As a native and long-time resident of Winnipeg, it is my habit when visiting the city to read the obituaries in the Winnipeg Free Press. On Monday, I was shocked to see the obituary of Dr. Gerry Wilson, age 73, with a headshot of him in a Montreal Canadiens jersey.
I was too young to remember the time when Dr. Wilson was the best junior age hockey prospect in Canada, his heroics in Memorial Cup final, or his games as a teenaged callup with the Montreal Canadiens when they were in the early stages of their run of five consecutive Stanley Cups. I was also too young to recall the serious knee injuries that ended his playing career far too early.
My memories of Dr. Wilson concern his time as a prominent Winnipeg surgeon specializing in the treatment of sports-related injuries and his proud parentage of four hockey-playing sons. Carey Wilson had a successful NHL career, primarily with the Calgary Flames and Carey’s son, Colin, is an exciting young player currently with the Nashville Predators.
Dr. Wilson was passionate about hockey. He could talk intelligently about all aspects of the game. He also made a significant contribution to the development of professional hockey as a global sport. In 1973-74, he took a year’s sabbatical from his medical practice to do research in Sweden. While there, he saw and befriended some of the top hockey players in the country. When he returned to Winnipeg, he encouraged some of these players to join him and sign with the Winnipeg Jets as that team prepared for its third season in the World Hockey Association. Dr. Wilson also had to do a sales pitch to the operators of the Jets under their new public ownership. A bunch of “chicken Swedes” who were unknown in North America were certainly not looked upon as the foundation of a successful professional hockey franchise in the Western Hemisphere.
The rest, as they say, is history. Swedish stars such as Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg were soon joined by Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson, Thommie Bergman and many more. Together with North American stars such as Bobby Hull, Ted Green, Morris Lukowich and Terry Ruskowski, these players combined to form the foundation of a team that won three Avco Cup championships in four years, losing the fourth in Game 7 of the final. They also became the first North American club to beat the Soviet Red Army national team.
Most significantly, the team introduced North American fans to a new brand of hockey. It was a hybrid style that combined many of the most pleasing aspects of North American and European hockey. It was definitely crowd pleasing, which excited hockey fans wherever the team played. I will never forget the night in the spring of 1984 when the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. When Oilers GM/coach Glen Sather first talked to the assembled media and the international audience of fans, he stated he had modeled his entertaining young championship club on his old rivals from the WHA, the Winnipeg Jets.
The Edmonton Oilers became the marquee team in an era that is now considered to be the most entertaining in the history of the NHL. A number of the rule changes debated and passed in recent years have attempted to restore the hockey from that time period.
What are the essential characteristics of this style of hockey? Puck possession, quick puck movement, speed generated through the neutral zone, goals scored off the rush with exciting passing plays and an up-tempo approach to the entire game.
Many players, coaches and hockey executives contributed to the development of this type of hockey. It is vastly different from what North American and European fans had enjoyed in earlier times. Every radical change requires a visionary, a dreamer who can put the wheels in motion.
Dr. Gerry Wilson performed the role of hockey visionary. He pictured the exact type of game that would develop if the best elements throughout the hockey world were combined. Rest in peace, Dr. Wilson. All hockey fans owe you a significant debt of gratitude.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.