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This article was published 24/9/2019 (760 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Not all of the most important people in Brandon Wheat Kings history ever skated a shift for them.
Bob Cornell co-owned or owned the team twice — 1974-80 and 1986-2001 — and is one of the key reasons why the team remains in Brandon.
It started in 1974 while he was at home for the owner of Cornell Plumbing and Heating, who is widely known by the nickname Plumber.
"Glenn Fowler knocked on my door one night at about eight o’clock and said "I’ve got a deal for you,’" Cornell said. "I went ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and he said "You have to buy me a drink first.’ I think he was priming me. That’s how we got involved."
On June 7, 1974, The Brandon Sun reported that a group of eight investors — Cornell, Stuart Craig, Glen Fowler, Bruce Kent, Dave Laing, Glenn Lawson, Clair Murray and Ross Mitchell — was looking to purchase the club from Bruce Kent, who had earlier bought out his partners, a different gentleman named Glen Lawson (one N), and Keith McCallum.
The eight businessmen stepped in and saved the team, and since Cornell knew the most about hockey, he was made governor to represent the team at league meetings.
"I wanted to make sure the team was in Brandon," said Cornell. "I’m a Brandon guy and was in Brandon my whole life. It was part of the city, and if somebody didn’t do something, it was going to go out of the city.
"Financially, it was never viable. Money always had to be put up to help it survive."
At the time, the Western Canada Hockey League was just a few years old and it was still the Wild West.
"That was an experience," Cornell chuckled. "Rules changed all the time. It was crazy. We had Ernie (Punch) McLean (from the New Westminster Bruins) and Del Wilson from (the) Regina (Pats) and they kind of led the group. They were in from day one and that was kind of the way it was."
The league office was in a hotel in Saskatoon.
Businessmen are seldom big fans of uncertainty, especially when it threatens an investment. Cornell noted his team "got screwed" a couple of times.
For instance, one year in the old round-robin playoff format, an unexpectedly lopsided score in a key game ensured the Wheat Kings were knocked out. Cornell had a physical altercation with the Flin Flon Bombers coach that night.
"I ended up having Mickey Keating by the neck in his own dressing room after the game," Cornell said with a laugh. "That’s how it was."
Ed Chynoweth had taken over as president in 1972, and while Cornell said it took time, he credits Chynoweth with the professional way the league is run today.
"The meetings were awful," Cornell said. "They were brutal. Guys would cut each other’s throats, and it’s not like that anymore. Chynoweth ran a pretty tight ship. He knew how to stroke everybody, that’s why he kept the job he had. I give him a lot of credit."
Cornell was hands-on with the Wheat Kings because he was the governor and later the league’s finance chairman, but he let general manager Jack Brockest do his job without interference.
Brockest bought into the ownership group after Glenn Lawson left, and the other seven men eventually decided to hand the team over to the GM when they felt the club was on sound financial footing, something noted in the Jan. 12, 1980 issue of The Brandon Sun. Brockest sold the team to a group of community investors in 1983 after running into financial difficulties and it looked like the club might be leaving town.
Three years later, with the invested money having run out, $200,000 in the hole and inquiries again being made about potentially moving the club to Lethbridge or Edmonton, Cornell, Craig and Laing saved the team again.
The Brandon Sun reported on Aug. 19, 1986 that the franchise would be purchased for more than $300,000. The Wheat Kings were saved, but the investors would lose their money, something that remains a sore point with some to this day.
Laing’s Coke got the concessions, Craig’s radio station got the broadcast rights and "I got the work," a chuckling Cornell said.
The team was leased back to the Keystone Centre, which ran the club through a newly hired director of hockey operations, Bill Shinske.
For the 1988-89 season, Keystone GM Craig Clearwater hired a new assistant coach and marketing-sales manager who was a young former Wheat King working in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
A new era had begun with Kelly McCrimmon, even if it was slow to take off.
Cornell, who was still serving as the team’s governor, would drop by the office every day, and he and McCrimmon spent hours talking hockey.
"I just realized he would do a pretty good job," Cornell said of his soon-to-be GM. "We fired Bill Shinske and hired Kelly on."
McCrimmon also took over as head coach from an ailing Doug Sauter mid-season.
But turning the ship around wasn’t easy, or quick.
The Wheat Kings were in the midst of missing the playoffs for four seasons in a row, and at one point, the board demanded McCrimmon be fired because the fix was taking too long. Cornell refused to budge, narrowly averting a potential disaster for the club’s future.
Cornell, who bought out Laing and Craig — a story reported in the April 13, 1992 edition of The Brandon Sun — let the Keystone out of its lease deal for the team a month later. Instead, he negotiated a tenant lease with the facility, allowing the Keystone to go from running a money-losing club to the team becoming a financial generator through concessions and rent.
"The Keystone didn’t want to lose the hockey team either," Cornell said. "They needed the attendance. I got a good deal, but so did the Keystone. The team stayed in Brandon and it’s still here."
Cornell was a legendarily competitive golfer but found he had to let go of worrying about the highs and lows that come with running a hockey team.
"You just have to," Cornell said, noting the WHL bantam draft didn’t begin until 1990. "The biggest thing when we got involved is that none of the rule changes came along. Before, it was a crapshoot, you just got your players from wherever you wanted."
Cornell said he counselled McCrimmon early on that banking draft picks was a solid strategy, based on the work done by noted Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock.
"It worked really well for the first three years until the other teams caught on," Cornell said. "Then it got a little more difficult."
By then, Brandon made a number of smart picks that led to its dramatic turnaround in the 1992-93 season when the Wheat Kings went from 28 points a year earlier to 90.
After the season, Cornell sold one-third of the club to McCrimmon, a story reported in the Sun on June 9, 1993.
"I thought he was good enough that I would lose him if I didn’t hang a carrot in front of him," Cornell said. "That’s why I did it. I could see he was doing a good job, and nobody worked harder than him."
Cornell’s mentorship and friendship have never been forgotten by McCrimmon.
When McCrimmon was promoted to general manager by the Vegas Golden Knights in May, he was quick to praise Cornell for all he’s meant to him both professionally and personally.
"The faith that Bob showed in me as a young person gave me the opportunity to be the general manager of the Brandon Wheat Kings," McCrimmon said. "What forever has been the most impressive aspect of our relationship is that our first year we tied for the final playoff spot and lost in a play-in game. My second year we won 18 games and my third year we won 11 games.
"Now I’m 31 years old and guessing that outside of Bob Cornell, there is not another person in Brandon who thinks I have any idea what I’m doing. That very summer, Bob sold our family one-third of the team.
"If a guy believes in you to that degree, that’s pretty special … Aside from the opportunity and the faith he showed in me, we’ve always been great friends over all those years."
Cornell laughs when asked what he did well as an owner.
"I was smart enough to hire the right guy," he said.
He later sold the rest of the club to McCrimmon, which was reported in The Brandon Sun on June 21, 2001.
"I just thought it was time," Cornell said. "I had been there a long time and the other biggest reason was I wanted to go south. If I owned it, I would still want to be there."
Cornell, whose wife Lois passed away in 2006, has three children, Ron, Kathy and Nancy, and several grandchildren. His contributions to the league were honoured when he was named the 2006-07 recipient of the WHL Governors Award.
Cornell said the team wasn’t a profitable venture until he made a bit in his last few years as owner in the 1990s. The reward came in a different way.
"I certainly take pride in what I accomplished for the Wheat Kings as a person and a businessman who helped keep them in Brandon," Cornell said. "I believe in Brandon, and I hope they stay here. That’s what makes a city."
» The Brandon Wheat Kings alumni series will continue with occasional instalments throughout the season.
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