In 1978 The Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA were scheduled to play
their first preseason game against the Indianapolis Racers. Yet
another, yawn, preseason game except for the fact that similar to
people who remember where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when
President Kennedy was assassinated and when the planes hit the twin
towers on 9/11, this game had a special moment that reverberated not
only through Hockey but in my life as well.
Pat “Whitey” Stapleton, a former teammate, was both Coach and
General Manager of the Racers. That summer, Whitey had called me about
signing to play for him and the Racers. It seemed that Indy was about
to sign some new WHIZ KID who would turn there Hockey World and the
World Hockey Association into a huge success. There was a number of
signings of 18 year old players that summer in the WHA especially in
Birmingham by John Bassett, owner of the Bulls. Players like Rick
Vaive, Mike Gartner and Mark Messier certainly became household words
as their careers both in the WHA and the NHL blossomed. It was,
however, a skinny kid in Indy who eventually turned the entire world
into a Hockey watching, Hockey playing, Hockey excited tide that
continues to this today.
“Hey, Stew Cat, come on over here, I want you to meet someone”…that
was Whitey talking as he brought me into the neutral area under the
stands near the Zamboni.
“I want you to meet Wayne Gretzky, the guy that someday will be one of the best that ever played!”
“Hello MISTER Stewart”, said this young, skinny looking kid standing in front of me.
“Do me a favor, call me Stewy….I am told I might be calling you MISTER pretty soon….”
“Whitey tells me that tonight is your first game in the Pro’s…Good
Luck with your career….but do me a favor…play the game and don’t be a
stick man…I don’t like guys who use their sticks and then run and
hide….Play clean and hard you won’t have any problems with me….”
He could have been in pictures - with Paul Newman no less.
In 1976, professional hockey player Jack Carlson received a call from his older brother Jeff informing him that they, along with their younger brother Steve, had been offered a supporting role in Slap Shot, a hockey movie starring Paul Newman.
It wasn't that the brothers were particularly great hockey players or actors. They were unique, however. Besides the fact they played on the same line together and wore long hair and heavy-framed sports glasses - while playing - the brothers were known for scoring punches, not goals. Forget about not hitting a guy wearing glasses - these guys were tough.
"Jeff was the toughest,"
Jack modestly declares.
Seemingly too unique to be true, the Carlson brothers had Hollywood written all over them. But Jack, the most successful hockey player of the three, wanted to know the facts. Like how long would they be needed? How much would they be paid?
His brother Jeff would find out. In the meantime, while Jeff was checking things out, Jack got a call from the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association (WHA). Jack's team, the Minnesota Fighting Saints had suddenly folded late in the 1976-77 season. He was one of about a 10 players picked up by other teams in the league. Jack decided to join the Oilers and forego a shot in movies.
Dave Hanson replaced Jack and the trio were dubbed the Hanson brothers in the 1977 movie.
Saturday Night magazine described the three as "lovable goons."
Jack ended up finishing the season with the Oilers but was dealt to the New England Whalers during the off-season. There, he got a chance to play with Steve again, as well as with Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty.
During the 1978-79 season Jack moved to the NHL's Minnesota North Stars - a dream come true for the Minnesota native - and in 1980-81 got a chance to play against the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup final.
Standing 6'3" and weighing 215 lb., Jack was among the biggest and toughest players in the NHL at the time, fighting all the opposing heavyweights.
"When the Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup in the mid '70s everyone was trying to pattern their team after them. You know, we'll win the Stanley Cup through intimidation."
"That's the era that I came in. For me it was survival of the fittest. Either you're gonna hit or be hit - and believe me I got hit a few times," says Jack.
In 1981, while playing for the St. Louis Blues against the Boston Bruins, Jack helped amass the most penalty minutes ever recorded in a game by two teams.
Though he says he "enjoyed" his tough-guy role, he adds, "Looking back it was a pretty lonely life. The score was 6 to 1, you're losing, and all of sudden the coach taps you on the back ...
"I wish I wasn't that type of a player. I had some talent. I had some skills. But I wasn't gonna be on a team scoring goals or setting up plays. I knew what my role was and so did everyone else," Jack explains.
"I kind of compared it to being the fastest gun in the west. All the young guys want to establish their reputations. You had to fight everybody. It's just a given."
Jack hung up the skates for good in 1987. However, he continued what he describes as his "destructive lifestyle" - drinking and womanizing. "It was a lifestyle that I was knee deep in," Jack admits.
In 1993 his wife told him she had had enough.
"We had a nine month old daughter and she said, 'Jack, you gotta go. We can't live this way.' I was 38 years old, had a good job and lots of friends, but I didn't know where to turn," recalls Jack.
He remembers the night that started him off in a new direction. "I was staying at a friend's place and looking for something to watch on TV and here I click on the Billy Graham Crusade." He spotted old friend and teammate Bill Butters speaking about how Christ had changed his life.
Butters, also from Minnesota, was Jack's roommate with the Fighting Saints and Whalers and played with him on the North Stars. The rugged defenceman was also one of Jack's drinking buddies. "We became best friends," says Jack.
Jack had already known of Butters' decision to accept Christ as his Saviour.
"Billy and I used to be inseparable. When he became a Christian I figured no more dirty jokes and drinking and things like that. I didn't even want to with be him.
"But, I tell you what, when I hit rock bottom he was the first guy that I called because I saw him on TV." Jack called the number at the bottom of the screen and talked to Butters the next day. "I said, 'Bill I need your help.' He said, 'Jack come in tomorrow.' "
Butters explained God's plan of forgiveness and salvation with him.
"Billy gives the example of a goaltender getting a penalty. Everybody that knows hockey knows that the goalie is not going to go to the penalty box. They've got to substitute another player for him. That's exactly what God has done for us. He sacrificed His Son for our sins and so whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.
"As we talked together he led me to entrust my life to Jesus Christ."
Though Jack says he no longer drinks, has "never been happier," and calls himself a "new creation in Christ," he still considers himself a work in progress.
"I still make mistakes and I fall down, but I don't stay down very long. I know now that God is with me. I know if I get down on my knees and ask for help He'll change me; He'll change my heart."
Jack meets regularly with Butters, former WHA coach Glen Sonmor, and former NHL goalie Rob Stauffer, among others, to study the Bible. He also helps Butters run hockey camps for Hockey Ministries International in Minneapolis.
"I see nine, 10, 11-year-old little boys carrying a Bible around and telling others what they're thankful for. It just brings tears to my eyes. I get sad because I wish I would have been brought up in that kind of environment."
Besides making numerous public appearances as the Hanson brothers, Jack's brothers also costarred in the sequel Slap Shot II, recently released on DVD.
Although Jack has missed out on a few healthy paycheques as a result of his decision 25 years ago, as a Christian, he's content.
"It's Jesus Christ, not money, houses or cars, that makes a person happy and pure. I'm just very fortunate."
Before NHL scouts could follow Wayne Gretzky’s second season of Ontario Junior hockey, Nelson Skalbania—the new owner of the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association—intervened. As a former partner in the Edmonton Oilers, Skalbania had made a name for himself as a wheeler and dealer in the sports world; a man who would trade sports teams as if they were stocks. In the Racers, Skalbania thought he had found a team that could quickly mushroom in value if it could employ a star. Skalbania signed Gretzky and a shockwave went through the world of pro hockey. NHL teams believed that Skalbania acted immorally by signing a 17-year-old, flying in the face of established rules. WHA supporters noted the league had already broken the NHL’s repressive reserve clause and upped wages for players. The signing of Gretzky would only serve to correct more of the NHL’s wrongs. Gretzky skated in just eight games for the Racers.
The people of Indianapolis did not take to the young star the way Skalbania had expected, and the team teetered on the brink of bankruptcy less than a month into the 1978-79 WHA season. Skalbania looked to his old partner, Peter Pocklington, to help him. The two agreed to a deal that would reshape Edmonton hockey forever. Pocklington paid the Racers $850,000, providing the cash-strapped Nelson Skalbania with the much-needed funds to keep his Racers alive. In return, Pocklington assumed Gretzky’s contract along with forward Peter Driscoll and goaltender Eddie Mio.
When Wayne Gretzky made his first appearance as an Edmonton Oiler on November 3, 1978, he wore sweater number 20. After acquiring the teenage sensation from the Racers, the Oilers’ outfitters did not have the time to prepare a jersey with the number 99 on the back.
A namebar was applied to a #20 jersey that was in the equipment room, and the Oilers promised that a #99 sweater would be ready in time for Gretzky’s second game. Gretzky was not hampered by the number change, as he scored in a 4-3 Oilers win over the Winnipeg Jets. Gretzky would go on to have a sensational rookie season in the WHA. He played 72 games as an Oiler, scoring 43 times and adding 61 assists, and was the key reason the team finally made it to the Avco World Championship Trophy series that year. During that season, the city of Edmonton fell in love with the Great One, and Skalbania’s vision of a star player attracting crowds was realized in a different city with a different owner. Pocklington gave Gretzky a new $1-million per season 21-year contract on January 26, 1979, Gretzky’s 18th birthday, and the deal was signed at the centre ice of Northlands Coliseum.
While Gretzky and the Oilers failed in their bid to win the last-ever Avco trophy before the World Hockey Association folded, the Oilers were prepared for their 1979 debut in the National Hockey League.
Due to the millions spent on securing his rights, Gretzky’s nickname was "Brinks". Despite the moniker, Gretzky proved the investment was the right decision, as he led the league with 10 playoff goals that final season of the WHA