(Courtesy of Perry Bergson of The Brandon Sun) — Hockey proved to be awfully good to Ron Chipperfield.
Now 64 and living with his wife and daughter in B.C., one of the finest players in Brandon Wheat Kings history said the game proved to be his life’s work.
“When you consider that really I had a paycheque since I was 14 playing hockey,” Chipperfield said. “I’m just retired this year, but before that everything I did in my life was involved with hockey. I had the (player) agency for 20 years, coached for five, managed for six, and the rest was all playing.”
A path that would lead to the World Hockey Association, National Hockey League and a life-changing move to Italy all started at age five in Minnedosa when he began skating.
The family, including mother Irene and father Jim, had a backyard rink, but his dad operated a store near the arena.
“I lived close enough to the rink where I could walk back and forth by myself,” Chipperfield said. “It wasn’t very far so he didn’t have to drive me, but he did a lot of driving to out-of-town games.”
He played his minor hockey in Minnedosa until he was 14, when he moved to Brandon to play Junior B.
A 15-year-old Chipperfield, fellow Minnedosa product Frank Taylor and Oak Lake’s Don Larway joined the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Dauphin Kings for the 1969-70 season. Incredibly, Chipperfield finished near the top of the MJHL in scoring with 39 goals and 40 assists in 34 games as Dauphin defended its league title.
“I didn’t think I would make the team,” he said. “That was a real surprise to me. That was a 21-and-under league at the time. I started good that year and things just carried on.”
The Wheat Kings had always been a team aspired to — “When I was 10 or 11 I would listen to games on the radio so I grew up knowing about Juha Widing and Billy Fairbairn and those guys” — and he would get his chance to join the team at age 16.
“Four years in Brandon might have been too much,” Chipperfield chuckled. “I probably should have stayed one more year down in Dauphin and just played three years of major junior. But it worked out good the way it did.”
Wheat Kings coach Gerry Brisson vigorously recruited him to join Brandon as soon as his MJHL season ended, and eventually Brisson won out.
Chipperfield moved in with Les and Mabel Shelvey and their daughter Leah for all four years he played in the Wheat City. He had Wayne Coxworth of Boissevain as his roommate for the first two years and Taylor for the final two.
The success he had in Dauphin followed him to Brandon as he led the Wheat Kings in scoring as a 16-year-old rookie with 40 goals and 43 assists in 64 games in the 1970-71 season.
“Gerry was happy I came and gave me all the opportunity I could have asked for,” Chipperfield said. “I got to play with good players. I played a lot with Mo Brunel the first year.”
The team was still playing in the Manex Arena, its temporary home for four seasons after the Wheat City Arena was demolished in 1969 and before the Keystone Centre opened in 1973.
“The people were right on you,” Chipperfield said. “There were actually fights between spectators and players, that’s how close everybody was. It was actually a fun place to play. There might have been 2,000 people in there but the building was full and it seemed like a lot more.”
Chipperfield quickly proved his debut season was no fluke when he exploded for 59 goals and 53 assists in his second season in just 63 games.
It would only get better, as he would set a franchise record with 72 goals in 53 games in the 1972-73 campaign. He also had 42 assists.
Chipperfield said that for his final two seasons he had a tremendous connection with Portage la Prairie product Rick Blight, who would go on to play 326 National Hockey League games himself.
“We hit it off instantly,” Chipperfield said. “There was real good chemistry between him and me. He was a guy who I would say, we helped each other. He helped me and I helped him, and together it was pretty good for us.”
Chipperfield also had a chance to play with Robbie Neale (“He was big and could skate, shoot the puck, make plays and fight if he had to.”) and John Paddock (“He turned his game into a physical game and that gave him what he needed to move on to the next level. He worked really hard on himself.”).
The early 1970s was a rugged era of the game where intimidation played a big role. Chipperfield said the Wheat Kings were built by Rudy Pilous on speed and skill, which put them at a disadvantage against teams run by Ernie (Punch) McLean of the New Westminster Bruins, Scotty Munro of the Calgary Centennials and Patty Ginnell of the Flin Flon Bombers.
“(Rudy) believed in speed and skill, maybe the way the game is played today,” Chipperfield said. “Those other coaches had other ideas. They built on intimidation. They would have four, five, six, seven guys who were out there. Some were good players, some out there were not so good, but they were all physical and were doing their running around. I never let it bother me. It was a situation where you had to keep your head up and your stick up to stay alive.”
Chipperfield’s game was built on his stick handling, with an accurate shot, good patience with the puck and the ability to make passes. He was actually named most sportsmanlike player his first two seasons.
The Minnedosa Bomber also served as captain for his final two seasons, including a final year in 1973-74 that would be one for the ages as the team moved into the Keystone Centre.
In 66 games, Chipperfield scored 90 goals and added 72 assists to become the only Wheat King in modern history to lead the team in scoring for four consecutive seasons. He also won the league scoring crown that season and was crowned MVP as he scored an incredible 12 hat tricks.
Chipperfield is second all-time in WHL history for goals scored with 261. He’s one behind Glen Goodall of Seattle, who played 147 more games in the league. He’s tied for 11th in career points with 470.
“The Western (Hockey) League prepares you for anything,” Chipperfield said. “When you get to pro hockey, you think the games are very clean and not near as nasty as it was in the western junior league. And you toughen up from the travel.”
Chipperfield remembers the team driving from Vancouver overnight through snow in the mountains and arriving late for a game in Calgary that was set for 7 p.m.
They didn’t arrive until 9 o’clock, played the game without a warmup, and then returned to the bus and drove home.
He was rewarded for his success in the spring of 1974 when he was selected 17th overall by the NHL’s California Golden Seals and 20th overall by the Vancouver Blazers in the WHA’s secret amateur draft. He was the first of 20 Wheat Kings who have been selected in the first round of the NHL draft in the WHL era.
He weighed his options — either a terrible California team with an older roster or a spot in the upstart WHA, then in its second year — and he chose to go to Vancouver.
Chipperfield would spend five seasons in the WHA, piling up 330 points in 369 regular season games.
“I have to say right now, looking back, that was probably the wrong decision,” he admitted. “I probably should have gone straight to the NHL, but there’s no use looking back on it.”
He said he had a good experience in the WHA, saying the league wasn’t as wild as its reputation suggests. Chipperfield said the league’s biggest issue was that since it didn’t have farm teams, rosters were mostly set at the start of the season and it didn’t push guys to get better.
“It was just too comfortable,” he said.
After a season in Vancouver, he played two seasons with the Calgary Cowboys before joining the Edmonton Oilers for the 1977-78 WHA season. A year later, a 17-year-old phenom named Wayne Gretzky joined the team for the WHA’s final season.
He remembers Gretzky making what appeared to be an impossible no-look pass as a rookie and chalking it up to good fortune with the other players on the bench. By the time he had done it the 10th time, they realized he was something special.
Chipperfield sat beside him in the Oilers dressing room and got to know him well.
“He was a young guy who came in and was very respectful and wanted to learn,” Chipperfield said. “I helped him in some ways I guess. I looked out for him and made sure he was OK, and he never forgot that, which is very nice. I still have a very good rapport with Wayne. He was a real special player.”
Chipperfield also blazed his own unique part of Oilers lore.
When the Oilers switched over to the NHL for the 1979-80 season, Chipperfield served as the franchise’s first captain in the new league.
“They still make a big deal about it in Edmonton,” Chipperfield said. “I’m invited back for all the events. The way it worked was we had a bunch of guys come in and the coaches put it up to a vote and my name came up. That was a great honour. I always believed I would play in the NHL but I never thought I would be a captain in the NHL.”
Unfortunately for him, two things happened that season. The team was having goaltending issues and in need of stability at the position. And at the same time, a youngster named Mark Messier was playing really well at centre.
On March 10, 1980, Chipperfield, the team’s second-line centre, was dealt to the Quebec Nordiques for his former Dauphin teammate Ron Low, which solidified the team’s netminding and allowed Messier to move onto the second line.
He put up eight points in 12 games that season with Quebec — and 46 points overall in 83 NHL games — but things went south the next fall. Just before camp, Peter Stastny defected from Czechoslovakia and took his spot.
The arrival of a young Dale Hunter didn’t help, meaning three future Hall of Famers impacted Chipperfield’s career in less than a year.
The Nordiques couldn’t find a spot for him on the ice but wouldn’t trade him, so Chipperfield decided to take his talents to Italy for what he thought would be a year.
“It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me, was going over there,” Chipperfield said.
He played three seasons in Europe, all with HC Bolzano, posting an incredible 307 points in 84 games. Beginning in the 1984-85 season, he took over as head coach because he had badly injured his back and couldn’t play anymore.
Chipperfield quickly picked up the language, and was offered a job to run an arena, a hockey team and a basketball team in Milan. As a music promoter, he would book Frank Sinatra and Madonna to play in the facility.
Current Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni ran the basketball team, and the hockey team featured a bevy of former NHLers.
“I just loved the job and they were paying me handsomely to do it but I was working full hours Monday to Friday and then would have at least three or four nights a week where I had either games or concerts,” Chipperfield said. “It just got to be too much.”
He went back to managing a hockey team, and after marrying his wife Cristina in Italy, he started Optima World Sports Agency, which brought North American hockey players to Europe.
The family moved to West Vancouver with daughter Alexandra in 2003 to give her a chance to be educated in English. She is currently at UBC.
Chipperfield is now retired from his career as a player agent, and the couple, who speak Italian in the house, have home and lake properties in Italy.
His hockey past unexpectedly came back to him in 2016 when he learned he had been chosen as one of the 50 best players in WHL history.
“That was really a surprise and a great honour,” Chipperfield said. “I really appreciated that, and they sent me a plaque. A lot of players go through there and to get named to being the top 50 players to ever play in that league is obviously a great honour.”
A year later, fan voting helped the Wheat Kings name the franchise’s WHL dream team, and Chipperfield was selected as the second line centre. He hadn’t heard about that honour.
“Wow,” he said.
Forty-eight years after his Wheat Kings adventure, and with the benefit of hindsight, Chipperfield said he couldn’t have had a better place to play junior hockey.
“When you put it together with the family that I was living with, it was a godsend,” Chipperfield said. “It wasn’t like I felt I was thousands of miles away from home. I felt that my family was close enough that they could be in there in half an hour and I felt like I had a family I was living with. It was really cool. There were lots of time if we had a couple of days off I would spin out to Minnedosa. It was a perfect scenario.”
Photo submitted of Ron and daughter Ali Chipperfield