Canucks hockey alumni – from skates to skis

Two Vancouver Canucks Alumni share stories about their careers, the sport of hockey, and how it has changed over the years.

Two Vancouver Canucks Alumni were reunited in Fernie last week, and stopped by The Free Press to share stories about their careers, the sport of hockey, and how it has changed over the years.

Garth Rizzuto, Fernie local has roots well established in the community. He was the first-ever B.C. boy drafted by, and to score for the Vancouver Canucks.

Garry Monahan hails from Barrie, Ontario, and was chosen first overall for the NHL’s first-ever amateur draft in 1963. At the time Monahan was 17-years-old. Four years later, he was playing in the NHL.  Now, at the age of 70, he laughs about being reduced to a trivia question.

“The unfortunate thing about that for me, was, well, three things really.  I peaked too early. I peaked around 16 and the rest was downhill,’said Monahan, jokingly.“It also shows how old I am.”

Monahan played 748 games in the NHL starting with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1967-68 season.  Moving throughout the league, the centre man had stints with the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings before settling in for five seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. From 1974 to 1978, Monahan donned a Canucks jersey before wrapping up his NHL career with one final season as a Leaf.

Rizzuto, originally from Trail, B.C., started his hockey days with the Moose Jaw Canucks of the WHL, and turned pro at the age of 19. At that time he went to Dallas where his team won the Adams cup, and Rizzuto was top scorer. When expansion came he was drafted by the newly-formed Vancouver Canucks. After a contractual dispute in his second year, he was given the opportunity to play with the Winnipeg Jets in the World Hockey Association (WHA).  Rizzuto hung up his skates in 1977.

The two vintage stars have seen the sport of hockey change in many ways since their playing days, but both agree the biggest change revolves around money. During their playing days, the average salary for an NHL player was $24,000.

“We always thought it was a good season when you didn’t ‘have’ to work in the summer. Most of us worked in the summer all the time, doing different jobs,” Rizzuto shared.

In the early 1970s, the WHA was formed as a rival league to the NHL. It was at this point that players who were in demand could negotiate higher salaries, which caused a spike in salaries, which quickly increased to $40,000 on average.

In retrospect, Rizzuto wishes he had not left the NHL, the hockey league he dreamed of playing for as a child. Those who ended up staying with the NHL and remained loyal, walked away from their careers with a handsome pension.

Rizzuto retired from hockey in the mid-70s, and lived in Whistler for 26 years, returning to Fernie in 2007. A highlight in his career was being roommates with Don Cherry.

Weighing in on the changes to the game, Monahan discussed fighting in hockey.

“I fought a lot,”he said. “I never wanted to fight. You just had to.”

Monahan and Rizzuto both agree that fighting was expected of the players in the old-school game. It was considered absolutely mandatory, and if a player was challenged and refused to engage, he would be off the team in an instant.

“I think 10 to 15 years from now, we’ll look back and say ‘they used to fight in hockey,’” said Monahan. “ I mean, it is archaic if you think about it.”

Monahan recalled a fight with John Ferguson, (self-proclaimed to be “the meanest, rottenest, most miserable cuss ever to play in the NHL”), in which he suffered a loss of hearing in his right ear.

At the time, team fights were much more common, and it was expected that a team would come over the bench to back up their teammates on the ice. Rizzuto is wglad these are no longer encouraged. “Now it is all about talent,”he said.

When asked, Monahan and Rizzuto both found it hard to choose a “best player”, because there were so many, but each weighed in on the authority and presence that was felt when Gordie Howe took to the ice.

Monahan played with and against Howe, and saw a tough side of him. He was known as someone you simply did not mess with.

“It was a different game for Gordie, he could skate around with his head down and nobody would hit him, because if you hit him, he’d spear you in the throat,” remembered Monahan. “If you watch those clips, he’s skating around like he’s the only guy on the ice. You watch clips of me, and there are guys hanging off my back!”

Rizzuto spoke of Bobby Hull, and about what it is like to play with someone who has been named one of the greatest players to ever step foot on the ice.

“I also played with Bobby Hull for three years. He could just control the game like you wouldn’t believe,“ Rizzuto shared.

“And fire the puck!” piped in Monahan. “He was exciting to watch.”

Turning the discussion to life after retirement, Rizzuto and Monahan discussed the mountain lifestyle and their love for skiing.

“He skis like a skier,” Monahan said of Rizzuto.“ I ski like a Zamboni coming down the mountain,” he laughed.

Whether on the ice, or on the hill, both NHL’ers agree that playing hockey together is like being in the trenches together.

A brotherhood made of experience and memories is something they will always share.