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This article was published 15/11/2016 (1610 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For Jack Borotsik, playing with the Brandon Wheat Kings was just a rite of passage for young hockey players from the city.
Borotsik, who grew up on a farm just northwest of Brandon, starred for the major junior team in its first two seasons in the Western Canadian Hockey League, which changed its name to the Western Hockey League in 1978.
"We came up through the minor hockey system and we just moved into it," Borotsik said. "You always watched the games as a kid growing up. I remember the old Brandon Regals. My dad used to have season tickets and he would take me there. It was in your blood."
The Regals played for two seasons in the mid-1950s in a minor pro league also called the Western Hockey League, which was in operation from 1952 to 1974.
After graduating from minor hockey, Borotsik played with the Wheat Kings junior B team in Deloraine, but would regularly be called up by Brandon coach Eddie Dorohoy for practices.
"Back in the day they only carried three lines, so in order to scrimmage, he would bring up a line from the junior Bs," Borotsik said. "So we would scrimmage against the guys who were on the team like Bill Fairbairn, Juha Widing, Erv Ziemer. They were good players so that kind of gave us a taste of what was to come."
The 17-year-old Borotsik joined the junior A team in 1966-67, its last season in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, losing 4-2 in the league final to MJHL rookie of the year Bobby Clarke and the Flin Flon Bombers.
That summer, the Wheat Kings franchise moved to the fledgling WCHL. While Borotsik said the bus rides to Alberta were longer, the style of play was very similar.
"We were kids and we didn’t really notice the difference," Borotsik said. "We were just playing hockey and having fun. I don’t remember thinking ‘Gosh, we’re in a big league now.’ It was interesting, we were travelling out west to Alberta."
His success came quickly in the WCHL.
With the graduation of the team’s older stars — Fairbairn, Widing, Cal Swenson and Larry Brown — Borotsik led the team in scoring with 36 goals and 49 assists in 60 games in his 18-year-old season.
"I didn’t look at any stats," he said of the season. "It was more just you were ready to play, and things fell where they fell. I played with good hockey players like Ray Brownlee, Danny McPherson, Jack Wells, just to name a few."
He usually skated with a pair of "quality players" in Brownlee and Roy McLachlan.
Borotsik was a big fan of the old Wheat City Arena.
"The fans were part of the game," he said. "There were no screens along the side of the boards, so the fans were basically at ice level. Roy was in the odd fight and the fans would sometimes reach right over and get into it. It was a great old rink."
A year later, in the 1968-69 season, Borotsik had 24 goals and 40 assists in 54 games, finishing one point behind Chuck Kelner for the team lead.
He joined the Brandon University Bobcats for the 1969-70 season,
"The last year I played (with the Wheat Kings), I wouldn’t call it an off year but it just wasn’t what it should have been and I felt I just needed a change," Borotsik said. "A lot of the fellows who had moved on had gone to BU and had talked to us about it and said the program was pretty good."
Borotsik went undrafted by the National Hockey League, but after scoring 14 goals and adding 10 assists in 20 games at BU, he decided to pursue professional hockey.
Borotsik and McLachlan went to training camp with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the minor pro WHL. Neither player made the team, but Borotsik ended up playing with the Dayton Gems of the International Hockey League.
After two seasons there, in which Borotsik was just shy of being a point-per-game producer, he was invited to rookie camp with the St. Louis Blues, was signed to a pro deal and joined the Denver Spurs of the WHL.
He played one NHL game, joining the Blues to fill in as a penalty killer in a loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago during the 1974-75 season.
"I watched a pretty good game," he chuckled. "St. Louis lost and I didn’t get a lot of playing time."
A week later, the St. Louis coach was fired and the owners froze the roster, sending Borotsik back to Denver. He put up 13 goals and 42 assists in 76 games with the Spurs, but knew what lay ahead for his career.
"You could kind of see where the main team was going so you had a choice of taking a step back and playing in the IHL or Eastern League," he said. "Some of the guys went and played in Europe, but my dad was having a few minor health problems on the farm, so I could kind of read between the lines and just felt that a career change was in order."
He returned to the farm, continuing to play senior hockey in Brandon with the Elks and later the Olympics. He was also a partner in the Smoky Hollow motel and condo complex with his old teammate McLachlan.
Borotsik and his wife Bev, who now live in Onanole, have a daughter, Amber.
He’s impressed by how far the game has improved as the team plays in its 50th season in the WHL.
"The level of coaching is amazing," Borotsik said. "The rink is top-notch. It’s almost like a feeder league to the NHL. Some of these kids are prepared to play and they’re putting up some good numbers so they can step right in."
He left his professional career healthy, laughing that he hurt himself more playing recreational hockey. He has no regrets from a lifetime in the game after hanging up his skates about a year ago.
"It was a great experience," he said. "The lifelong friends you make …all the guys that I hang around with from old-timer hockey and that, it’s all people that I came up with in the game of hockey. I wouldn’t trade it for the world."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson