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This article was published 18/7/2020 (715 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Grady Manson quickly learned that life as an undersized hockey player is an uphill battle.
What he didn’t know yet as a Western Hockey League star or Brandon University Bobcats standout is how much tougher his off-ice challenges would be.
The Brandonite just took it one play, one game at a time, trying to survive after joining the Moose Jaw Warriors for his 17-year-old season in 1992.
"Looking back my first year in Moose Jaw I was (five-foot-six), 137 pounds. Nobody thought I was going to make it," Manson said.
"In the early 1990s the game was a little bit different. Smaller guys, there wasn’t as many. I had to definitely change my game from the way I used to play. Maybe not so much to the way I wanted to play, but it’s what I had to do to survive in the Western league.
"I had to have an edge that guys didn’t really know what I would do. There’s a lot of big guys and I wasn’t the cleanest player I guess. I gave it, but I took it, a lot. I was scared s—less every game I played, but you mentally prepare yourself."
Manson put up 15 goals and 44 assists in 72 games in 1992-93, piling up 84 penalty minutes and solidifying his place with the club. He said that season was big in putting him on a path that ended up in the Central Hockey League.
"That was my promise to my dad: If I didn’t make it as a 17-year-old, I’d play in Neepawa, which had traded for my rights from the Southeast Thunderbirds," Manson said.
"I got to play with some great players that played in the show: Ryan Smyth in Moose Jaw, and Curtis Brown."
Manson certainly developed the skill necessary to compete and did it from a young age.
He grew up on 14th St., across from the Park Community Centre where his father used to flood the rink.
"I just put my skates on in the backyard and skated across the lane. Dad would whistle and tell me to come home whenever," Manson said.
"I just loved it. Dad couldn’t get me off the rink. There was many nights in front of the fireplace with frozen feet. I just loved the game."
The game loved him back, just in some years more than others.
Then a five-foot-seven, 165-pound forward, Manson missed significant time in his 18-year-old season, posting 13 goals, 19 assists and 76 penalty minutes in 49 games. He bounced back as an alternate captain in 1994-95, guiding Moose Jaw to a post-season in which he notched five goals and five helpers in 10 games.
Manson was dealt to Tri-City during his overage campaign and helped the Americans through a 4-2 series win over Kelowna before losing a 3-2 B.C. Division final series to Kamloops, which featured 2020 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jerome Iginla.
Manson netted six goals and 12 assists in the 11 playoff games before returning to the Wheat City.
He said when he was being traded, he hoped it was to Brandon for the chance to be on the right side of rowdy Keystone Centre crowds. Sure enough, he’d get the chance to suit up for a hometown team at BU.
"I hated coming here as a Warrior because it was a tough rink to play in. The Wheat Kings were really good and we were not very good," Manson said. "(In) 20 games I think I played in the Keystone Centre, never won a game, didn’t finish many either. So it was nice to play for the hometown at BU and it just worked out that I had a really good year that year.
"I got to freewheel a little more. I didn’t run around and hit as much as I did in the Western league. I was on (Moose Jaw’s) penalty kill and played the point on the power play, but I got to play a little bit more like how I played before I got in the Western league, stayed out of the s— instead of getting into it and that was one of my best hockey (seasons)."
The Bobcats posted a paltry 5-21-2 record in Canada West play and missed the playoffs, but Manson turned heads across the country. The five-foot-nine forward racked up 22 goals, 26 assists and 28 penalty minutes in 26 games, earning Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union — now U Sports — rookie of the year honours for 1996-97. He’s the only hockey player in BU history to receive a national award.
"I’m pretty proud of that," Manson said. "Looking back, I probably should have stayed at few more years. 21, got a little bit of money thrown at me to play overseas and obviously it didn’t end up working out the whole year but it is what it is and I’m fortunate to be where I am today."
Manson signed a professional deal with a Norwegian club the following season, but returned after Christmas in 1997 when the team was dealing with financial issues.
"I kind of lost my way somewhere around there," Manson said.
He wouldn’t be off the ice for long however, as the Columbus Cottonmouths picked him up on their way to a CHL title that season.
Manson tallied 11 goals and 16 assists in 29 games, adding six points in 13 post-season contests on the team’s third line.
"Chemistry. Everyone kind of knew their role. I came in late but I filled in a position they needed," Manson said.
"It was a solid, you go I’ll go kind of thing. That’s every team I played on, you have each other’s backs, but it was a special year with some unique characters and personalities that just elevated everybody’s play every night.
"That’s the only championship I ever won."
Things wouldn’t get better than that for a long time. Manson started developing a drinking problem during his time after BU and it grew. He spent one more full year in Columbus before suiting up for five different CHL teams over the next few seasons.
"That’s when my drinking came a little bit more of an issue and became a blur actually. I had my daughter Easton at a young age and there’s a lot of blank spots. I knew it was time to hang ‘em up. I lost the drive I knew I needed to be able to play at the size I was," Manson said, adding what’s likely a significant number of undiagnosed concussions didn’t help.
"I look back on it a lot to try and piece things together. I’ve always been one that likes to have a good time and I like to think everything I do, I do at 100 per cent. That came in with my drinking as well. I don’t know where the wheels fell off, but they definitely did."
Manson still carved out quite the path in the golf business after his hockey days ended. The game his grandfather, Bill Manson, introduced him to at Clear Lake at age 10 quickly became the focus of his professional life. Little did he know, it’d be one of his saving graces.
See ‘Manson’ — Page B2
Manson secured his PGA of Manitoba card in the early 2000s, working with Brandon’s Rich Bull and Clear Lake’s Tom Betz until 2006.
Then he joined Elkhorn Resorts, working in various places including Canmore, Alta., and Winnipeg. He regained his tour card a few years back and worked as assistant pro at Bel Acres Golf and Country Club.
All the while, alcoholism followed him.
"That was my normal. Without it I didn’t feel normal," Manson said. "Then you just don’t realize it and other people do but you go ‘that’s not a problem, not a problem.’ I knew I had a problem and had a problem for a long time but it’s really hard to explain.
"It became part of my lifestyle and so happy that today I’m sober and I feel good. That’s the best thing. I’m starting to feel like I did when I was 17 again."
The turnaround came just over two years ago, when Elkhorn Resorts co-owner Ian Sarna sat Manson down and told him what he needed to hear.
"He talked to me not as a boss but as a friend," Manson said.
"I’ll never forget the day he drove me to treatment. I can’t repay him enough for pointing me in the right direction to get me the help that I needed. I owe a lot to Mr. Sarna."
"It’s a day-to-day thing now," he added. "I have to stay busy. Golf things, music, then slowly I’m not thinking about it as much. At the start, if I walked anywhere the first place I looked was the bar. I don’t do that anymore. I’m starting to understand who I am sober and I’m liking it."
Manson passed the two-year mark without a drink last week.
He returned to Brandon this year to work as director of sales and marketing at Wheat City Golf Course, which his friends Dave Scinocca and Scott Ramsay leased earlier in 2020.
For him, it’s a great fit in a number of ways. First, being back in the Wheat City reminds him of some of his best days.
"Being around Dave and a lot of people before I got into the bottle heavy that bring back some good memories, so it’s pretty cool that way," Manson said.
"I just love waking up in the morning and feeling good. Five years ago if you told me I’d be here every morning at 6, 6:30, 7 in the morning there would have been no way. I would have tried, I would have been late, missed a couple and made up bulls— excuses. That was then, this is now."
Second, he’s on a team he likes.
"Hard work and the willingness, being part of a team you do anything that it takes to win. You can look at that in different ways, what is a win? But you do whatever’s asked of you to get where you need to go," Manson said.
"Working for Dave and Scott, coming here with the team we’ve created, we have the opportunity to do something pretty cool here in Brandon with the Wheat City."
Finally, it’s the right fit for the 45-year-old. He’s taking care of the adverting, marketing and communications with members, while also spending time as a starter at busy times. He was never a huge fan of the teaching aspect of the golf pro life, but thrives on the interactions with golfers.
"I got to play a game most of my life and somehow incorporate that and get paid for it," Manson said.
"I feel very, very fortunate for that. I just love being here. I can’t wait to get here in the mornings … seeing the members, I like to see people smile and laugh and like to make people laugh.
"The guys let me be me, and I’m slowly figuring out who that is and starting to like myself again."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen