Erv Ziemer was on the left side of an impressive bit of Brandon Wheat Kings history 55 years ago.
The Minitonas product, who is 75, skated with Wheat Kings legends Juha Widing and Bill Fairbairn during the 1965-66 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season on one of the top lines in franchise history.
Now living in Calgary, he has warm memories of his two seasons with the Wheat Kings from 1964 to 1966.
“My memories of hockey are Brandon,” Ziemer said. “The friendships. Hockey when you’re winning is special. You’re having fun, you’re doing something you love, you’re meeting people you’re close to and you want to maintain that. You know it’s going to end, but you take it for every second as long as you can.”
He had a passion for the game for as long as he can remember.
Erv started playing at age five, and since they didn’t have enough players for a team in Minitonas, he always played an age group above.
“I had a lot of hockey,” he said with a chuckle.
Ziemer moved north to Flin Flon at age 11 with his mother after his parents Molly and Gordon split up. His younger brother Doug, who lived in Brandon prior to his passing in 2009 and was the father of local hockey player Zeanan Ziemer, joined him at the indoor natural ice rink in Minitonas.
Erv was finally able to play with kids his own age after the move to Flin Flon, but was promptly moved back to defence, a position he would play until he was 18.
The Ziemer family moved two blocks from an outdoor rink in Flin Flon and the brothers spent a lot of time there together. Since they only had one game and one practice per week, they rushed to the outdoor rink every day after school.
“You graduate from being the young guy first to a little older and the middle one and then you get a little older and you’re the oldest and everyone is chasing you,” Ziemer said. “It seemed to work. Your skill set improves when you’re chasing someone, and by the time they’re chasing you, you can do the little things that make you a better hockey player.”
His brother Doug was a goalie, giving him a target to shoot at as they grew up. They both relied on their mother, especially after cold days at the outdoor rink.
“It’s amazing,” Ziemer said. “In a small town, you don’t travel to the rink, you walk, but the biggest thing I can remember is coming home from the outdoor rinks and your feet are frozen. She was there with the cold packs initially and then getting you into the bathtub to warm you up. I don’t know how many times she was at the ready when it was time to come home for supper.”
Ziemer said the Flin Flon Bombers quickly implanted the idea in him that he’d like to play junior hockey one day. The “rink rat” cleaned the ice at Bombers games because he would get to play for a couple of hours after the game ended, allowing him to skate indoors.
Ice time wasn’t an issue as he got older. In juvenile — Flin Flon had eight midget teams and four juvenile clubs at the time — his coach sometimes left his best defenceman on the ice for the entire game.
After finishing his juvenile season at age 17, he was invited to Bombers camp as he participated in the town’s baseball playoffs.
There were time conflicts between baseball and hockey, but Ziemer was told to come to skate when he could. He would literally run from the ball field to the rink, but it worked out.
“I had a pretty good camp I guess because I made the team,” Ziemer said.
He started his junior career in a new position after he was moved back up front. Ziemer’s move was a success, posting 48 points in 62 games.
“It came fairly easily,” Ziemer said. “I always wanted to be a forward but coaches would put me back on defence.”
One of the problems with playing on Flin Flon was the five two-week road trips, which didn’t exactly help Ziemer’s correspondence studies in Grade 12. After the season, Ziemer asked the club if he could go to Brandon the next season to finish up his schooling.
He was following in the footsteps of George Hill, Wayne Gurba and Leon Garinger as Flin Flon products who had moved south to finish their studies as they played with the Wheat Kings.
“I phoned up Jake Milford, who was the general manager then, and said ‘Listen, I would like to try out for your team, I’m coming down for school,’” Ziemer said. “He said ‘OK, that sounds pretty good. Come down, I’ll get you in school and we’ll see if you can make the team.’”
That certainly wasn’t guaranteed. The Wheat Kings had a veteran squad in the 1964-65 season as they made their two-year move over to the SJHL.
“I was lucky enough to make the team,” Ziemer said, noting Fairbairn and Widing were the other rookies who cracked the roster.
It was his first look at his future linemate Widing, who he said was big, a tremendous shooter and an effortless skater. He had rave reviews for Fairbairn as well.
“He was the best player I ever played with, and I mean in all aspects of the game,” Ziemer said. “It wasn’t one thing, it was everything. He was the best corner man, he had a heckuva shot, he could pass the puck and he was unselfish as heck.”
There was some upheaval in the organization that season, however.
(Sugar) Jim Henry, a Winnipeg goalie who played 406 National Hockey League games, was the coach and general manager of the 1964-65 Wheat Kings club.
“He was kind of laid back,” Ziemer said. “I didn’t think he could relate to the players, and I think he recognized that. It wasn’t even halfway through the season that he decided he could hire Glen Lawson as the coach and it made a difference for the team. (Henry) was a good general manager. He had things organized and brought players in.”
Ziemer certainly remembers Lawson. Not long after taking over, the Brandonite decided to try him with Fairbairn.
“(Lawson) put Fairbairn and I together on left and right wing and rotated different centres and we had some good centres, Rick Hextall, Felix Lavallee, Danny Johnson, (Ron) Spike Huston,” Ziemer said.
“We clicked for whatever reason and he went through the whole lineup of centres to get us the one who worked best. He was ahead of the curve a little bit. He knew what he wanted and he tried things. That’s what I liked about him.”
The pair ended up skating with Lavallee the most.
Ziemer lost some time to injury, however, when he and Huston mistakenly collided during a drill in practice. Huston got the worst of it but Ziemer was also shaken up.
“It was two days before Christmas and I was going home to Flin Flon because I had three days off,” Ziemer said. “I went back to Flin Flon and had this black eye that was stitched up. I can’t see out of it. My girlfriend — my wife now — meets me at the bus and she goes wild. The darn thing got infected while I was there so I had to have it opened up and restitched.”
The collision came in the old Wheat City Arena, which was nearing the end of its 56-year lifespan on the corner of 10th Street and Victoria Avenue. Ziemer liked the atmosphere more than the old building itself.
“It was full and it was noisy,” Ziemer said. “The dressing rooms needed work but I loved it. The fans were great. It was probably on its last legs, there was no doubt about that, but it’s Western Canada, the middle of winter, where else would you like to be?”
Brandon finished third that season with a record of 30-21-5.
The 1965-66 season didn’t look nearly as promising after Brandon had turned over much of its roster, returning just five players including the top line, Larry Brown and Larry McKillop of Deloraine.
“The junior B team basically moved up to junior A,” Ziemer said. “We were a real young team, by far the youngest team in the league.”
Ziemer, a veteran who was in his overage season, was named captain. He remains stunned by the decision.
“For me it was real honour, not being a local guy,” Ziemer said. “And look who we had on the team, Fairbairn, McKillop, who was there for three years, and Widing. It was quite a surprise actually.”
The Ziemer-led Wheat Kings gelled quickly, especially under new coach Eddie Dorohoy.
Their lethal special teams, carefully coached by Dorohoy, left a big mark.
“We had a helluva power play,” Ziemer said. “Teams couldn’t take penalties against us because we scored a lot of goals on the power play.”
Ziemer said line matching wasn’t really in vogue back then, but he thought Dorohoy was terrific at handling his lines and getting the right players on the ice at the right time.
“He was the best coach I had,” Ziemer said.
To his credit, Dorohoy saw the potential for his top line of Ziemer, Widing and Fairbairn in training camp, and played them together all year. Ziemer said their success came from a number of factors.
“We all could pass,” Ziemer said. “They were better shooters than I was. I saw the ice pretty good, and Billy and I were both good corner guys. We did a lot of work in the corners and got the puck out a lot, either Billy to me or Juha or me to either one of them. That was good play. We were all pretty good skaters.
“Billy and I knew that Juha was the shooter, he could shoot from anywhere and we’d tell him ‘If you get the puck in the slot, shoot, and we’ll look after the rebounds.’ It worked for us.”
It certainly did.
That season, Widing had 114 points, Ziemer had 113 points and Fairbairn had 112 points in a remarkably even distribution of scoring.
“It was very unselfish,” Ziemer said. “When we scored a goal, it didn’t matter who. We knew what we had to do and we each did our job. It worked out. We got the puck to each other.”
He roomed on Victoria Avenue near the Wheat City Arena with Jack Wells in his second season, and was close with McKillop, who had a car. Widing, Fairbairn and Ron Spratt were around a lot too.
They practised at 5 p.m., so he would grab something to eat after school and head to the rink. After practice, he would head home for supper and school work.
“It was a good team, very close,” Ziemer said. “Everybody was there for everybody.”
His future wife Brenda was going to school in Winnipeg and would sometimes come to Brandon to see him play.
“She was part of it too,” Ziemer said. “She got to meet a couple of the other guys’ girlfriends and she stayed with them. It got to be a second home for me.”
It wasn’t always as friendly on the ice, however. Ziemer said the SJHL had a few guys “who were out of control” and you would have to careful around when they were on ice.
Part of the Brandon team’s closeness stemmed from an incident in a game against the Moose Jaw Canucks early in the season. Ziemer was sucker punched from behind by a guy who came off the bench during a melee.
“I’m not a fighter but I got up and I was mad,” Ziemer said. “He got ahold of me and gave me a going over. We were kicked out of the game so I was in the shower — it was after the first period — and the guys and Dorohoy are in there. He is giving it to them about letting that happen to me. After that, if anybody touched me, there was somebody there. The thing it did was that the whole team was now a team.”
The young Wheat Kings finished third again, with a record of 32-21-7, and beat the Saskatoon Blades in the first round.
However, Ziemer’s time as a Wheat King came to an end on March 20, 1966 when Brandon fell 7-1 to the second-place Weyburn Red Wings.
“It was a hard day for McKillop and myself,” Ziemer said. “We talked about it after actually. For him it was the last season after three years, I was there two, and that was it. I can remember at our windup dinner, because I was the captain I did the speech to the management and directors, and I can remember thanking them for the best years of my life up until that time just by being part of the organization.”
Since he had started with the Bombers, he was the NHL property of the Detroit Red Wings rather than the New York Rangers, who owned the rights to his Wheat King teammates.
He headed to Detroit camp the next fall. He had one big highlight from the camp, which featured nothing but scrimmages with short warmups.
In those days, when you stepped on the ice, it was the first time since your last game of the previous season.
“I go out on the ice on the left side and Gordie Howe is on the right side,” Ziemer said. “I’m facing him. That was the highlight of my camp.”
He thought he played well, but in the six-team NHL, there weren’t many spots available.
He was destined for the Johnstown Jets of the Eastern Hockey League, but had a buddy who played there the year before warned him not to report because it wasn’t a good place to play.
He flew home from Detroit, and was scheduled to head to Johnstown two weeks later.
“I started thinking about things,” Ziemer said. “My goal was to get an education of some sort using hockey.”
When he didn’t show up for camp, they suspended him and he went to work in the mine in Flin Flon. A year later, after he got married, another hockey opportunity presented itself with the Columbus Checkers of the International Hockey League.
He enrolled in a college in Columbus, and when he arrived in Ohio, he went to chat with school officials. They took one look at his hockey schedule and declared it impossible for him to succeed in his studies, so Ziemer played until Christmas and went home.
“The hockey wasn’t getting me anywhere and I knew at that time that hockey wasn’t going to be living for me,” Ziemer said. “So I quit.”
He flew into Winnipeg and went to visit Dorohoy, who was coaching the Winnipeg Jets of the new Western Canada Hockey League. He explained his situation to his old coach, and Dorohoy arranged for him to meet the coach of the senior Calgary Spurs, who just happened to be in Winnipeg.
After a brief tryout, he played that night in an exhibition game against the Canadian national team, and headed back to Calgary, where he made $50 a game. The owner of the team got him a job with his brother’s electrical business, where he apprenticed and eventually became an electrician.
His wife joined him soon after, and after one season in Calgary he joined the Drumheller Miners for one last year.
By that time, his new job was busy and he and Brenda had welcomed son Curtis. (Daughter Leeanne also joined the family two years later.)
“I played in a couple of leagues in the city and then when my son was six or seven, he started playing hockey and I started coaching for 22 straight years,” Ziemer said.
He had coached at the AA and AAA level in Calgary, and twice guided local teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The last team sent 11 players to American colleges.
A few years after he left Brandon, he had a chance to come back. Ziemer landed a job and he worked here while his wife temporarily stayed in Calgary. They put their house up for sale and were looking for one in Brandon when he received a terrific job offer back in Calgary to help Canada Post set up its computer system, which also included a year of training.
“I sort of couldn’t refuse so that’s why we didn’t end up back in Brandon actually,” Ziemer said.
They still had lots of friends in Brandon, so he spent lots of time in the Wheat City anyway.
He eventually worked in the health system, and spent 32 years there working in management at hospitals.
“It worked out good for me,” Ziemer said. “I could do my hockey coaching and do a job I liked.”
Erv and Brenda now have five grandchildren, all of whom live within a couple of hours.
Ziemer treasures his time in Brandon, and keeps in touch with some of his former teammates more than five decades after they last laced up skates together.
It’s not the only thing he’s retained. He was taught a key lesson that has stayed with him his entire life.
“I think the biggest thing is commitment,” Ziemer said. “In hockey, if you’re successful or want to try and be successful, you have to have the commitment. That to me was ingrained in me through all my hockey, and I believe I did it through my family and through my work certainly.
“I was never one of these guys who took it for granted. I earned my pay, and nobody was ever shortchanged.”