Bob Wilson certainly understands the value of an education earned in competition. Now 81, Wilson spent his 20-year-old season with the Brandon Wheat Kings during the 1959-60 campaign. He also went on to a Hall of Fame career in baseball, and is a strong believer in what the games taught him.
“Without sports, I don’t where I would be,” Wilson said. “You get to know that you have to work to achieve anything. If you do a good job, you’re praised for it, if you do a bad job, you’re not. You get to meet a lot of people. I know people all over southern Manitoba because of sports.”
Wilson’s competitive interest began early.
His parents Joseph and Marjorie had four kids, including brother Don and sisters Shirley and Tricia. Bob was around five years old when he started skating, and it quickly became a passion during the winter.
Wilson grew up a block from the West End Community Centre, and would head over to the rink to meet his buddies.
“There were guys there all the time,” Wilson said. “They would go even on the weekends when the shack wasn’t open. I would put mine on at home but they would put their skates on out in the cold. We always had a whole bunch of kids there.”
Among the players at the community centre was future Wheat King Bob Jaska, who was a few years younger than Wilson.
Wilson said his parents played a key role in his success.
“They got me the equipment,” Wilson said. “We didn’t have a car, so they didn’t drive me to the rink. We would walk. At that time, we were playing community hockey, so we just walked to the rink. My dad used to take me to all the games at the Wheat City Arena.”
If his father wasn’t available, Wilson and his friends weren’t above finding their way into a game at the landmark arena.
“They had side doors on 11th Street, and the men going in would always block off the ticket taker and we would sneak in,” Wilson said.
Unfortunately for Wilson, he was coming of age as the Wheat Kings disbanded for four seasons between 1954 and 1958. The minor pro Regals took their place for two seasons from 1955 to 1957.
Wilson said it never occurred to him that he might want to be a Wheat King one day.
“I hadn’t really thought that way,” Wilson said. “The Wheat Kings kind of died out there for a period of time and they didn’t have a team.”
Instead, Wilson played juvenile hockey on a team with guys he had grown up playing with and against.
“We were all good buddies,” Wilson said. “We all knew each other from different communities and playing against them in minor hockey. We had great team.”
Wilson’s Brandon Lions won their second provincial juvenile crown in a row on April 13, 1958, beating future Wheat Kings George Hill, Wayne Gurba and the Flin Flon Bombers 8-5 in Game 3 of the best-of-three provincial juvenile final. Wilson had a pair of goals.
He also played senior hockey with the Reston Rockets in the South West Hockey League, joining Ron Maxwell, Jim Mann, Phil Davis and Glen Lawson from Brandon.
“We had a great team in Reston,” Wilson said. “We did well.”
The Wheat Kings returned from dormancy for the 1958-59 Manitoba Junior Hockey League campaign, and a year later, in his 20-year-old season, Wilson received a phone call inviting him to try out.
He earned a spot alongside players such as Dunc McCallum, Bryan Hextall, Ted Taylor, Jack Matheson, Hill and Gurba.
Taylor, the Oak Lake product who went on to play in the National Hockey League and the World Hockey Association, was 17 at the time.
“He was great, a good checker, hard-nosed,” Wilson said. “He didn’t get banged around too much.”
McCallum also played in the NHL, and famously returned to his hometown to coach the Wheat Kings for five years in the 1970s, including the iconic 1978-79 squad.
“He was a great hockey player and a great leader,” Wilson said. “He looked after everybody. If there was a problem, Dunc was there.”
Hextall, of course, is the father of future NHLer Ron, and enjoyed a long NHL career too.
“He was a great hockey player, tough as nails,” Wilson said.
Another major character was the building they played in. The Wheat City Arena, which was built in 1913 and demolished in 1969, was nearing the end of the line but still a wonderful place for junior hockey.
“It was a great place for us to play,” Wilson said. “We had no other arena in the area like it. It held 4,500 people and had the bench-type seats with the seat number on the back. There were no individual seats. It had a huge canteen area where people would go between periods.
“It was used for the Winter Fair and had a roller arena upstairs and a curling rink. It took up the whole city block where the police station is now.”
There was no glass around the ice surface, with chain link fencing above the end boards. What was it like to be hit into?
“It wasn’t good,” Wilson said with a soft chuckle.
In 31 regular season games, Wilson contributed seven goals, 11 assists and 12 penalty minutes. But Wilson quickly learned when he made the team that he wasn’t being asked to score.
“I was a fairly good skater,” Wilson said. “I got used to kill penalties on occasion. When I was younger I used to score a lot of goals. I didn’t score a lot of goals later on but I had my role to do. It was checking and being defensive.”
While Wilson proved to be a defensive stalwart, he also made a very different contribution. By that time, he had been working for a couple of years at Gooden’s Men’s Shop, a local business that awarded fedoras to Wheat Kings who scored a hat trick. Wilson perpetually wore a fedora already, and passed his sartorial style onto his teammates.
“In our day, everybody had fedoras that we had given them (for hat tricks),” Wilson said. “A lot of them bought one because I was wearing them when I was working there. I would be the leader with a coat and a hat.”
The Wheat Kings went 23-6-3 to finish first in the five-team league, which had four squads playing in Winnipeg. Brandon dispatched the Winnipeg Braves 3-1 in the semifinal, and Wilson, a lifelong forward, got a taste of something new, courtesy of head coach Jake Milford.
“I started out as a forward and we ran into difficulties in the playoffs,” Wilson said of a spate of injuries on the back end. “Jake put me on defence.”
The semifinal victory set up the best-of-seven MJHL final against the tight-checking Winnipeg Rangers, who were led by Dave Richardson and Bob Woytowich. The team later became the Winnipeg Saints and are now the Virden Oil Capitals.
After falling behind 3-2 in the series and trailing 5-2 with 10 minutes left in Game 6, the Wheat Kings scored three times in front of 9,000 fans in Winnipeg Arena to tie it up, and scored three more times in overtime for an 8-5 victory. At the time, they played the entire overtime period, regardless of how many goals were scored.
On March 17, 1960, the Wheat Kings completed the epic comeback in Game 7 to earn their fifth MJHL title, following earlier championships in 1938-39, 1946-47, 1948-49 and 1949-50.
“It was one heck of a series,” Wilson said. “It really was.”
Brandon actually won the series 3-2, with a pair of ties in the other games.
It was the first of four MJHL titles the Wheat Kings would win in the next five seasons. Wilson said Milford was a big reason for the success.
“He was really good to play for,” Wilson said. “He handled the fellas really well and made sure they did their jobs.”
The Wheat Kings advanced to face the Fort William Hurricanes in the Manitoba-Thunder Bay junior hockey championship, with a berth in the Memorial Cup’s west final on the line. Brandon won the first three games to take a commanding lead in the best-of-seven series.
“We had things going really well for us until Game 4,” Wilson said.
The fourth game had to be stopped several times after the Ontario crowd of 3,500 pelted the ice with debris following calls by the referee as Brandon built an 8-4 lead.
With two minutes 42 seconds remaining in the third period, Fort William coach Norm Berglund got in on the act, breaking sticks on the boards and tossing them onto the ice after his team was assessed a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. After being tossed from the game, he refused to leave the bench and had to be escorted away by police officers.
Berglund subsequently received a one-year suspension from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.
Seconds after play resumed, a wild brawl erupted. Six different fights went on, stick swinging ensued and both teams later claimed a player had been kicked in the head by a skate.
Wheat Kings defencemen Dunc McCallum and George Peary were both treated in hospital for cuts to the head, with McCallum requiring 12 stitches and Peary getting six.
“It was ugly. It was really ugly,” Wilson said. “Fans were throwing stuff at us. There were bottles and everything coming out.”
Milford kept his players on the bench until the Fort William players streamed out onto the ice. Wilson paired off with a Hurricanes player and they stood and watched the action around them, which had actually de-escalated by the time the players left the bench.
At least one Brandon fan was assaulted in the stands, and when the Manitoba spectators got on their chartered bus, Fort William supporters surrounded it and shook it.
After things calmed down, Hurricanes forward Tommy Williams — an American Olympic star who Fort William had picked up — came to the Wheat Kings dressing room to apologize on behalf of his teammates.
Bruised and battered, the Wheat Kings quickly moved on to the western final against the Edmonton Oil Kings. After winning Game 1 by a score of 6-4 in front of 4,278 fans at the Wheat City Arena, and Game 2 by a margin of 7-2 in front of 4,435 spectators, the Oil Kings roared back to win the next three games.
“We did very well here in Brandon but then things fell apart when we got up there,” Wilson said.
He was struggling with chronic cartilage issues in his left knee and a groin injury, one of nine Wheat Kings either playing hurt or battling the flu. Still, they rebounded to win Game 6, only to fall 6-1 in Game 7 of the Abbott Cup final.
“We had a lot of people who weren’t feeling well or had sores,” Wilson said. “We played fairly well.”
In 16 league, four exhibition and 10 playoff games that year at the Wheat City Arena, the club drew 70,399 fans, an average of 2,346.
While Brandon’s season didn’t end with a trip to the Memorial Cup — the Oil Kings fell in six games to the St. Catharines Teepees in the first of the Alberta squad’s seven consecutive appearances — Wilson took a lot of pride in what his team accomplished.
“We did very well,” Wilson said. “Edmonton had a great team.”
With no pro opportunities arising in North America, Wilson considered heading over to England, where a friend had played. Ultimately he decided against it.
“I didn’t have any interest in leaving,” Wilson said.
He played senior hockey in Souris for a while and later joined a competitive senior team in Brandon that travelled to tournaments. He also played with the Brandon Pioneers in the 1970s.
“It was a great group of guys, a lot of former Wheat Kings,” Wilson said. “I didn’t play the first year, I joined them in the second year. We did some great travelling in Canadian old-timers circles, playing in cities across North America.
“Any old-timers tournaments, we went and we did very well. We had great times. We had great Halloween parties and we never left a dance at any old-timers tournament very early.”
Wilson also enjoyed baseball and fastball. When he was a kid, Wilson and his friends spent a lot of time in Coronation Park, north of the old Fleming School.
“We would start in the morning and play ball all day,” Wilson said. “Then we got into Little League. I was on one of the first two teams. There was Shields Blockbusters and there was the Brandon City Police. We had a great bunch of kids.”
In 1953, his Pony League team won the province and played off for the district, which included part of Saskatchewan. After emerging victorious there, they headed down to Joliet, Ill., which is southwest of Chicago.
While things didn’t go nearly as well on the diamond, it was still a great experience for the youngster.
“It was terrific,” Wilson said. “We got to go to a Cardinals game, Stan Musial was playing with them, and we enjoyed that.”
Wilson began playing in the Central Manitoba Baseball Association with the senior Athletics in 1956 and joined the Brandon Cloverleafs in 1957 and spent 21 seasons with the club.
After the MSBL started up in 1961, he made the first all-star team nine times and the second team three times, and was named to the league’s 40-year, all-time all-star team in the outfield.
Interestingly, he had played all over the diamond when he was younger, but with Tom Town, Lloyd Brown, Rudy Stritz and former Wheat King David (Chips) Adams in the Cloverleafs infield, he needed to a find a new position beyond the basepaths alongside Gerry MacKay, Steve Clark and Don Hunter.
Wilson also had the chance to attend national championships in 1971 and 1973.
At the same time he was playing hardball, he also participating in a fastball league on a diamond in the southwest corner of Kinsmen Stadium near where the Healthy Living Centre now sits.
His life away from competitive pursuits also neatly fell into place.
Wilson left Gooden’s after his Cloverleaf friend Tom Town, who was working as an insurance adjuster with W.O. Jones and Company, asked him if he would be interested in trying it. That resulted in training time in Winnipeg,
Another former Cloverleaf, manager Jim Slevin, recruited him to play fastball with Manitoba Clothing, joining other ex-Leafs Chips Adams and Frank McKinnon. The team later became the Kiewel White Seals.
After a couple of years, Wilson returned to Brandon for good but left an impressive fastball legacy behind.
He was inducted into the Manitoba Softball Hall of Fame in 2004 with the 1959-64 Kiewel White Seals/Manitoba Clothing Store Senior Men teams, and into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010 with the 1966-71 Cloverleafs.
To top it off, he was also inducted into the Baseball Hall as an individual in 2003.
“I’m proud but I don’t like to talk about it,” Wilson said. “It’s just my nature. I really enjoyed playing both fastball and hardball.”
His insurance career later led him to Manitoba Public Insurance. He retired in 1995.
He and wife Linda have one son, Grant, who coaches the Brandon University Bobcats men’s volleyball team, and one grandson, Reece. Like his grandfather, Reece is a terrific baseball player, earning a spot on the provincial team that competed in the Canada Games in 2017.
Reece now plays volleyball for the University of the Fraser Valley, as part of Canada West’s newest team.
Wilson looks back at his Wheat Kings tenure fondly, and returned to work at games in recent years. He was impressed by what he saw.
“I enjoyed every minute of it and I’m quite proud of it,” Wilson said of his tenure on the ice with the team. “I worked the aisles (at Brandon games) as an usher for several years. It’s totally different then when we played. They’re so much faster and the shots are unbelievable compared to some of ours in the old days with wooden sticks.”