Alex Argyriou’s junior hockey career ended on Sept. 27, 1999, but he remains grateful to the men who ultimately told him the truth that day.
Now 41 and living in Martinsville, Sask., the Winnipeg product drew on a strong family network as injury after injury derailed a promising hockey career with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the 1990s.
At the start of the 1999-2000 season, Argyriou returned to Brandon in a challenging situation as one of five overagers — Brad Twordik, Dan Tetrault, Les Borsheim and Scott McCallum were the others — competing for three spots.
He played one game on opening weekend with the Wheat Kings, and on the following Monday was called into the office with general manager Kelly McCrimmon, head coach Bobby Lowes and assistant coach Mark Johnston. They were letting him know he was being released.
"I’m so happy that’s the direction they went," Argyriou said. "I was in a place where I wasn’t physically or mentally able to continue on and I needed someone to tell me that I needed to take a break and re-evaluate my future. I would have kept on pushing through and pushing through … but deep down I was relieved."
Argyriou, (pronounced R-Gary-O), has a vivid recollection of McCrimmon telling him that all four guys in the room had the same National Hockey League dream, but that it wasn’t realistic. Argyriou said that honesty was exactly what he needed.
"He was doing me a favour without even knowing he was doing me a favour by saying it was time to move on and look for your future," Argyriou said. "… I can’t thank them enough for being so honest and so straightforward and not just in that moment but throughout my time with the Wheat Kings."
The fact Argyriou was even sitting in that room that day is remarkable.
His parents George and Persefoni emigrated to Canada from Greece and opened what became a Winnipeg dining staple, Burger Factory. They also had a pair of daughters, Lina and Eva.
Argyriou’s father is a huge soccer fan and tried to direct his son in that direction. But after Alex watched the 1985 National Hockey League final between the Edmonton Oilers and the Philadelphia Flyers, he was hooked.
"That was the first hockey I watched on TV, and that was the moment I thought ‘This is kind of cool,’" Argyriou said. "There were a couple of fights, there was excitement … I thought ‘This is interesting. It’s kind of like soccer but not soccer’ so I wanted to give it a shot."
He started to skate around age six, but it wasn’t an auspicious debut. Alex showed up with a stick that was too long and the wrong hand, a Wayne Gretzky skating helmet, his sister’s figure skates and a pair of magic mini gloves.
He was a bit late for his first practice, and when he stepped out on the ice, the coach quickly ushered him, explaining to his parents that it wasn’t safe.
"I had to watch the rest of practice while my parents tried to figure out what they did wrong because they didn’t understand," Argyriou said. "Luckily the coach waited and he took us to I think Canadian Tire and said "He needs this, he needs this, shin pads and so on.
"… That was my first experience playing hockey. I can vividly remember standing at the glass barely looking over the glass and being so disappointed because I wanted to be out doing what the other kids were doing."
Happily, he was a complete participant in the next practice, and soon after, he attended his first Winnipeg Jets game.
His parents could tell he was hooked, even if they still looked at it as an activity rather than anything very meaningful.
Alex, however, spent as much time as he could at the neighbourhood rink, playing street hockey and even in the basement. He and a friend especially gravitated to the nearby St. Charles Community Centre in St. James.
"We would spend all of Saturday there," Argyriou said. "We were there before the lights went on and either his parents or my parents would give us $5 and say ‘Here’s your lunch money for the canteen’ and we would stay until just before 7 o’clock so we could run home and watch Hockey Night in Canada and play mini sticks in the basement at his house or my house."
By the time he was 12 or 13, his parents recognized that with his devotion to the game and ability, that there might be some opportunities for him to play at a higher level.
Argyriou, who is called "Greek" by his friends, is grateful his parents took a chance on a sport they didn’t really understand. But he’s even more thankful for the lessons he carried into the sport from home.
"My dad is the hardest working person I know," Argyriou said. "No one even comes close. I get emotional thinking about it. The stories where immigrants come over and they have $5 in their pocket, that’s my dad. He came and built a successful business, he’s had the restaurant, Burger Factory, for 40-plus years, so it wasn’t hockey I learned from my mom and dad, it was work ethic, it was respect."
He said he never felt any pressure from them to play, which also helped his development and encouraged his love of the game. Argyriou grew up in the St. James minor hockey system, moving to the Winnipeg Hawks program in bantam.
He admitted he had never heard of the Wheat Kings until he was 13 and his team played in a tournament in Brandon, where they attended a game.
"That was my first experience with WHL, at the Keystone Centre with the boys having popcorn," Argyriou said. "It was a blast. Up until then, again, not coming from a hockey family, I thought it was minor hockey and then the NHL. I didn’t know there was anything in between."
He quickly pieced it all together in the next couple of years, and Argyriou’s eligibility to be selected by a team came in 1994, the fifth time the league held its now familiar bantam draft. His family had spoken to Wheat Kings scout Frank Harding and representatives from other teams, so he knew it was possible he might get picked.
He was in Detroit at a spring hockey tournament with his dad when they received a call from Mark Johnston to let him know Brandon had taken him with the 109th overall pick in the seventh round.
"It was perfect, being so close to home," Argyriou said. "Growing up in such a tight-knit Greek community in Winnipeg, that was big. It really helped the transition … It was a relief, I would say, being so close to family."
It can be argued Argyriou was part of the deepest draft in Wheat Kings history. Only one of the 12 players Brandon picked didn’t play in the WHL, and the draft contributed future Brandon stars Brad Twordik, Dan Tetrault and Burke Henry.
Argyriou didn’t earn a spot in Brandon in 1995-96 as a 16-year-old, instead lighting up the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League. In 39 games, he exploded with 41 goals and 44 assists despite a slow start after returning from Wheat Kings camp.
"In some ways I was confident but I think that played against me early on," Argyriou said. "I thought I just had to show up at the rink and things would just happen. I remember my dad, five or six games in, pulling me aside and saying ‘Hey, you have to pick it up. You have to keep doing the work, and if you stop, someone else is going to pass you.’"
Argyriou said his father’s message came at exactly the right time. The youngster was rewarded for his fine play by Brandon, skating with the Wheat Kings for three games during the 1995-96 season. The Wheat Kings went on to win a league title that year.
Argyriou was impressed by what he saw.
"I didn’t play a lot in those three games, but what an eye-opener just taking it all in from the bench," Argyriou said. "I got a few shifts in those games and just being in the dressing room … I remember in my first game, Wade (Redden) coming up and saying ‘Hey, how are you doing? Welcome aboard. We’re happy you’re here" and I was just ‘Wow!’
"There is so much going through your head. You’re nervous and you’re excited but I remember that moment with Wade was great for me to calm down."
Argyriou said it didn’t matter who had the puck on the ice, he was able to learn something, quipping "I’ve never had so much fun sitting on the bench."
He came back to camp the next fall as a 17-year-old determined to earn a spot, but after two games was again sent down. Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon said Argyriou’s game was offence, and since he wouldn’t be able to contribute to a veteran Brandon team in that role that year, he was better served playing with his hometown St. James Canadians in the Manitoba Junior Hockey league.
In 38 games he contributed 34 points, but it was very much a season of mixed blessings.
"I would say was probably the strangest year," said Argyriou, who thought he had a good camp with the Wheat Kings but knew it would be a challenge beating all of the other 1994-drafted players for spots. "I was definitely disappointed when I had to go back to play with St. James."
Argyriou said the fact that he came from a business family helped him understand McCrimmon’s rationale, because ultimately the GM had to do what was best for his organization.
He said the Canadians were a veteran group who went on to win the championship that year, and he worked hard on the defensive side of his game.
But the cost of that season was a foreshadowing of things to come.
Just before Christmas, he was slashed on his left hand, and the blow cracked the scaphoid bone, which sits between the thumb and bottom of the wrist. While it wasn’t a complete fracture, he was casted for a month and missed three weeks of action.
"That was kind of when the injury train started," Argyriou said, noting he had sprained that wrist in minor hockey but never broken anything before.
The scaphoid bone is a notoriously poor healer because of limited circulation to the bone. He also suffered the first of his seven diagnosed concussions.
With a year of junior hockey under his belt, Argyriou returned to Brandon’s camp for the 1997-98 season with a lot of confidence. His 18-year-old campaign ended before it started, however, when he got hit into the boards in a pre-season game.
He finished the game, but by the next morning, his wrist had swollen to twice its size. He had an X-ray, and this time the scaphoid had completely broken down the middle.
Argyriou underwent surgery in September, with a bone graft from his left elbow that landed him in a cast virtually up to his shoulder.
The surgeon worked in Prince Albert, Sask., so every three weeks, Argyriou’s father would drive from Winnipeg and pick him up in Brandon, head to northern Saskatchewan for the appointment, wait for it to be over and then drive him home.
It was a round trip of more than 1,600 kms for George Argyriou.
"He was almost on the road for 24 hours straight," Alex said. "He could have put me on a bus or found another way to get me there but my dad said ‘I’m going to be there to make sure my boy makes it up to P.A.’ I’m so thankful. Looking back, it was fantastic to have that. I couldn’t have done it without him."
Alex stayed in Brandon with McCrimmon’s blessing, and as the casts got smaller and smaller, he was able to work out at the team facilities. He was also able to be around his Brandon teammates, a blessing during a time when he had the game taken away from him for the first extended period since he started playing.
"That was really good for my mental health," Argyriou said. "It was just what the doctor ordered. Had they said ‘Your wrist broke off, you’re on your own,’ I think it really would have been detrimental. For the organization to let me hang around and organize the surgery and let me be part of that and pay for a lot of these things was fantastic.
"I have such a debt of gratitude I feel to the organization for helping me through some dark times."
He got into tremendous shape, skating with Johnston after team practices with other injured players. Mentally, it wasn’t as easy, but he was able to learn from the experience.
"It taught me a lot of lessons that year about you have a plan in your head but things don’t always go as planned," Argyriou said. "It was a great teaching moment for me that I still use in my current work and as a father now. It was a big event and in some ways I’m glad it happened because it taught me a lot."
Due to the injury, Argyriou got an early look at a player who became one of the most popular in franchise history. One morning he was dispatched to Winnipeg Airport to pick up a 16-year-old forward from B.C., who had missed the start of the season.
He first laid eyes on Randy Ponte that day.
"I was pretty much intimidated by him," Argyriou said. "I was walking up to him in the airport and said ‘You’re Randy?’ and he said ‘Ya man,’ and I thought "Oh my word!’ He looked like he was 25 years old and has a sense of serious business.
"But once you get to know him, he’s one of the funniest guys that I’ve had a chance to play with, and boy, was he tough as nails."
The Wheat Kings headed all the way to the league final that season, falling to the Portland Winterhawks, but Argyriou wasn’t there to see it. At the trade deadline in January, McCrimmon sent Argyriou back to St. James to allow him to get some meaningful playing time in the event he was healed enough to see game action.
The plan was to bring him back for the playoffs.
He rejoined the Canadians, dressing for two games at the end of the season after being cleared to play. He never left the bench, however, because the coach didn’t want him injured in his playing cast.
Argyriou finally saw action in the playoffs as St. James made it all the back to the final, where they fell to the Winkler Flyers.
That summer, his dad bought him a bucket of 50 pucks, and he went to an outdoor rink every day and shot 500 pucks to rebuild the strength in the wrist.
He was convinced the worst was behind him when he came back to Brandon in his 19-year-old season in 1998-99, and he earned a full-time job.
"From a physical and mental part, I was ready to go," Argyriou said.
It finally gave Argyriou a chance to be a contributor in the dressing room, where he liked to keep the atmosphere light in the dressing room.
"Us Greeks, we know how to have a good time," Argyriou said with a chuckle. "You work hard and you play hard. I’ve always wanted to make people laugh and be that funny guy."
After earning two assists in his nine games to open the season, his first WHL goal came on Oct. 17, 1998, when Burke Henry and Ryan Robson assisted him in a 5-4 overtime victory against the visiting Swift Current Broncos. Argyriou later assisted on a Robson goal, giving him the first multipoint game of his career.
By Christmas, he had 13 goals and 13 assists and had blossomed into a meaningful source of offence for the Wheat Kings.
"It was very fulfilling," Argyriou said. "A lot of it was the patience that Kelly and Bobby and Mark had with me. I was so thankful they gave me that chance and I was happy I stuck around long enough to have that chance, but at the same time, I worked my ass off and felt like I deserved that chance.
"It was all coming together. I felt I was playing the best hockey I had ever played in the first half of that season."
Unfortunately, the injury bug had already struck again and it would hit even hard in the second half.
In a game against the Tri-City Americans on Nov. 3, Argyriou was hit and woke up in the corner. Brandon athletic therapist Russ Holden came out to attend to him, which confused Argyriou because he thought he was back in St. James, where they had a female therapist.
He was taken to the dressing room and didn’t realize he was with the Wheat Kings until he was able to read the jerseys as his teammates filed in after the period ended.
Since concussions were just starting to be better understood at that time, he kept playing.
There was no skating through his next concussion.
On Jan. 10, 1999, Argyriou was hit from behind by a visiting Moose Jaw Warrior and struck his chin on the dasher around the boards. He lasted until the period ended and he got back to the dressing room.
"It was like someone had a power cord and was slowly reducing the power in your body," Argyriou said. "It’s so hard to explain. It was weird."
He missed the next 13 games as he suffered from headaches, light sensitivity, motion sensitivity and memory loss. He would call his parents in Winnipeg, and years later they revealed to him he would tell the same story over and over.
Argyriou went to Wheat Kings games and forgot what he just watched by the time it was over.
The effects of the earlier concussion had come and gone. This one lingered.
"It was almost like you’re living in a dream state, walking around and having a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not," Argyriou said. "Looking back, it was a very stressful time."
Argyriou returned to the lineup on Feb. 19, managing three more goals in 18 regular season and playoff games. In 57 games, he contributed 19 goals and 21 assists.
The team dealt for forwards Brett McLean and Jason Chimera and went on a long winning streak to end the season, but ultimately fell to the Red Deer Rebels in the first round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, Argyriou suffered his third concussion of the year early in Game 2 when he went to hit somebody and ran into their elbow.
It was yet another blow to his promising hockey career, something he said he was able to get through with his family and the woman he later married, Katie McKay.
"She was instrumental in helping me to focus through some of those really difficult times," Argyriou said. "Luckily I surrounded myself with good people and had the pleasure of having good influences on me.
"That helped. Without those influences and examples and teachings, it becomes difficult or almost impossible for me to push through. I’m so thankful and grateful for the support I’ve had from some family and great friends to help me through that."
He said there were days when he just wanted to quit the non-hockey things like going to physio or rehab, and those people kept him on the right path.
Argyriou was cleared for activity by neurologists in early August, and he was given a camp invitation by the International Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose.
"It was fun," Argyriou said. "It was interesting but I wasn’t in great shape. I actually failed the bike test and had to explain myself."
They still allowed him to skate with the club, and he played in a couple of exhibition games in the old Winnipeg Arena against a Team Canada comprised of former pros and junior players.
Argyriou came to a fundamental realization at the same time.
"It was at that camp that I really knew the injuries were catching up to me," Argyriou said. "My shot with my wrist was subpar, my skating wasn’t great and not being in good shape didn’t help too. You spend your career gauging where you sit, and that one was a really good indication in the hockey world where I really stood. I was happy I had a chance to go and reflect."
That led him back to Brandon and his release by the Wheat Kings.
Throughout his career, he had stayed with Lex and Jean Langston, providing him a home away from home that helped him to settle in. After the meeting on the day he was released, he returned to his billet home with his equipment, and Lex Langston pretty quickly figured out what that meant.
"He put his arm around me and said ‘I know it’s tough now, but one day you’ll be able to look back and be proud of your accomplishments,’" Argyriou said. "As sad of a day as it was for me that day, for him to say that … It kind of brought my WHL career to an end for him to be there to pat me on the back.
"Looking back, that was perfect."
McCrimmon offered to find him another team, but Argyriou chose to take time for his physical and mental health, and didn’t play again that year, instead working in the family restaurant in Winnipeg.
He returned to the Wheat City the next fall, joining the Brandon University Bobcats. With a chuckle, he quoted the Good Will Hunting line "I had to go see about a girl" because Katie, the much-travelled daughter of an RCMP officer stationed in Dauphin, was going to school at BU.
"It was an opportunity to go back to Brandon and be closer to Katie," Argyriou said. "I went into those seasons just wanting to have fun. The goal of making the big league had gone away. I just wanted to go back to that feeling of going to the rink and having a smile on my face.
"Those two seasons were probably two of the most fun I ever had in my career. It was a great group of guys. We didn’t do well as far as wins and losses but I had an absolute blast being with that group."
Argyriou was outstanding in the 2000-01 season, piling up 17 goals and 29 assists in 36 games to earn a spot on Canada West’s all-rookie team despite Brandon’s 4-21-3 record. He led the team in scoring by 15 points.
His second season was cut short when he injured his sciatic nerve, the most painful injury he had. To make things worse, the puck went down the ice and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies scored while he lay on the ice, leaving him a minus-one on the shift that essentially ended his hockey career.
He played sparingly in a couple of games at the end of the year, and the BU hockey program went under in the off-season, which he took as another sign it was over for him.
Argyriou spent two more years at Brandon University, earning his bachelor of science with a major in psychology.
In the fall of 2003, Argyriou joined on to serve as an assistant coach with the Wheat Kings U18 team that went on to win a national championship.
"It was surreal," Argyriou said. "I was also with them the following year but that season it was the icing on the cake for my time in Brandon. From spending time with the Wheat Kings to going to university and spending a couple of seasons with the Bobcats to being on that championship team as a coach, Brandon as a city is just so special to me."
Alex and Katie married after the season ended, their son Liam was born in 2006, and Alex began working with Service Canada in the federal government. That led him to a supervisor position in Dauphin in early 2009, where he spent a couple of years.
They headed to Moose Jaw in 2011, and he landed a job in 2014 as the general manager of Saskatoon Housing Authority. He oversees about 70 staff and 2,700 housing units.
"We’re helping folks in the community when they need it," Argyriou said. "We’re here when they need a place to stay. It’s been really great career for me to help people who need help."
The family lives in nearby Martensville, where Liam is now a 14-year-old netminder who Alex coaches.
With all of his experience in the game, both good and bad, Argyriou said he has lessons he tries to pass on to his son. The big one involves charting the future.
"You can never plan too far ahead," Argyriou said. "You have the end goal in sight and you have the dreams and aspirations, which are important because they help drive you, they help guide you, but it all comes down to you being patient and working your ass off. Those two things are my biggest takeaways from an individual with all the injuries I had to work through."
From a team perspective, Argyriou treasures the relationships and friendships he made along the way. Twenty years later, he remains grateful to the Wheat Kings for the chances he was given.
"I’m so thankful and so blessed and happy that it worked out and I was able to be part of the organization," Argyriou said. "They’ve been held in such high regard for years and years and years and have had some great teams and great people have come out of that organization and continue to do so. It helped me out not only as a player but as a person and an individual.
"I’m so happy they took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity to be part of their organization. I can’t think of a better team I could have played for."
He said the lessons he learned in the game stick with him, and he’s happy to hear Liam talking about some of the same ones as he misses his teammates during the COVID-19 lockdown.
"I can’t tell you about a lot of the goals that were scored or the plays that I made, but I remember those moments in the dressing room," Argyriou said. "The 10 minutes before the game, I can almost remember every single game. The friendships and the camaraderie of being part of a team are everlasting."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson