Back To Kindersley; And Talking To The Three Best NHLers All Time

Ken Warren

Story and Photos by Ken Warren (ISN)

June 3, 2013 Victoria, BC (ISN) – Welcome to the third article of Ken’s Blog, where historian Ken Warren takes us through some of his childhood memories, sharing with us the lives and times of his sports oriented family growing up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the 1900’s and beyond. In Part 1, Ken takes us back to Kindersley and shares his experiences with some of the great NHL players of all time.

An opportunity came to my dad to bid on the job as station agent in Kindersley. It was a plum job that he would never have the seniority for, except the catch was that this job was only for six months.

Just before we get back to Kindersley, however, I have one more item from Lestock. In 1953 my dad got me a railway pass to Edmonton to watch the third game of the Western Football Final between my Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Edmonton Eskimos. I was staying with Dad’s railway friend George Kenney. Actually, George and his wife accompanied me to the game. With two minutes left, the score was 24-15 for Edmonton, and the Eskimos had the ball at the Winnipeg 21. A field goal would have put Edmonton up by 12 points. In 1953, that was two converted touchdowns. Instead, Eskimo quarterback Claude Arnold passed the ball to Rollie Miles, but Dave Skrien intercepted it and lateralled to Tom Casey who went all the way. Score now: Edmonton 24 Winnipeg 21. With less than a minute left, Indian Jack tossed a 60 yarder to Neil Armstrong for the Bomber win. What a happy kid I was! At least for a while. In the ’53 Grey Cup game, Hamilton beat my Bombers 12-6.

To show how much my dad loved Kindersley, just think: we moved back there knowing that it would be only for a six-month term. Nevertheless, it was a great six months. It meant that I was back with Al Sanderson, Ross Paterson, and a new friend, Norm Assam. 

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Mr. Bill Cybulski – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)

Whereas school in Lestock was great with W.J. Cybulski, the best teacher Jim and I ever had, school at McKenzie High in Kindersley was a joke. The Grade 10 class I was in was an embarrassment. Miss Fraser, our math teacher, was in tears by the end of every class. Kids took plaster off the walls and chucked it at her every time she turned her back to write something on the blackboard. I had never been in such an unruly classroom before and felt terribly sorry for the teacher. However, I was powerless to fight everybody over it, and besides, Mr. Cybulski had given us such a good grounding in algebra that I could have taught the class, so I wasn’t missing anything. A special friend that I hadn’t seen since grade 3 came to the school to see me and I skipped school that afternoon for the first time. Well, I skipped lots of afternoons after that first time. Most often my friends skipped with me and we’d go to a restaurant for fries and a shake. I’ll identify the special visitor at a more appropriate time. I was right to skip school to be with him. It’s unfortunate I learned how easy it became to skip afternoons daily without negative consequences.

I got various jobs in Kindersley working construction on the weekends and cashiering at the drive-in theatre every night. Even though I skipped school every afternoon, I was able to play on the school’s baseball team because the coach was Mr. Nickles, my English teacher. I got English in the mornings, so he didn’t know I was an afternoon absentee. We Grade Ten boys also started a school football team. I was both the baseball team’s pitcher and the football team’s quarterback. In Lestock I had quarterbacked the school team against Kelliher in home and away wins. I did the same in Kindersley against Eatonia. We even let Eatonia use their Grade 11 and 12’s. Al Sanderson played football as well as he played hockey.

I’ll never forget Norm’s mother’s Austin, or the used oil, or the great trips we all had together. I’ll never forget wrestling with Norm and the great fear that a garden stake had knifed into his back. A stake driven between his ribs could have been deadly. It was a deadly sound that break and the moment Norm shrieked in pain I pulled his torso up thinking a stake would be sticking out of his back. The chilling sound of the break however wasn’t a stake; rather, it was a bone in Norm’s leg.

In the summer I worked with a seismograph company checking for oil underground around Kindersley, and we were finding good prospects. We lived in the railway station at Kindersley, but since it was only a six-month stay, our time there was up–and too short. We left before the oil gushed up all around Kindersley.

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NHLers Orr & Smith – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)

We moved to Oakner, Manitoba. There my friends were Bruce Godlein, Fred Zaharia, and Dallas Smith. Dallas and I played hockey with the Kenton/Decker Combines. It was Dallas’s idea that I tryout with them. I lasted one game. Eventually, Dallas went on to play with the Boston Bruins where he was the defence partner with the best defenseman in hockey history, Bobby Orr. I’m reminded of George Evans, he asked me to come out with the Vanderhoof Bears. I told him I wasn’t that good in hockey. He told me neither were the Bears. I lasted a couple of practises and one game. George was wrong. The Bears were quite good. At least I had my baseball and football to fall back on.The most fun I had in Oakner was pitching for the school team and the senior men’s team. I pitched both wins at a six-team High School elimination tournament. We won our first, and got a bye into the final. Two wins and we had the cup. I also won the two senior games I pitched, including striking out Dad’s first cousin Garnet Johnston, and Dallas’s father, Buzz Smith. We also beat Crandall High School in football. However, it was in Oakner that one of my most shameful moments ever occurred. It came in 1954 when the Edmonton Eskimos were in the Grey Cup game against the Montreal Alouettes. I’m a Westerner through and through, and we’d only won the Grey Cup four times since 1921. Winnipeg three times and Calgary once. I’d only been following football since 1950, but on the radio I’d listened to Winnipeg lose in 1950, Saskatchewan in ’51, Edmonton in ’52, and Winnipeg again in ’53. Now Edmonton was behind 25-20 and Montreal had the ball on Edmonton’s 21 yard line with less than a minute to play. I probably kept asking God to intervene, but was completely exasperated when Montreal qb Etchevery handed the ball to running back Hunsinger, I blurted my frustrations: “F… YOU, GOD!” Then the radio announcer screamed “HUNSINGER HAS FUMBLED. THE BALL IS PICKED UP BY PARKER.” Jackie Parker ran 95 yards for a 5-point touchdown to tie the game. The convert was good. Edmonton won 26-25. Jubilation Reigned, but I had that whopper of that shameful F-word against God out there. How did that happen? I’d never done that before, nor done it since. Especially now that I know He’s listening.

In Oakner, I lived those last days with George Fraser, the elevator agent and his family, until school was over, while Mom, Phil, and David took a nice long holiday to New York and Chicago, and Dad moved to BC. Little did I know that Bruce Godlein would be a senior trooper in the RCMP by the time that I arrived in Regina, and Fred Zaharia had been graduated from training just months before I arrived.

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NHL Player Gordie Howe – Photo Courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)

Since I’ve mentioned Dallas Smith (incidentally, Garnet Johnston, my Dad’s first cousin, is also the the first cousin of Dallas’s mother). While that doesn’t make us relatives, it was kind of special that he was my third baseman on the high school baseball team, and my wide receiver on the football team, and we at least share the same relatives. Anyway, since I’ve mentioned Dallas and Orr in the same breath, let me explain how a little nothing guy like me has a connection with the three greatest hockey players ever. In Year 2000, the top 100 hockey players were voted on by hockey analysts and coaches and the top three in order were: 1. Wayne Gretzky, 2. Bobby Orr. and 3. Gordie Howe. As I mentioned earlier, Gordie Howe (and Bert Olmstead) used to come to play baseball in Kindersley at the town’s Sports Day. Since my dad was manager of both the Klipper’s baseball and hockey teams, and we lived less than a block from the fairgounds, both our place and Johnny Staples place was where teams stopped for drinks after the games. Both Gordie and Bert joined their Sceptre team-mates for stop-overs at John’s place and ours. When my son, Keeley, was getting Gorde’s autograph at a David Foster Celebrity Baseball Game, I asked him if he remembered John Staples and Earle Warren from Kindersley. He said that he did, and that Kindersley was a great sports town. I shook his hand; the biggest hand I had ever clasped.

As for Bobby Orr, he, Phil Esposito, and Kenny Hodge came into the rotunda of the Vancouver Hotel as about 300 of us were waiting for the arrival of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. I was there with my wife, Kathy, and two kids, Steven and Kody, to greet my old school mate Dallas Smith. When the trio of stars entered the rotunda from the parking garage, I asked my little family to wait where they were and I’d wade into the crowd to see when the rest of the players would be arriving. You can imagine that 290 of the 300 people assembled wanted to talk to Bobby, but so did I because he was Dallas’s defence partner. I managed to squeeze up to Bobby and asked him why Dallas wasn’t with him. “He won’t be long, Sir,” Bobby said. “Maybe 15 minutes. We took a cab. The rest of the team stayed at the Coliseum to practise a little longer. They’ll be here on the bus quite soon.” I thanked him, joined my family, and moved to the other end of the rotunda and waited. From a distance we could see that Esposito and Hodge had gone upstairs in the elevator and Bobby was still fielding questions from various media, and still had a crowd of a couple of hundred other followers around him. He noticed us standing in the distance, so he crossed that 50 yards or so to our side of the rotunda with all the crowd following him, and said: “Please make sure that you wait for Dallas. He’ll be here any minute now.” At first, I thought: “What a gentleman.” Then, I realized: “Bobby Orr is hockey’s greatest player and everybody in the country wants to meet him. Dallas, his partner, doesn’t get the same attention, so when he does get some, his buddy, Orr, isn’t going to see him miss out on that well deserved fanfare.” Dallas arrived and I introduced him to the family. We had lunch at the hotel and he showed us the Stanley Cup ring he was wearing. Of course, we all tried it on, but it was too big to fit any of us. I shook Dallas’s hand. It was very big, but not as big as Gordie’s.

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NHL Player Wayne Gretzky – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)

As for Wayne Gretzky, I slept overnight on the sidewalk in front of Memorial Arena to get tickets for the Kings/Canucks exhibition game, the first game for Wayne as a King, also their first game in their new black and silver colours. I got tickets for Phil and his boys, and Kit, Keeley and me–maybe even Jim. After the game we went to Earl’s Restaurant in case the Great One showed up there, and sure enough, he did. Kit and Keeley got his autograph on a napkin, even though Kit, a Canucks fan, was wearing a t-shirt with a pig named Gruntzky on it.

Several years later, I was lucky when talking with John Candy, a new co-owner of the Toronto Argonauts along with Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky, that I had an opportunity to visit for a couple of hours with Walter Gretzky. The main reason that I had so much time with Walter was because Wayne had sent him to Vancouver to represent him when the Argos were showcasing their $27 million dollar man, Rocket Ismail, against the BC Lions. All of the attention was on football, and except for Jim Taylor interviewing him, little attention was paid to Walter. These were the days when Walter and I were still smoking. Anyway, I showed Walter my mnemonic geography poems, and he said they were the most amazing things he’d ever seen. I’ll be doing a chapter on them later in this autobiography, so you can see if Walter was kidding. “Man, you must be bright,” he said. I came back to the hotel later and Walter was down having a smoke again, so I sat with him and we shot the breeze about everything. I gave him my favourite Wayne Gretzky card, an Opeechee ‘Super Action’ from his second year and asked Walter to sign it. “I’m not going to sign it ‘Wayne Gretzky’,” he said. “I don’t want you to,” I responded. “I want you to sign it Walter Gretzky, so that I have a card signed by the guy who made The Great One.” Walter signed it with his own name. I had read ‘GRETZKY An Autobiography’ on the ferry on the way over from Victoria. I told Walter it was a great book, have you read it? “No, I don’t have to. I lived it,” he said.

About two months later, Walter had his brain aneurism. I think it was the following year, that one of my sons gave me his book: ‘WALTER GRETZKY On Family, Hockey, and Healing.’ for Christmas. Walter cited a complaint of short term memory, so I wrote to him to see if he remembered my mnemonics. He couldn’t remember. However, while I was teaching in China, my wife called me from Victoria to say a letter had come from Walter Gretzky. “Should I open it?” she asked. “Absolutely,” I said. She did, and inside was a wonderful five-picture retirement set of Wayne, in 5 different uniforms, in a single frame and signed: “Best of Luck, Ken, Wayne Gretzky.” Also a letter from Walter. The two items (picture and letter) are in a special frame, side by side together, just like those two (father and son) always have been. Wow! I’ve thanked you before, Walter and Wayne. I thank you again.