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The Inspiring Life and Times of a Beloved Blackhawk
By Doug Feldmann
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Doug Feldmann
All rights reserved.
From Wadena to Saskatoon
"A person's toughness must come from somewhere, and in my case I believe it came from where I was born. Gothic , I learned in school, was something stark and unadorned, medieval, perhaps even primitive. My rural beginnings were somewhat like this."
— Keith Magnuson, 1973
The driving distance from Chicago, Illinois, to Wadena, Saskatchewan, is exactly 2,000 kilometers, or 1,243 miles, to the northwest. The path cuts across some of the most unforgiving landscapes in North America — a vast, endless expanse of prairie and plains, with each gaze at the horizon more barren than the last. Endlessly in front of the traveler is a true northern frontier, through which fewer and fewer will pass in going further north.
For generations, many of the greatest players in the sport of ice hockey have been carved out of this frontier, individuals crafted in a region where the frigid arctic air is whipped up in thick, hearty slices that oppress creatures in its way. With temperatures plummeting lower than 30 degrees below zero for weeks at a time, young hockey players in western Canada nonetheless are happy to scratch their skates across the countless frozen ponds and lakes, battling against the cold — and each other. These are not the climate-controlled, suburban indoor rinks that hide players and their parents from the wind. They are raw places of war, where a deep commitment to the game is a prime requisite for survival. Ill-fitting skates, passed down from one brother to another, serve as little defense against frost-bitten toes in these parts, toes which need to be thawed near a fire as darkness falls at the end of a day's play. And with no "pro shop" nearby for proper equipment, curled-up magazines serve as shin guards and hunting trousers make do as hockey pants.
This has been the Canadian rite of passage for many decades. But still today, as they always have, the ponds and lakes around Wadena — like those in Parry Sound and Point Anne over in Ontario, and so many other Canadian villages like them — remain the frosted proving grounds for hockey's future legends, similar to the sun-baked rural and urban sandlots in the United States that have traditionally produced baseball's next superstars.
A small hamlet of about 500 people halfway between Edmonton and Winnipeg, Wadena is perhaps as honorably nondescript as any such place that one could examine. It was here where a red-haired boy named Keith Arlen Magnuson was born on April 27, 1947, the youngest of four children to Joe and Birdie Magnuson.
Joe ran a hardware store in town, a large asphalt building which stood distinctly on the one major street in the community. That one major street was part of the scenery that made Wadena resemble something out of the Old West, a place where one could walk down to that street's end and stare off into an eternity of open land, making one wonder what lay beyond. Fittingly known as "Big Swede" around Wadena (as he was a full-blooded Swede; Birdie was half Swedish and half Norwegian), the multiskilled Joe would compile a long list of occupations that including being a penitentiary guard in Alberta as well as a deacon at the local Baptist church. He was a strong man with "fists that resembled a bunch of bananas," according to one who knew him.
As younger men, Joe and his brother Mac would stroll to a local gathering place, where they were known to challenge other men to arm-wrestling matches at any time; if an impromptu tournament was suddenly arranged, the two Magnusons usually wound up in the final round against one another after defeating everyone else.
Keith mentioned about his childhood in watching the scene from a safe distance down the street, "On Saturday nights there, I remember, they would go to a hotel lobby and set up a ring to see who was the strongest guy. They wouldn't drink. None of that; they were too religious. It was just good, clean fun."
The practice of religion was paramount in the Magnuson household. Smoking, drinking, or hanging out at the local pool hall were not acceptable activities for Keith and his siblings, but regular attendance at Sunday services certainly was. And in addition to churchgoing, the Sabbath was expected to be a day of rest on which no activity whatsoever was permitted. This even included hockey — a true sacrifice on one out of every seven days for a boy like Keith.
"I loved morning Sunday school," he admitted, "but I fell asleep in church. To stay awake, I'd write down on the church calendar the hockey routine that I'd practice on Monday. On Sunday nights, I wanted to play hockey instead of going to church, so I'd have to sneak out."
Once Sunday obligations were over and the work week returned, hockey was a prime focus at the Magnuson home. There were only six teams in the National Hockey League at that time, and Joe's favorite of those was the Chicago Black Hawks. His favorite player on the Hawks was Reggie "the Ruffian" Fleming, a player in the true Canadian tradition who deftly combined athletic skill with a resilient toughness and a willingness to fight all comers. As in most homes fortunate enough to have televisions, all other attention stopped at the Magnuson house when the Hawks were televised nationally on Hockey Night in Canada, the fanatical equivalent to the show launched in the United States in 1970 known as Monday Night Football.
Despite the outward displays of bravado with pond hockey and arm-wrestling matches, the family also valued the finer things in life. This included a great enjoyment of music, with household songs popping up just as often as challenges of physical prowess. And while Keith admitted an inability to carry a tune, he would do his best as a youngster to bellow along with his mother, father, and brother Dale, while his brother Wayne piped out notes on the trumpet and his sister, Meridel, joined in on the piano.
Their house was a two-story structure near the center of Wadena, across the street from the church — making any excuses for not attending those Sunday services hard to come by. A variety of flowers surrounded the lot, and a large elm tree stood in the front yard and supported an old tire swing. With no indoor plumbing in the house, it soon became young Keith's distasteful job to carry a bucket to the cesspool at the back edge of the family's property "where the rats hung out," as he remembered. "I hated facing those huge, well-fed, evil-looking animals that were always there."
This inconvenience was suggestive of the practicality and resourcefulness of the Magnusons and most people in the area, who did what was necessary to advance their well-being. Wayne was an excellent trapper and hunter, and helped provide meat in the wintertime when he would score a deer or two, or perhaps some mallards in the summer. He also liked to pick crows off the power lines and had a keen shooting eye. Once while riding in the back seat of the family car, Wayne spied a blackbird perched above the highway. Not wanting to first alert Joe or Birdie, he reached for his pump-action shotgun in the hope they would stop the car for a shot, but he mishandled the rifle. The safety off, the gun discharged and blew out the back window. Despite the surprise, the Magnusons were reported to have hardly flinched, and escaped the situation unscathed — just another raw episode from living in the country. "A person's toughness must come from somewhere, and in my case I believe it came from where I was born," Keith stated.
For the sub-arctic Saskatchewan days that were simply too brutal for hockey on the ponds and lakes out in the open lands, Wadena (which actually fell within the official definition of "subarctic" at 51 degrees latitude) did offer a makeshift facility for hockey and public skating in town, as primitive as it may have been.
"There was a potbellied stove in the middle of the dressing room and rough boards on the floor," recalled Dale. "The ice was natural. The hits were cold. That's where Keith got his start."
From the Magnuson home, Keith would sprint down a back alley as a shortcut to the rink — often with his skates already on, so that he would waste no time. (This would cause damage to his blades, of course; a local man would sharpen his skates for 50 cents, but Joe would permit only one sharpening per year. Keith would be careful to remember this, and made the annual repair count.)
And thus, as he would do many years later with another group of friends, Keith would always be the first among his teammates to leap onto the ice.
He sprung right into organized hockey in Wadena at the age of five, playing in the "Tom Thumb" level for beginners. For additional practice, he also regularly joined boys of all ages for pickup games at the rink and on the ponds. Whether it was a league game or a quickly assembled pickup contest, Keith would recall being in a bad mood — even to the point of tears — if his team lost.
Always an admirer of his older siblings, Keith immediately began playing defenseman because that was the position Wayne played. Likewise, in the springtime, he would emulate Wayne as a catcher in baseball. Soon everyone noticed that, even at a young age, Keith was a perfectionist on the ice, carefully monitoring every detail in the advancement of his skills. He continued to jot down his practice routine on the church calendar during services.
"Keith always had a checklist and was very systematic," said Herb Pinder, a childhood acquaintance. "Every night when we didn't play, or even sometimes on days when we practiced, he would write a list of what he needed to work on and then go out on the outdoor neighborhood rink and follow that list. He was very disciplined that way."
Developing his physical traits early, Keith later in life claimed that the only time he was naturally good at sports was in the first grade, when he was big for his age and the fastest runner in his class.
At the age of seven, he received an autographed photo in the mail from one of his favorite players in the NHL, a young star with the Detroit Red Wings. The writing on the photo read:
To my little friend, Keith ... Best always, Gordie.
Gordie Howe, at age 26 that year, had already won four league scoring titles, in the previous four seasons (1951–54), and was yet another player formed out of those rough Saskatchewan winters.
And just as had happened to Gordie in his childhood, Keith's father grabbed an opportunity to move the family to the province's central city of Saskatoon for better fortunes. When Keith was eight years old, Joe got an offer to sell insurance and run a wholesale hardware business in the municipality of 100,000 people that lay 130 miles to the west — and it was too good to refuse. Keith had earlier told his dad that he never wanted to live in the city, but he understood why his father took the job.
As the family was packing up to depart for Saskatoon, one thing the pensive Keith wanted to leave behind in Wadena was what he considered his reputation as a "bully" among other kids, despite his young age. "Because I was big when I was little, I'd usually beat up my peers," he once wrote of his time in the early grades. "Of course, it didn't get me anywhere. Sure, at the time I might win a point. But then I began to realize that kids didn't want to play with me. This hurt."
Unfortunately, he was unable to avoid confrontation in his new surroundings. In his very first day at Churchill Elementary School in Saskatoon, he was taunted by another youngster who told him that "we don't want any farm boys" when Keith tried to take part in a schoolyard game. While many joined in the jeering, one new friend who did stand up for Keith was Tim Gould, who ultimately would be by Keith's side often — including on the ice — in the years to come.
In spite of the kind gesture, Keith did not need Tim's help. Instead, the young Magnuson felt compelled to at least momentarily go back to his physical ways. And after a thorough whipping, the main aggravator — along with the others at Churchill School — did not ever challenge the new red-haired kid again.
Most elementary schools in Canada had their own hockey teams, and this was particularly true in larger cities like Saskatoon. And much to his own surprise, by the sixth grade, Keith's demeanor had improved so much from those earlier "bullying" days in Wadena that he won the award for "Most Gentlemanly Player" that year (although the recognition would not necessarily forecast a Lady Byng Trophy for him in the future).
On the other side of the city, the same award had been won by a seventh-grade student at Princess Alexandria School, Cliff Koroll. The two went head to head on the ice on several occasions. Years later, someone asked Magnuson what he remembered about Koroll from those childhood days; after thinking for a moment to summon a distinctive quality, he offered that Koroll's "ears stuck way out from his helmet."
As for Cliff, he would later describe his own first impressions of Magnuson. "I remember this little redhead comes off the farm, skinny, arms down below his knees, bowlegs," Koroll said. The two would have many youth-league battles as opponents before joining forces on the same side years later. "He would always try to hit me in the corners," Koroll added, "and [he] would always bounce off me, as I was much bigger than he was. He would get up and run at me again."
The two quickly became friends through other sports; some of their more notable meetings took place on the baseball diamond. "When our coach gave the signal to steal, it was not to steal second but to go to third because he [Magnuson] would end up throwing the ball into center field," Koroll chuckled. "He was a small kid between [ages] 10 and 15 but he always had those long arms and huge hands." And oftentimes it was Gould, playing third base, who would get the final throw on the play from the center fielder who had retrieved Keith's errant throw to second.
Magnuson and Koroll — like many of the most promising young Canadian players — had their hockey futures essentially mapped out for them by the time they reached their early teens. The youth hockey clubs in Saskatoon and most other places were, in effect, an extension of the Canadian Juniors system, the tradition-rich "minor leagues" of the sport from whence the vast majority of the players in the NHL had come, with few high school age players considering collegiate play as an option. Teams around the city such as the Saskatoon Blades and the Midget Red Wings were fully sponsored by NHL clubs — making the teenagers on their rosters de facto possessions of those teams.
"I was the Blades' [the Los Angeles forerunner of the Kings] property at 10 years old," Magnuson recalled. "By the time I'd reached 16, however, Chicago and L.A. had worked a deal transferring Cliff Koroll and me to the Black Hawks ... It's like being a product on the exchange — a negotiable item among high-powered businessmen. Even at 12, I recall having to sign a professional sponsor's form" (along with his parents).
While only a teenager, Keith was nonetheless always looking for an edge to increase his strength and performance. Starting in junior high school, he began to spend a portion of his summers working at Boychuk Lumber Yard in Saskatoon, where he was paid $1.50 an hour.
"I'd cut two-by-fours or load 80-pound cement bags, and go out on deliveries or work construction projects, such as building a granary," he remembered.
Despite the strenuous labor, he also dedicated himself to rigorous athletic training upon coming home at night, regardless of his level of fatigue from the lumber yard. Despite the hard work, Keith's growth had slowed heading into high school, as he started his freshman year at only 5'6" and 140 pounds — not much bigger from when he was admittedly pushing kids around in his first grade class back in Wadena. However, with one more summer working at Boychuk after his first year in high school, he "zoomed up" to 160 as his efforts finally paid off. His sports skills now took off as well, as he twice won the Saskatchewan province title in the javelin throw as a track-and-field competitor and was a city champion in football while leading his team at quarterback.
But hockey, of course, remained his true love. And naturally, Keith marveled at the idea of pursuing a regular spot in the prestigious-but-rugged Juniors system. However, he and his parents also recognized the challenging lifestyle of the Juniors for a teenager, and took this fact into careful consideration as he began his time with the Blades.
Excerpted from Keith Magnuson by Doug Feldmann. Copyright © 2013 Doug Feldmann. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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