Arts & Life
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Jack Sangster had a lot of adventures as the coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings in the 1980s, but none of them involved trading a player for a bus like he did with the Seattle Breakers.
Tom Martin, a Victoria product, was on Seattle’s list but had chosen to attend the University of Denver instead. When Sangster talked to him, he said he would never report.
The Victoria Cougars, meanwhile, had purchased a team bus from the Spokane Flyers after they suspended operations. It was sitting in the United States, however, because the team didn’t want to pay the duties and other fees to get it into Canada.
At the same time, Seattle’s bus had blown its engine.
After a game in Victoria, Sangster was sitting in Cougars general manager J. Fraser McColl’s office and jokingly suggested the trade.
"I said ‘How about it, let’s trade for the bus," Sangster said. "He laughed and I laughed. He thought it was a big joke. Going back after the game on the ferry, I thought ‘Why not? This is stupid. The kid’s not doing anything, the bus is not doing anything, we have to do something.’ Our bus scared me. I would sleep with one eye open so I phoned when we got back to Seattle and he said ‘You’re kidding me.’ I said ‘No, I’m not kidding.’"
McColl said he would have to speak to the owner about it and he would get back to Sangster.
On Jan. 19, 1983, the trade was consummated. It was left to Western Hockey League president Ed Chynoweth to break the news.
While Chynoweth wasn’t happy, Sangster was quick to respond that the Breakers needed the publicity.
Sangster was right. His many media appearances included a spot on Good Morning America.
As for the bus?
"They were still using it when I left there," Sangster said. "It had 18 bunks, 22 seats and a big washroom. It was great."
Sangster, 73, was born in Saskatchewan but grew up in Flin Flon and Thompson, coached the Wheat Kings from 1983 to 1986.
The Thompson Reds senior AA baseball team is named after his father Red (Alexander) Sangster, a member of the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame. Along with his mother Mary, his parents encouraged and supported his sports.
"My mother used to take me to my games every Saturday morning at the Whitney Forum in Flin Flon," Sangster said. "It was between that and playing the trumpet. I decided on playing hockey."
Sangster tried out for his hometown Flin Flon Bombers a couple of times but never made it. At age 18 in the mid-1960s, his hockey career took a decidedly different direction after the family had moved to Thompson.
The president of the minor hockey association called him to see if he would help out with a midget team whose coach was going into the hospital. Sangster, who had helped at practice a couple of times, wasn’t much older than players and they were his friends.
The president reassured him he would have a helper and all he had to do was change the lines. After three practices, his midget team faced an older juvenile squad from Winnipeg.
"Lo and behold, we beat them both games," Sangster said. "I kind of liked the feeling."
Sangster told his father that he enjoyed coaching but didn’t really know much about it. His dad encouraged him to attend some hockey schools.
"I talked to a lot of people and asked a lot of questions," Sangster said.
The cost was adding up, so he approached the minor hockey association about paying his expenses in return for him holding a hockey school in Thompson. In Belleville, Ont., he met national team coach Father (David) Bauer and player Barry MacKenzie, who would later gain fame coaching at Notre Dame, and they took him under their wing.
For the next decade, he coached the Thompson under-18 club until, after winning the AA provincials, the Portage Terriers contacted him when longtime bench boss Murray (Muzz) MacPherson left. Sangster took over the Terriers for the 1974-75 season, two years after they captured the Centennial Cup, and led them to a second-place finish in the North Division with a record of 25-22-1. After beating the Dauphin Kings in the first round, Portage fell to the eventual champion Selkirk Steelers 4-1 in the semifinals.
Heading to Portage meant he was all in on coaching because he had to quit his job with the City of Thompson.
"I tried to get a six-month leave of absence and they wouldn’t give it to me so I quit," Sangster said.
In his first taste of full-time coaching, Sangster quickly realized an old trait had stuck with him.
"I like to win," Sangster said. "They guys did what I said and respected what I said and they improved on it."
Unfortunately he didn’t get the same respect from the president of the Portage board. After what he thought was a pretty decent debut, Sangster was told by the president at a season-ending event that the team was potentially looking for someone with pro experience.
Disappointed, he was recruited by friends in Thompson to join the MJHL’s expansion King Miners.
"I was ticked off by that so when Thompson called me, I said ‘Ya, I’ll come up and coach the new club’," Sangster said.
When he told the Terriers he was leaving, the other board members were furious at the president’s stance but Sangster had already committed to go home.
(Portage eventually settled on longtime National Hockey League player Ab McDonald, who lasted two seasons.)
The King Miners lasted three seasons in the MJHL, and were ultimately a victim of the cost of flying in teams for home games, the onerous travel schedule they faced on the road and the tough job of recruiting.
"I knew we were going to have problems with getting players up there," Sangster said. "INCO said they would give them jobs, but still we didn’t get the best players."
They posted an overall record of 40-111-2 from 1975 to 1978, earning one playoff berth.
Despite the lack of success in Thompson, Sangster spent the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons with the Taber Golden Suns in the Alberta Junior Hockey League — winning coach of the year honours in 1979 — before finding work with the Regina Pats.
His Pats roster included current Wheat Kings assistant coach Don MacGillivray and another young man who made a strong impression on him, future NHL coach Barry Trotz. It didn’t take Sangster long to realize where Trotz’s future lay.
"When I left Regina and was going to Seattle, I called Barry Trotz at home in Dauphin and asked him if he wanted to come out and be my captain and assistant coach," Sangster said. "He wouldn’t leave Dauphin because of his girlfriend."
The Pats were terrific in 1980-81, finishing 49-21-2 to earn the East Division title, but they ultimately fell in the division semifinals to the Calgary Wranglers.
For the second time in seven years, however, Sangster was the victim of some front office skullduggery.
The team decided to replace him with Bill Laforge, who the previous season had earned a 50-game suspension with the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals for fighting Peterborough Petes coach Dave Dryden at centre ice during a pre-game skate. The suspension didn’t apply in the WHL.
The Pats helped set him up with the Breakers, who called to see if he was available.
Seattle got off to a terrible start in the 1981-82 season — it went winless on an eastern swing and was 4-16 — when Sangster met owner John Hamilton upon their return. He unveiled his new plan at a team meeting that day.
"All the players were there and I went into our game plan, which was intimidation," Sangster said. "I said ‘John, we have the toughest club in the league but the guys don’t know how to play tough and win.’ He said ‘Can you win playing tough?’ and I said ‘Ya, you can.’ I told the guys ‘Take it from me, you’re not going to start anything unless I say.’
"They listened to me and we had five-on-fives, we had bench-clearing brawls, before the referees came out on the ice we took all the pucks from the other team and used them in our end. If anybody came across the red-line, there was a fight. It just went on and on, and we got away with a lot of stuff."
The team, dubbed Sangster’s Gangsters, included Mitch Wilson (436 penalty minutes), Phil Stanger (349), Marc LeClair (284), Craig Channell (244) and Brent Shaw (209), along with future NHLer Ken Daneyko (151).
They finished third in the West Division with a record of 36-34-2, losing in the divisional final. Sangster was named the league’s coach of the year.
Behind the scenes, things were more chaotic. The Breakers, who eventually became the Thunderbirds in 1985, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Things were so tough that the Breakers received old practice sticks from Portland Winterhawks owner Brian Shaw because they couldn’t afford to buy their own.
See ‘Sangster’ — Page B2
While Sangster thought he was good to the teenagers overall, sometimes anger was the only answer.
"I think I was a player’s coach," Sangster said. "But I had my moments with the guys."
On the road one night, one of the Breakers took an illegal-stick minor late in the game because he had put a wicked curve into his blade, well beyond what was legal. He returned to the bench after the penalty was killed, and Sangster put him back on the ice.
Inexplicably, he grabbed his old stick and was promptly assessed another penalty. Seattle’s opponent tied the game, and later won it in overtime.
"When we got back to Seattle, I told the trainer ‘Get me all those damn curved sticks out of that bundle," Sangster said.
"When the guys were going past I was breaking them against the cement wall. There were splinters of sticks everywhere and guys were ducking when they came past.
"I broke 18 sticks."
After one more season in Seattle, it was time to move on. Sangster and his girlfriend, the team’s office manager, hadn’t been paid for two months.
"We were destitute," Sangster said. "I called (league president) Ed Chynoweth in Calgary and said ‘Ed, the ship is sinking. I don’t want to be here anymore.’"
Chynoweth invited him to the league meeting in Kelowna, sending him $3,000 that allowed the pair to attend and move everything they owned. Sangster spoke to Wheat Kings general manager Les Jackson at the meeting, one of four GMs looking for a coach.
Sangster was offered the job and returned to Manitoba.
He made an early impact when he called Portland Winterhawks general manager Ken Hodge to ask him if Brandon had anything they liked. Jackson gave his approval for Sangster to make a deal, and on Aug. 23, 1983, Brandon sent prospect Blaine Chrest to Portland for Ray Ferraro, Derek Laxdal, Brad Duggan, Dave Tomlinson and Tony Horacek.
Ferraro initially balked at reporting, but Sangster called Hartford Whalers GM Emile Francis while the winger was in camp. Francis promised Ferraro would report, and he did for what proved to a record-setting 108-goal season.
Sangster put him on a line with playmaker Stacy Pratt and Dave Curry.
"He was something," Sangster said.
The team also had tempestuous star netminder Ron Hextall, who led the way with his ultra-competitive nature.
"The guys used to wait for him outside the room," Sangster said. "He would say ‘OK boys, let’s rock and roll’ and he would run from his stall right out to the ice and the guys would run right behind him."
He said Hextall always stayed late after practice to challenge the forwards, with the loser buying soft drinks.
"He must have had a pile of Cokes," Sangster said. "They couldn’t score on him."
Sangster was happy with how the team developed, especially on the power play with star defenceman Cam Plante quarterbacking the power play. They went 44-26-2, finishing third in the East Division and losing in the semifinals in the convoluted round-robin system.
Brandon graduated much of its top-end talent after that season, but Sangster remained confident for the 1984-85 campaign.
"We still had some good players but I didn’t have the defence," Sangster said. "I tried to trade for defence but nobody was trading. I still had some very good scorers up front."
The team went 17-54-1 and missed the playoffs, the first time of seven times it would happen in an eight-season stretch.
In the 1985-86 season, Jackson left and Sangster took over as director of hockey operations, with a hand from Mickey Bootsman. They posted a 24-46-2 record and missed the playoffs again.
"I coached the same way but we didn’t have the talent," Sangster said.
He certainly had some adventures along the way.
One night in Prince Albert, Sangster’s carefully designed game plan had been ignored by the players and they were trailing 4-1 after the first period. He took a new approach in the intermission, making his team sit on the bench to think about how they had been instructed.
"I said ‘OK boys, I hope you remember the game plan now or after the second period we’re sitting on the bench again," Sangster said. "We didn’t win the game but we came close."
They went to the dressing room for the second intermission, but the episode wasn’t over.
"I got fined for making a mockery of the game," Sangster said.
Another time, Sangster warned a giant player to stop taking stupid penalties. The guy looked at him, clenching and unclenching his fists and breathing deeply, and then left Sangster’s office.
That was enough for Sangster. He traded the player, and had four players standing outside the door when he summoned the guy to his office to tell him the news.
The player started breathing deeply again, and grabbed Sangster before the coach could get to the baseball bat he had stashed in the corner.
"He lunged for me over the desk and grabbed me by the neck," Sangster said. "He started pulling at my neck so I let out a holler and these four guys rushed in and grabbed him off me. I finally reached the bat and kept it until he left."
Unbelievably, the player had success with his new club, and later called Sangster to thank him for the trade.
"It was even scary talking to him on the phone," Sangster said with a chuckle.
After the 1985-86 season, the Wheat Kings board held a meeting to decide his future and they tied on whether he should stay or go. They put off the decision until another meeting, and in the meantime, one of the board members changed her mind.
Sangster wouldn’t be rehired, and his coaching career at the major junior level was over.
Thankfully, he received some excellent advice from one of the board members, who encouraged him to pursue a career in the insurance business because he was so good with people.
It didn’t originally appeal to him, but after he lost his coaching job, he decided to try it out. After some time in Winnipeg, he moved back to Thompson, where he worked in the industry until he retired in 2010.
He had several offers to coach in Tier II, but wasn’t interested in coaching below major junior. He returned to the AAA midget program that he started with for a couple of seasons after his return, and also stepped behind the bench with a northern Junior B club.
Sangster was at his cabin fishing 18 months ago when he had a stroke.
"I didn’t know what the hell was happening," Sangster said. "I fell down, and I got up, and I took about two more steps and I went down again and I couldn’t get up again to get the phone. Finally somebody came out the next day and got me."
He is no longer able to walk, and can’t see very well, a condition that is getting worse.
Still, Sangster finds lots to get him out of bed every day.
"I like life," he said.
The twice-married Sangster doesn’t have any children, but is close to his sister, Brenda Redmond. Their siblings Barbara and Sandra and their mother have died, leaving the pair as the sole surviving members of the family.
Sangster now lives in a care facility in Winnipeg.
His joy from coaching came from dealing with players. He never forgot every single one had a different personality and would respond to different things.
He remembers talking to them after games, and sometimes grading their performance at a six when he was hoping for an eight.
"I would listen to them and it was ‘OK, go out and have a better game next time," Sangster said. "You have to talk to them all the time because different things come up."
He had one player who admitted to him that we was considering suicide. Sangster desperately wanted to find someone who had a better understanding of the issue, but he didn’t have anyone.
He kept talking to the teenager, and begged him to call him any time of the day or night. The phone calls kept coming, and the pair kept talking.
"It went on for about two weeks and all of a sudden he came out out of it," Sangster said.
He said one of the many lessons the game taught him was to listen and keep an open mind because you can always learn.
One time he was sitting at a table listening to a conversation among a group of hockey people that included Detroit Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano. Sangster, who was sitting quietly, was asked his opinion about something.
Sangster weighed in against Devellano’s opinion.
Later, when Sangster was seeking work in the NHL, he wrote to Detroit. Devellano’s response was swift and came in the form of a letter.
"I remember you," said the letter, which Sangster kept. "You were the guy who went against what I said at a table in Victoria. All he said was ‘Don’t burn your bridges.’ I couldn’t believe he remembered me."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson
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