It’s been a long time since we started CHE back in 1987. Just around that time I honestly wasn’t sure if I was headed back to the AHL in Binghamton, NY as Tommy Mitchell, still an owner there, had offered me a job in the front office. I wasn’t sure and then the working visa became an issue. I remember it was a blur but then suddenly I was admitted into the hospital June 1st, 1987 and had a tumor carved out of my prada gland in the side of my head. Some people say I had part of my brain removed (ha) but I remember that’s when I started to think fearlessly and I wanted to hit a home run in my life. I actually loved my career as an AHL player and actually set a record for most consecutive games played as a current player. I think it was around 530 but I’m not sure and I averaged 22 goals per year with highest at 28. But I wanted to feel like a major leaguer. I wanted to feel like I was an NHL ‘ER and it occurred to owning my own hockey business might just do this!! It was time to fish or cut bait. August 1st, 1987 CANADIAN HOCKEY ENTERPRISES WAS BORN. I remember when I had to borrow $75,000 and re mortgage the house to start the dream. My sister Kathleen loaned us her Austin mini for CHE Toronto marketing trips and sister Maureen gave us an old IBM computer, which looked like a main frame! We were ready to drop the puck. I think! After 29 years it’s been a great ride and many amazing people have had a piece of our history. Starting with of course my dad, lawyer Gregg Gates and long time friend and former Pittsburgh Penguin Al McDonough, close friend Doug Gibson who was a star Junior, Boston Bruin and current Habs scout were all instrumental to our launch but the stories along the way and the hockey characters have become priceless. Without stories in hockey you have nothing!! Ha!
Our first ever program was the 1987 Christmas Camp. It featured legendary and the great innovator coach Roger Neilson, who showed up for 1-day with his dog and no skates. I thought that was a little odd but when he told the story about his dog and how it helped illustrate a fore-checking system, the story became iconic! Roger on his fore-checking theory – ” for months I watched my Peterborough Pete forwards on the fore-check chase defencemen needlessly around the net NEVER coming close to checking or creating a turnover. It was then I took my dog on the ice who stood in front of the net. I then positioned myself behind the net with a milk bone. I would move slightly to one side but my dog wouldn’t commit. Then I moved slightly to other side behind the net but my dog wouldn’t commit to chasing me. He knew intuitively I would come around in front of net and he would be left only chasing me. It was only when I exposed myself openly that my dog committed to chase me for the bone. My theory was if my dog can judge when to chase or when not to chase them my hockey players should be able to use common sense.” Roger was famous for his tactics!
Or when I hired Gordie Howe to be our head instructor in a Las Vegas January adult hockey camp.. A sure hit-one would think! We ended up with 2 people signing up and I had to cancel but Gordie’s late wife Colleen demanded I pay Gordie anyway and she cashed the check! I was mad but she was right-Gordie was a legend- A valuable lesson I learned from a classy yet shrewd business person. Speaking of Gordie wasn’t that great seeing him at a recent Red Wing game celebrating his 88th birthday. A miracle really. I have had the good fortune of following the Howes around. It started in the 1972-73 season when I was chosen in the draft to play with the Toronto Marlboros Jr A team where sons Mark and Marty were playing. Although I played infrequently with that star studded Memorial Cup winning team I did manage to play 20 or so games including the playoff run. What an experience. Mark, now a Hall of Famer, especially was a phenom in his own right and I remember him smashing the glass behind the net in Sault St Marie one cold night with one of his patented wrist snap shots. Marty too was no slouch and I soon became very good friends with Marty mainly because we both loved to fish and I think I appreciated his down to earth demeanor and his ability to grow as a player in the shadow of both Gordie and Mark. We saw and talked to Gordie a lot after games as he had retired from the Wings and I began to figure out where the humble attitudes of Mark and Marty came from. It became clear to me at a young age that this quality was deeply embedded in most gifted people. Then as fate would have it in 1975 I was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Houston Aeros of the WHA and decided to join the Aeros. Gordie had been coaxed out of retirement to play with the boys in Houston, a shrewd move orchestrated by wife/agent Colleen. After all when does someone get a chance to play with Gordie, Mark and Marty- how lucky was I! Years later in 1989 another former legend and Red Wing trainer/back up goalie helped me staff a CHE fantasy camp beginning with Gordie Howe and bolstered by Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Dennis Hull, Gilles Gilbert, Yvan Cournoyer and even Scotty Bowman behind the bench. 50 paid recreational hockey players joined us in Montreal for what proved to be the “who’s who” of hockey! Even today I don’t know how I pulled that one off but it really put CHE on the map. I joke with people that Montreal fantasy camp never made any money- $65,000 in and $65,000 out but the good – will was enormous. No amount of money could replace the 2 years we operated that fantasy camp.
Speaking of the late Lefty Wilson, the “old left hander” was a story a minute. He really was my best friend and made CHE tournaments more special just because of him. After 34 years with the Red Wings his stories were JUST LIKE BREATHING to most people-Just a natural thing to do! He would tell stories at our tournaments about how he and his wife would baby sit the big guy – Gordie Howe- when he was a rookie in Omaha Nebraska the farm team of the Red Wings. Gordie was 18 years old and Lefty and Lil would take him out for a hamburg and milkshake after games while all the other players were headed to the pub! Lefty said Gordie never stopped talking and all he wanted was a red leather Red Wing jacket-a big signing bonus for a kid from Saskatchewan! My how times have changed….
Another time I was walking on the beach in Florida at one of early tournaments and happened to pass by Mike Keenan… I was Mike’s captain with the Rochester Americans AHL team in 1979-80. While on the beach I asked Mike what he was doing there and he told me after his early playoff exit he was burnt out but when I asked him to help us at our Montreal tournament the next weekend he said yes- and he wouldn’t take any money… What a classy guy!
Back to Gilles Gilbert.. Gilles has worked for CHE for over 25 years. I kid him now that he is our new Lefty Wilson and he gets a little cranky! But Gilly is a legend- he still holds an NHL record for most consecutive wins as a goalie-17! At our tournaments, especially Montreal, Quebec City and Lake Placid Gilly can be found holding court somewhere detailing stories from especially the Don Cherry era in Boston. They are doozies!! For years at CHE both Gilles and Red Wing Goalie coach Jim Bedard have also operated top notch goalie camps which Jim still does in Kelowna and Peterborough.
Speaking of Jim Bedard, this past week I drove to Montreal to see Red Wings at Habs in action. Of course Jimmy B set me up with tickets and passes after the game to chat with him, Glen Merkosky, Red Wing scout and CHE’er and long time friend Ken Holland the GM of the Red Wings. Kenny ( I still call him Pungy) Merk and I played pro together in Binghamton for 5 years and to watch Ken’s success now as an NHL executive is astounding! I’m so proud of him. Kenny is another example of a truly humble guy who never talks about his accomplishments. Can you imagine he has 4 Stanley Cups as GM with the Wings, 2 Olympic Golds as a co manager for Team Canada, a World Championship as GM and people can barely remember his name in Canada. To see a former AHL’er be so successful in such a prestigious NHL role makes me happy. Most NHL teams are swallowed up by egos of former NHL’ers who just can’t get over themselves and forgot how to work! Kenny works and his team of scouts work! The Illitch family works.. There’s no hand outs in that organization. Look at Jimmy Devellano and Jimmy Nill! Hard hard dedicated hockey men not to mention first class and humble. People always ask me how the Wings scouted so well.. Luck of course plays into it but after a while of hanging around scouting rooms and listening to ex NHL guys talk about themselves and whisper they didn’t want to drive the next night to a game because of bad weather, it soon resonated clearly in my mind why the Wings drafted so well. Wing scouts are always at the games!!! In a way there’s a blue collar mentality there..In the early years of CHE Kenny helped me by giving me scouting jobs. I needed the money and I saw zero downside other than I had a day job and a night job. It was a little hard on my family but I did my best. It started as a full time role in 1989-90 with the Rangers and later part time with the Wings between 1991-98. I was lucky to be part of 2 Cups in 1997 and 98 and it was sweet to see Darren McCarty notch the winner in game 4 against Philly in 1997 to win the long awaited Cup! He was my guy!!!I think it was a 42 year drought and the Illitch family deserved it. The Red Wings are class through and through and it starts with Mr. And Mrs. Illitch! How lucky am I..After rambling on and on in this blog I realize that I have countless stories associated with CHE and its past… I know I’ve enjoyed headed down Presidents Lane!! Until next time..
President – Canadian Hockey Enterprises