McLean tells tales of New West's brawling Bruins

To hear Ernie McLean’s story – or ‘Punch’ to his legion of friends and acquaintances – it sounds like a Canadiana tale as told by Jack London.

A builder, a pilot, a prospector, and a darn good hockey man. Or put them all together and you have a legend.

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The Estevan, Sask. native brought big-time hockey back to New Westminster in 1971 and the Royal City’s reputation turned a little rowdy with his team’s bang’em, drop’em attitude.

If he wasn’t leading the forefront of what the Philadelphia Flyers would use to intimidate their way to two Stanley Cups, McLean certainly read the times.

As New Westminster celebrates as host of Rogers Hometown Hockey this weekend, it’s fitting that Punch McLean is given a place of honour. He'll be among the game's elites like Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean and former NHL stars Kirk McLean and Cliff Ronning during the festivities, but on Thursday the legendary New Westminster Bruins coach reminisced about his days behind the bench at Queen’s Park, the teams and players that went to four straight Memorial Cup finals and won twice, and the times.

“I remember the first game we played here, against the Flin Flon Bombers,” McLean said in an interview with the Record. “A year before that Tom Fisher and Bill Hill owned the New Westminster Royals (of the B.C. Junior Hockey League) and were getting maybe 100, 200 people. We had to hold the first game up for half an hour to get everybody in. Pat Ginnell was going wild, ‘We’ve got to start this game.’

“I was trying to tell him, until we get all the people in there’d be no game. When they get all in, then we’ll play. It was the first game we played and the rink was completely packed. The fire marshall was running around, ‘You can’t get no more in! You can’t put no more in!’ I said we’d get everyone we can, and that’s where it started.

“From there on, it was every Sunday night, 7 p.m. at Queen’s Park Arena.”

Prior to that, McLean and partner Scotty Munroe had operated the Bruins in Estevan in both the Saskatchewan and inaugural days of what is now the Western Hockey League, which is celebrating its 50th year. McLean played a large role in founding that league, but that's an entertaining tale for another day. The decision to move the Bruins came in one of those life-changing moments that demonstrated how McLean is as much of a fighter as he is a survivor.

“April 19, 1971 – I was in a plane crash in northern Saskatchewan. I laid in the bush for three days and I figured that if I ever get out of this mess this would be the end of construction (for me). As I was laying in the hospital in Regina I got a call from (Munroe). I said I’m fine, I’m okay. I lost my eye but other than that my bones are all good. So I said to him if you could find a place I’d like to move the hockey club, because I owned it.”

The hunt for a new location eventually took them to the Lower Mainland, despite the fact that the then-called Western Canada Hockey League didn’t have a franchise west of Calgary. McLean first appeared to have a fit at the Pacific Coliseum where the one-year-old Vancouver Canucks called home. Canucks general manager Bud Poile saw the potential, being as Toronto shared its building with the Ontario junior league’s Marlies. But the Vancouver board of executives vetoed that choice.

New West, which had a grand old 3,500-seat rink in the midst of the majestic Queen's Park neighbourhood, had hosted semi-pro teams in the past. McLean, Munroe and Edmonton junior Oil Kings owner Bill Hunter saw the potential – but first had to convince the WCHL board that it was time for western expansion. The three of them brought in Nat Bailey, of White Spot fame, to apply for a team in Vancouver, and Mitch Pechet of Victoria. Then McLean and Munroe took their deal to the WCHL board.

“They were all against expansion,” he recalls. “We said, ‘Well, if you guys in Saskatchewan don’t want to play with us, we’ll have Edmonton, Calgary, New Westminster and the other two teams in our own league.’ That was the turning point.”

Success at Queen’s Park followed with a 40-27-1 record, but McLean saw the writing on the wall a little too early when it came to the style of the Broad Street Bullies, and how they would be ushered out with a more European influence.

“When I look back a couple of things changed my whole way of thinking in New Westminster. The first year we played as a good, tough hockey club but got beat out. The next year I had Vic Mercredi, Wayne Dye -- all fancy hockey players. I said we’ll sell it out, play the Russian style of hockey, no fighting, just checking. I could count the people in the building,” he says.

The team’s record reflected that, as they dropped from first to fourth with a 31-22-11 mark. So McLean returned to what he knew best.

“The next year I brought in Reggie Duncombe, Clayton Pachall, good tough hockey player and bang, the building was filled again.”

Along with the packed crowds and the intimidating style of play, New West became a place where the tales took on a life of their own.

“Don Cannon of the Columbian filled the pages all the time and the stories started coming out. ‘The bus started shaking across the Patullo Bridge,’ stuff like that. They’d get exaggerated more each time. When the kids got into the pros, the stories started getting even more exaggerated. ‘Boy you can’t go into Queen’s Park Arena.’ It was an image that got presented by a lot of things that didn’t really even happen,” he says, while admitting the Bruins never backed down.

His famous garbage can tossing habit? Not completely true, but…

“I was doing a fundraiser (recently) for the Richmond Sockeyes hockey club and a guy said ‘You threw a garbage can on the ice,’” McLean says. “I threw one, just one, but a photographer was there and caught it. It went all across the country. I said how many championships did we win? The guy said ‘I don’t know but you threw a garbage can.’ A legend… Every paper across Canada had it.”

It was just one garbage can, but McLean admits he threw it twice that same night, just to make his point.

Now it’s part of hockey lore.

His fondest memories of New Westminster days involve the people and the players, who reeled off a record four-straight league crowns and four straight Memorial Cup final appearances – winning it in 1977 and 1978. Many would go on to play professionally -- including NHLers like Stan Smyl, Ron Greschner, Brad Maxwell, John-Paul Kelly and John Ogrodnick.

“Our last Memorial Cup we won (in 1978 in Sault Ste. Marie) we had to win four games in a row, three on the road and one at home, just to get in the playoffs.”

Against Peterborough, the Bruins had suffered two round-robin defeats (7-3 and 4-3 in overtime) before meeting them again in the final. Peterborough coach Gary Green was getting help from the then-Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Roger Neilson, a master strategist.

“They were using a centre-ice press on us, and this was in the ‘70s that Roger Neilson figured out. We practiced for two hours having the centreman going right up the middle of the rink through the centre to prepare for the final.

“We were leading 3-0 after the first period and went on to win 7-4. When we shook hands at centre ice Gary Green said ‘If we were in Peterborough you wouldn’t have won.’ I said, ‘If we were in Queen’s Park Arena you wouldn’t have had a shot on goal.’”

Members of the New Westminster Bruins still stay in touch, and McLean, who has lived in Coquitlam ever since leaving Estevan, enjoys recounting the old days with players and fans. While he left the Bruins in 1980 – returning for another season and a bit in the mid-80s – McLean is indelibly the face of New West’s favourite hockey memories.

And while his appearance in the news in 2009, when while prospecting in B.C.’s northern wilderness he fell into a crevasse and became disoriented, wandering for four days without food or nightgear, displayed more evidence of how tough the now-83-year-old B.C. Hockey Hall of Famer is, it wasn’t the end.

“Everything I’ve done in my lifetime I’ve made successful. I’m still trying to make mining a big success and it’s getting closer and closer,” he says, sharing that now his wife Fran joins him to ensure he avoids any more spectacular adventures.

“I run across so many people who say ‘You don’t know me but my dad use to take me to all the games.’ I ask did you enjoy it? And they loved it.”

The tentative schedule has Ron MacLean interviewing McLean Sunday during a portion of ScotiaBank Hotstove event, along with Kirk McLean and Cliff Ronning. Rogers Hometown Hockey begins Saturday at noon, with live music, entertainment and interactive events. ScotiaBank will present cheques of $5,000 each to the minor hockey associations of New Westminster, Coquitlam and Tri-City Female Predators at 1:15 p.m., with free T-shirts to all kids. The festivities start up again on Sunday at 11 a.m. and run until 4:30 p.m., when fans can stay and watch the Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers game in the Broadcast Studio.

For a full schedule of events, visit the Rogers Hometown Hockey – New Westminster Facebook page.

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