat Kings team that headed east for the Memorial Cup, which split its games between Sherbrooke and Verdun, Que.
“We were done,” Stewart said.
The Peterborough Petes were the third team in the national event, and all of them went 2-2 in the round-robin, with Brandon falling in its first two games and clawing its way back with two victories. In fact, it actually ended up in first on goals for and against.
That set up a rematch with Peterborough in the final on May 13, 1979 after round-robin games that ended in a 7-6 overtime win for the Petes and a 3-2 victory for the Wheat Kings.
Tim Trimper and Propp exchanged goals in the first period, and the two teams headed to overtime.
“I remember going out in that overtime against Peterborough and I had nothing,” said Stewart, who had two goals and an assist in five games at the event. “Nothing. To me, going to the Memorial Cup was all right. We just beat Portland in a tough series and what more is there to accomplish? I was pretty well spent, and a lot of guys were. It was a tough grind.”
Bob Attwell eventually scored on a rebound for the Petes and a magical, exhausting season was over. Stewart was on the bench when the puck went in.
“Brad took it hard,” Stewart said. “He was crying pretty good. That was our last year, for me, Brad, Ray, Propper, (Mike) Perovich wasn’t there (due to a badly broken arm), Wes Coulson, Timmy Lockridge. A lot of these guys I still see … It was tough but you carry on.”
A pair of bad breaks were soon in store for Stewart. The NHL draft on Aug. 9 was reduced from 22 rounds to six as the World Hockey Association teams were welcomed into the fold. At the same time, the league reduced the age requirement from 20 to 19, in essence creating a double draft with fewer players picked.
Stewart wasn’t chosen but had a number of offers and ultimately signed with the Hartford Whalers. When he showed up at camp, they had 10 signed centres, so he quickly saw the writing on the wall.
While he enjoyed the chance to skate with Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty, Stewart was sent to the American Hockey League’s Springfield Indians. They too had an abundance of forwards, so after two games, he was on the move again.
“This was a totally different ballgame for me,” Stewart said. “It’s a business and I’m starting to figure it out. It’s not fun anymore.”
He was dispatched to the AHL’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs in Halifax, and after six games and a lot more as a healthy scratch, he wasn’t a good fit and was sent to the Cincinnati Stingers of the Central Hockey League.
In 13 games, he finally had a chance to play and scored six goals and added five assists. But his incredible run of bad luck continued, with the Stingers suddenly folding mid-season.
Next, he refused an assignment to the Eastern Hockey League of Snapshot fame.
“What am I going to do there?” Stewart said. “Fight? I don’t think so.”
He told Hartford he was headed back to Brandon for his overage season, and while it threatened him with a breach of contract, he went home.
In 27 games, he struck for 29 points with the Wheat Kings, with 14 more in 10 playoff games.
After the fine finish to his 20-year-old season, he was pumped up to go back to Hartford’s camp but it told him to report directly to its AHL team. He spent nine games with their International Hockey League team, the Saginaw Gears, but the end was near.
“I didn’t want to play the game anymore,” Stewart said. “… I’m done. It’s no fun, it’s a business, too much travel, too much b.s., I don’t want to do this anymore. I went back to Brandon and didn’t even put on skates for a few years. I didn’t want anything to do with hockey.”
At the same time, the back issues he had battled earlier in his career cropped up as he battled against larger players so it was time to move in another direction anyway. Still, he remembers his friends heading down to training camp every September and wondering if he had made the right decision.
“I used to get this terrible feeling in my stomach, ‘What am I doing here?’” Stewart said. “I should be at camp, not in Brandon but that was it.”
He found a job in Brandon at CP Rail through local hockey legend Andy Gurba and never looked back. After a few years, he bought a business.
After that didn’t work out, he moved to Winnipeg for 17 years, where he operated a courier business and a couple of other enterprises.
He moved back to Brandon for a short time, but seven years ago, he and his wife Valerie headed to Calgary.
Stewart now works part-time for Scholastic Canada, a publisher of books and educational materials, which entailed travel across Alberta to schools before the pandemic hit.
His sporting past resurfaced in 2007 when the 1978-79 Wheat Kings were enshrined in the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame. He said it was a nice honour.
“It was big,” Stewart said. “I remember being there and there were a lot of people from Brandon there, a lot of my old coaches and stuff like that. That’s who got me there, all these old coaches who put in time. It was good to see a lot of the old guys.