Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Legend of Ernie McLean

You can argue until you are blue in the face about whether Pat Ginnell, with the Flin Flon Bombers, or Ernie McLean, with the New Westminster Bruins, put together and coached the toughest teams in WHL history.
Both men believed physical domination was the key to victory. And they put together teams that could do just that. They would beat you up on the ice, in the alley . . . anywhere and everywhere.
But that is the way the game was played. Or, at the very least, the way they believed the game had to be played in those days in order to sell tickets. That was in the days before marketing and public relations.
If you think about it, the likes of Ginnell and McLean may well have been before their time. Because they actually were the UFC, MMA . . . even the WWE . . . before the UFC, MMA and WWE.
McLean, as you may be aware, went missing Sunday. The worst was feared until he was found alive and well on Thursday evening.
All of this brought back a lot of memories. And I was able to go back in my files and uncover a lengthy story I wrote on McLean. I believe it was in 1994.
Let’s call it The Legend of Ernie McLean . . .
He won four consecutive Western Hockey League championships, something no other coach ever did, or ever will do again.
He won back-to-back Memorial Cups, something that has been accomplished only a half-dozen times.
He was a legend during a 16-year WHL coaching career.
And if you don't believe that, just walk into a coffee shop, an arena, a restaurant somewhere, anywhere, in western Canada and mention the name: Ernie McLean. Ernie (Punch) McLean.
"I put together probably some of the toughest hockey clubs that ever played in the Western Hockey League,” McLean says.
Hey, it ain't boastin' if'n you can do the roastin'. And there's no probably about it. When McLean's big, bad burly New Westminster Bruins came ridin' into town, it was time to hide the women and children.
"I remember Scotty (Munro) calling up to Bill Hunter one time,” recalls McLean. "He said, "Bill, we've got to do something. I think we've created a monster out there.”
But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
McLean, a hale and hearty Saskatchewan lad through and through, was born and raised in Estevan. He played in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, with the Humboldt Indians, and that's really where it all began.
Because that's when Lady Luck, Dame Fortune, or whatever you wish to call it brought McLean and Scotty Munro together.
"I started with Scotty back in 1950 in Humboldt,'' McLean remembers. "I played with him for two years. In 1957, he moved to Estevan with us.”
McLean and longime buddy Bill Shinske also had a construction company in Estevan.
"I stayed with Scotty at that time, doing odd jobs to get started in the hockey business,” McLean said.
Then, in 1961, when Munro left for Jacksonville, Fla., and an ill-fated attempt at getting into the pro ranks, McLean was on his own.
"I took over the coaching and stayed with it” is how he puts it.
"I've got a lot of great memories of Scotty,” McLean says, and he's chuckling as the memories come pouring in. “One of the ones that always comes to mind has to do with his eating habits. After a game, he always had to go have bacon and eggs. In later years, it had to be Chinese food. But in his earlier years he always had to have his bacon and eggs.”
It wasn't long before Munro was back on the scene. And it was about here where a few western hockey people decided bigger was better. It was time, they decided, to form a super junior league, even if it meant leaving the comforting umbrella of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.
Little did they know at the time that they were about to begin rewriting hockey history. They would take on the CAHA, the National Hockey League, the World Hockey Association. There would be courtroom challenges. They would be barred from competing for the Memorial Cup. It would be ugly. But in the end . . .
We'll let McLean tell the story. After all, he had a front row seat.
"We were getting very disgusted with the CAHA. We weren't getting any help from them and they were taking a percentage all the time off the gates in the playoffs. At that particular time, we weren't getting what we felt was a fair deal from the National Hockey League.”
It all began, then, at Clear Lake in Manitoba's beautiful Riding Mountain National Park. It was on a clear day in Wasagaming, the small community around which park
life thrives. It was the summer of 1966.
"We call it the Clear Lake massacre,” McLean continues. "At that time, the CAHA was bringing in any team that they thought could come into the (Saskatchewan junior) league. They would apply and we were supposed to look after them. Melville was coming in, Yorkton was coming in.
"So at Clear Lake . . . it was really funny. In those days, you had to pay up your dues or you couldn't vote . . . you never had a vote.
"As it happened, Frank Boucher was the chairman. He called the meeting to order in Clear Lake. We're sitting around the table. They asked for Scotty's cheque. He said, ‘I can't afford to pay.'
“They said, ‘Well, Mr. Munro, you can't vote.'
“They asked Bill Hunter for his cheque and he said, "I haven't got one.'
“They said, "Well you can't vote.'
“It went around the table like that. All of a sudden they said, ‘Well, I guess we have no meeting.' And Frank says, ‘I guess we haven't.'
"At that point in time, the guys got up from the table and walked across to another room in the hotel and formed a new league.”
Thus was born the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League, the league that would eventually evolve into the Western Hockey League.
Munro, McLean and Shinske were there at the beginning, representing Estevan. Hunter had the Edmonton Oil Kings. Jim Piggott had the Saskatoon Blades. Bob Brownridge and Cec Papke represented the Calgary Buffaloes. The Regina Pats, Weyburn Red Wings and Moose Jaw Canucks were there, too.
They operated that first season outside the jurisdiction of the CAHA. But the next season the CMJHL became the Western Canada Junior Hockey League and, as such, it moved back under the CAHA's umbrella. It also grew from seven to 11 teams. In came the Flin Flon Bombers, Winnipeg Jets, Brandon Wheat Kings and Swift Current Broncos.
This was truly a Western Canadian hockey league.
"We called it the Western Canada Junior Hockey League,” McLean says. "We had quite a league.”
The Estevan Bruins, under Munro, Shinske and McLean, won it all that 1967-68 season. That was only fitting because Munro left Estevan after that season.
"We split the hockey club in 1969,” McLean says. "We had gone to the Memorial Cup 1968 and had built up a dynasty in Saskatchewan.”
You've got to understand that there's no false modesty surrounding one Ernie McLean. But a dynasty? Well, the Estevan franchise finished second in each of the league's first four seasons.
Hunter's Edmonton Oil Kings finished first in 1966-67, only to lose out to Brian Shaw's Moose Jaw Canucks in one semifinal. The Canucks won that best-of-nine series three games to two with four tied. Yes, that's right -- 3-2 with four ties. Regina won the other semi-final 4-1-1, sidelining the Bruins.
Pat Ginnell's Flin Flon Bombers finished ahead of Estevan in the second season, but the Bruins won the playoff championship, 4-0-1.
"Bill Shinske and myself kept six players in Estevan,” McLean says, referring to the aftermath of the 1967-68 season. "The other six went with (Munro) to Calgary. That year we won our division and he won his division, that's how strong we were.”
Actually, the Bruins and Calgary Centennials were second in their respective divisions. The WCJHL changed its name for the 1968-69 season, becoming the Western Canada Hockey League. It also split into two divisions -- East and West -- and it left the CAHA again.
No matter.
As McLean says: "If we'd have kept all of the 12 of them we'd have had a great hockey club.”
It was about here where things started to get ugly on the political front.
"As we went along, the CAHA said you won't be drafted, that the kids wouldn't be drafted and wouldn't be playing in the National Hockey League,” McLean said. And he laughs at the nerve of the CAHA. "We just told them to go jump in the ocean.
"Of course, we were outlaws from the CAHA. We preferred to call it independent.”
So it was that WCHL teams, again, weren't allowed to compete for the Memorial Cup. That was partially responsible for some teams -- Regina, Moose Jaw and Weyburn -- leaving the WCHL. Regina would return two seasons later, for the 1970-71 season. But Moose Jaw hockey fans would have to wait until the summer of 1984 to get back into the league. And Weyburn, well, it never did return.
The Bruins played what would be their last season in Estevan in 1970-71. They finished atop the East Division but couldn't get past Winnipeg in a first-round series.
That spring, on the night of Sunday, April 18, McLean went missing.
"Ernest V. (Punch) McLean, 36, Estevan businessman and coach of the Estevan Bruins junior hockey team, was reported missing in a light plane on a 200-mile flight from The Pas in northern Manitoba to Yorkton."
That's how the story began in the Regina Leader-Post.
According to the story, McLean was the pilot and lone occupant of the plane.
The next day, The Leader-Post reported that McLean was in satisfactory condition in a Regina hospital. He was treated for a broken jaw and lacerations, and he ultimately lost his left eye.
The plane had crashed into a clump of trees near Kamsack, Sask. McLean was found on a rural road near the community.
"After my plane crash, we moved out to the coast to New Westminster,” McLean says.
Eventually, this move became responsible for a great deal of bitterness that built up between Munro and his former protege.
"Because we were so successful in New Westminster, Scotty and I became bitter enemies for a while,” McLean said. "On top of it, my son (Brian) and Bill's son (Rick) were both playing for Scotty.
"He became very, very bitter at us because . . . I quickly saw when we got to the coast that in order to win you had to have a big, tough, aggressive hockey club.”
Which, of course, is just what McLean did. Thus was born the legend of the big, bad, burly, brawling Bruins.
Which led to Munro and Hunter bemoaning the fact they had "created a monster.”
"They called me,” McLean recalls. "I said, ‘What the hell are you guys talking about?’
“I remember it clearly. I said to Bill Hunter, ‘What about (Doug) Kerslake?' He was one of the worst hatchet men that you'd ever want to bring into the league. I said at least my guys weren't hatchet men.”
McLean points out that the Centennials weren't about to ice a rough, tough team because Brownridge, the owner, had been "a finesse-type player so he didn't want aggressive teams.”
McLean remembers going into Calgary one time. Well, let's let him tell it . . .
"They weren't drawing very well. Cec Papke was coaching. We used to come up from Estevan and play a couple of games. We'd play Calgary, go up to Edmonton and then come back and play Calgary.
"I was mad at my guys because Cec hadn't won a hockey game yet and he was beating us. I had a pretty good hockey club so I was giving the guys hell.
"In those days, in the Corral, they had a bell (in the dressing room to call teams to the ice once the intermission was over). The bell started ringing and ringing. I took a hockey stick and banged it right off the wall.
"The next thing you know, there's a knock on the door. It's (supervisor of officials) Joe Cassidy. He says, ‘Come on Ernie, get on the ice, you've got 15 minutes.'
“I said, ‘Joe . . . or what?'
“He says, ‘Come on, Ernie, get out here.' I says, ‘OK.'
"Next thing I know, (then WCHL boss) Ron Butlin's at the door. He says, ‘You've got 15 minutes to get on the ice or you'll be suspended.'
“I said, ‘We haven't even been told to come out yet.' I gave him the gears. When we got on the ice, they tapped me with two minutes for delaying the game.
"So I had all the guys stand still, they never moved. (Gregg) Sheppard stayed at centre ice, (Greg) Polis on one side, (Brent) Taylor on the other. They had (Rusty) Patenaude, (Bob) Liddington . . . my guys are all standing there. Patenaude skates down the wing, looks around, nobody's chasing him, he just casually throws the puck at the net. Liddington came in and scored.
“I said, ‘Well, now we can start the game.' My guys are still standing on the spot.
"Holy geez. After the game, Brownridge comes down and he's just jumping. Of course, they hadn't been doing too well in Calgary. Henry Viney was writing at the time. Ken Newans was there.
"Geez, Brownridge came down and he went up and down me. He said, ‘I haven't seen anything like that since sticks were cut out of hickory.'
"I said, ‘I'll tell you what I'll do Bobby. You give me two-bits for everyone who shows up next Saturday and I'll give you two-bits for everyone who doesn't.'
"Well there was so much ink in the paper that week that on the Saturday night they had a sellout. For the first time in junior hockey in Calgary they had a complete sellout. Everybody wanted to see what the hell was going on.
"That was the start of the dynasty in Calgary.”
McLean iced some great teams in New Westminster, where they played in the 4,900-seat Queen's Park Arena.
And beginning with the 1974-75 season, the Bruins rang up four straight league titles. They topped that off by winning the Memorial Cup in 1976-77 and 1977-78.
Of those four seasons, McLean says, "They were tough . . . they were tough.”
"Our best hockey club,” he says, "was in 1974-75 but we didn't win it.”
The Memorial Cup tournament was played in Kitchener that year. The Bruins won their first two games of the round-robin, beating Sherbrooke and the Toronto Marlboros to qualify for the final.
"After we won the two games we were in the final, so we sat Thursday, Friday and Saturday and played Sunday morning at 11 o'clock,” McLean recalls. "We were leading but our goaltender, Gord Laxton, who had played great for us all the way through was having a bad game.”
McLean had added Ed Staniowski from the Regina Pats for the tournament. But McLean felt Laxton was the reason the Bruins were there in the first place, so he chose to dance with the one who had brought him.
Toronto went home with the Memorial Cup.
"I could probably have won another Memorial Cup if I had been selfish and said to heck with Laxton and put Staniowski in,” McLean says. "After the game, everybody said, why didn't you? I explained to them why. It was a tough decision to make in about 10 seconds.”
The Bruins would win four league titles in a row, something McLean says "you'll never see again.”
"The way the system is now it'll never allow a team to have that many good players.”
The highlights that spring immediately to mind, though, involve the 1977-78 team, one that would barely sneak into the playoffs and then go on to win it all.
Late in the season, on March 8, the Bruins were in Billings to play the Bighorns.
"We were leading 2-1 with a minute and a half left in the game and goldarn if they didn't tie the game,” McLean says, pointing out that a tie wasn't much good to the Bruins and that there was no regular-season overtime in those days. "So I pulled the goaltender with the faceoff at centre ice. I had Dougie Derkson at centre ice. I put two guys on the left side; one of them was John Paul Kelly with that great acceleration.
"I had him come back like a halfback and Derkson pumped the puck through. The defenceman moved wide on the far guy. Kelly went in to about 25 feet and let a blister go and beat Andy Moog. 3-2 for us. We tried playing kitty bar the door and lo and behold they come into our zone and (Richard) Martens had to make a save. A guy was home-free 10 feet in front of the net with 15 seconds left to go in the game.
"We won the game 3-2.”
It was while in New Westminster, of course, that McLean built up what became one of the ugliest rivalries, if it can be called that, in all of western Canadian sports history.
It involved the Portland Winter Hawks and the Bruins. It involved Brian Shaw, who had over the years gone from Moose Jaw to Edmonton to Portland, and his coach, Ken Hodge. And it involved McLean.
There were incidents that can be looked back on now and seen to be somewhat humorous.
Like the night the Bruins were playing in Portland, and the score was tied 1-1 when defenceman Blake Wesley of the Winter Hawks was tagged with a minor penalty.
"They're still after me for this one,” McLean says. "The player boxes are side-by-side with a little piece of glass between them. I forget who was refereeing the game but he gave Wesley a penalty.
"As they were skating over to the far side (to the penalty box), I grabbed their water bottle and I threw it at the referee. Of course, the Portland Winter Hawks name was all over the bottle. So he tagged them two more minutes for delaying the game. That put them down five against three. We scored and won the game 2-1.”
Most of the incidents, though, weren't the least bit funny.
There was the one-sided brawl in Queen's Park on Thursday, March 22, 1979. The Bruins dumped their bench; the Winter Hawks didn't. It was not a pretty sight.
There were suspensions. Charges were pressed.
"That was in an era when things were starting to turn around,” McLean says. "People were tired of all the fighting.”
When it got into court, McLean says, "We made a mistake by grouping them all together. I said to Bill, ‘Don't plead guilty.' We had seven kids (in court). Some of them didn't do anything, but they still ended up sitting out for two months.”
Then there was the night in Portland the next season when, believe it or not, Shaw had to bail McLean out of the slammer.
"Yeah,” McLean says, "Hodge put me in and Shaw got me out. Hodge and I didn't see eye-to-eye. For whatever reason, he hated me with a passion, and likely still does.
"We had lost the game and one of his kids got cut. He was waiting for me, and said something about me not being able to play the game without someone getting cut.
"Then I saw a shadow on my blind side. It was a girl (Jackie Jones, 19) and she put a stick in my face. I gave her a push and Hodge said, ‘Now you've done it.’
"In come the police. They asked what happened. I told them. They told me to turn around. I turned around and they put the handcuffs on me, took me down to the police station and threw me in the drunk tank.
"I'd never been in jail in my life; I'd never had handcuffs on. It was pretty devastating to me as far as my personal self was concerned.”
McLean didn't have a cent in his pocket. He'd given his money to trainer Larry Dean in order to feed the players.
"They fingerprinted me and took mugshots, the whole thing,” McLean says.
Eventually, Shaw showed up and bailed him out, to the tune of $525.
The original charge of fourth-degree assault was later reduced to harassment. It ended on Feb. 22 in a Portland courtroom when what was termed a "civil compromise” was signed.
"When everyone got settled down and everything,” McLean says, "they had the girl drop the charges. But by that time the damage was done.”
And the end was in sight for McLean and his Bruins. The team went 10-61-1 in 1979-80, and McLean missed the playoffs for the first time in his coaching career.
"I've made up my mind. I've worn out my welcome,” McLean said as he and Shinske announced the club was for sale. "I will not be in New Westminster next year. We built a dynasty here but it's now time to move on.
"There comes a time in life when you have to say what more can you do. I'm at the crossroads now. I'm hitting the road. I've proven what I can do.”
In April, the franchise was sold to Vancouver businessman Nelson Skalbania. The price? More than $300,000.
But McLean didn't leave. Not yet.
"I stayed on and I worked for him for two months,” says McLean, who acted as the club's general manager, while Muzz MacPherson, a son of Winnipeg broadcaster Stew MacPherson, coached. "But there was no possible way that I could see that it was going to work out. Muzz stayed and I left and Tracy Pratt came in to my spot.”
As it turned out, that was the franchise's last season in New Westminster. The Edmonton Oilers, of owner Peter Pocklington, bought it and moved it to Kamloops.
New Westminster was back in the league for the 1983-84 season, as Vancouver businessman Ron Dixon bought the Nanaimo Islanders franchise and moved it to Queen's Park.
And guess who showed up a couple of years later?
"I got back into it with Dixon,” McLean says.
Incredibly, McLean returned to the front office while Ginnell was coaching the Bruins.
"I think Dixon had about four coaches that year,” McLean says. "With Patty, the guy kept coming on about doing his job. He kept talking to me about taking over and doing the whole thing.
"Finally, he was going to let Patty go anyway so I said, ‘OK, I'll take it over.'
"Dixon said, ‘This is my main man, he's going to run it for me.' Well, that lasted about two weeks.''
The relationship didn't last much longer.
"I could see there was no way that was going to work out so I told him he better find somebody for (1987-88),” McLean remembers. “So they brought in John Van Horlick and he lasted a year.
"(Al) Patterson worked for (Dixon). Bill Shinske, Harvey Roy. A lot of us that were in the hockey business worked for him. But Dixie wouldn't let us handle things.
"I said in Equity magazine that Dixon is a helluva guy as long as you don't work for him.”
Ernie McLean hasn't coached since. Nor has he been officially associated with a hockey team at any level.
Every April he leaves his Vancouver home and heads north, way up north, almost to the Yukon-B.C. border.
"I've got the placer mine in Atlin,” he explains. "We leave here in April and come back towards the end of October.”
You'll note that he returns to Vancouver just as the hockey season is beginning to heat up.
"I go to all the Canuck games,” he says. "I still get all my privileges from the Canucks. They've looked after me pretty well.”
But McLean, despite his winning record as a WHL coach (548-429-90, .556), never got a chance to coach in the NHL.
"At the time, when I probably should have been doing that I owned my own hockey club,” McLean responds.
He also feels that he was blackballed by the NHL, this after the Bruins were one of the junior teams that sued the NHL looking for compensation for drafted players.
"I sued every owner of the National Hockey League for compensation,” McLean says. "I don't think the NHL ever forgot.”
They'll tell you that, as a coach, McLean never backed down, that his teams took on all comers. Well, that's not exactly true.
There was a day in 1975 -- March 24, 1975, to be precise -- when McLean went out of his way to avoid a problem.
What's that. You don't believe it.
Well, it's true.
It was in New Westminster, too. In Queen's Park, of all places, where McLean backed off. That's right. He refused to allow his big, bad, burly Bruins to get physically involved with another team.
It was late in the third period. The Bruins, who would go on to win their first of four consecutive WHL championships, were whuppin' Regina, 5-2. It was then that Regina coach Bob Turner chose, as coaches back then were wont to do, to send out his tough guy. That tough guy just happened to be Bob Poley, who would go on to greater fame as an offensive lineman in the Canadian Football League.
And how did McLean respond to Poley's presence?
Well, McLean chose to take his tough guy, Harold Phillipoff, off the ice.
And that's how it went through game's end. McLean, with the benefit of last change, made sure that Phillipoff and Poley never did meet.
It's doubtful if that had happened before. You know that it didn't happen again.
And you know that if McLean were to come across a big, burly bruin in northern B.C., well, he wouldn't back down then either.


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