From Saginaw Gear, to Fort Wayne Komet- an interview with Terry Ewasiuk

In the era of the Saginaw Gears it was not uncommon for professional players to move from one league to another, to another and to another. In fact it was very rare for a professional to come to a given city and stay with the same team through their career. So it was that players came and went; one such player showed up at Wendler Arena half way through the 1975-76 IHL season and joined the Gears for the remainder of that season before going on to another team. That player was Terry Ewasiuk- affectionately known to his teammates as “Wazz.”

Back when I first bought the domain for Saginaw Gears Dot Com, Wazz discovered the site and contacted me. I immediately told him that as soon as I had the site up and running I’d like him to do an interview- he very kindly agreed. Of course it took me another FIVE YEARS to get the site up and running and during that time he changed his e-mail address and I changed mine- so we lost contact. I’m happy to say that recently we got back in touch and #11 for the Gears in 1976, Terry Ewasiuk has been kind enough to take the time for an interview…

SGDC: Terry, normally interviews with players start with that little boy skating on frozen water, but we’re going to start yours sort of in the middle. Give us an outline of your professional days before coming to the Gears.

Wazz: In my first season as a pro., after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, I played for the Hershey Bears. I was definitely one of the youngest players on the Hershey team at 20 years old. We had a lot older, experienced team with players like Duane Rupp (38 years old) and Ralph Keller (36 years old) to mention two that were journeymen players. While playing in the AHL I had heard the comment that the American Hockey League was a “Gentleman’s League” due to the vast amount of older players in the league. At that time the AHL was really not thought of as a development league like it is today. That being said there was nothing gentlemanly about the play in the IHL.

SGDC: This leads up to your transition was from the AHL to the IHL and your arrival at Wendler Arena to join the Saginaw Gears.

Wazz: When I first arrived in Saginaw, on Saturday, January 3, 1976, I got to the Civic Center while a game was in progress between the Gears and the Flint Generals. From what I remember, when I walked into the arena, the first thing that I noticed after watching the first period was how much smaller most of the players were on both teams compared to the AHL. I mean there were big players in the IHL, but the overall size of most the players in the AHL seemed to be bigger. That being said, I would soon find out how tough the IHL really was and that size didn’t matter. If you could play and survive in the IHL you could play anywhere.

SGDC: Tell us a bit about your first encounter with coach Don Perry that same night.

Wazz: As I stood there, behind the plexi-glass watching the game, I thought about my new surroundings. I was in a different city and not sure what to expect as I knew nothing about Saginaw, the Gears or the IHL. After the first period ended I approached Coach Perry to let him know that I had arrived. Without hesitation he immediately asked me to suit up for the game and play the second and third periods. Coach Perry had put my name down on the game sheet just in case I showed up. However, having gotten in late to Saginaw and not expecting to play, I’d left my skates in my hotel room. So the Gear’s trainer Gunner Garrett sent the stick boy Tim Raymond to the nearby hotel to get my skates. Once I got my skates I got dressed as quickly as I could and then made my way from the Gear’s dressing room to the entrance gate at the ice surface. The second period was about seven minutes in and play was underway so I had to wait a few minutes until there was a stoppage in play. Once I heard the referee’s whistle I slowly opened the gate trying to be as inconspicuous as I could be. As I closed the gate it seemed that every set of eyes in the arena was looking at me. [Laughter]

SGDC: [Laughter] Most players don’t like a lot of individual attention, that must have been quite awkward as opposed to starting at the beginning of a game after doing the warm-ups with the whole team.

Wazz: Right. So, I then made my way to the Gear’s player’s bench as quickly as I could and tried to hide amongst my new teammates. I had actually heard some cheering from the crowd as I skated from the gate in the corner which embarrassed me even more. I struggled for a few shifts as I had not played in a week but I do remember getting a great pass in the slot area midway through the second period from my Marcel Comeau, but I mishandled the puck without getting the shot away. The trainer Gunner Garret had given me a new pair of gloves and the palms were very stiff which made it difficult to handle the stick. [Laughter]. Not that I was any great scorer but I needed an excuse. It took me a few shifts to get going but I do remember getting a couple of good hits which helped me to relax and get into the game. We ended up winning the game 4-2.

SGDC: I was at that game and I recall my dad talking in the Blue Line Club after the game about your arrival. He said that it looked like Perry went to the meat market and bought a good sized cut of beef. Who did they line you with?

Wazz: I ended up playing with Marcel Comeau on the right wing and Jim McMahon at center. I thought the line had great chemistry but it was probably more the fact that Marcel carried our line and played very well the last couple of months of the season.

SGDC: You remarked that the IHL seemed to be tougher than the AHL. Can you give us a few memories on that?

Wazz: I do remember one game that our line played together against the Dayton Gems in Dayton. Jim had just picked up a loose puck and was carrying the puck up through the neutral zone with his head down. Out of nowhere came Stan Jonathon catching Jim with an earth shattering body check as Jim was looking down at the puck. To Jim’s credit he got up off the ice but instead of coming to our bench he went and tried to get into the Gem’s bench. He had no clue where he was. The Gems players gently turned him around and pushed him in our direction. That was one of the hardest hits I’d seen in my career. Jim’s CCM helmet actually had split at the top from the impact.

SGDC: I was talking to Rosie about you and he commented on a nick-name for you. In typical Rosie style he simply said, one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a while, “Ewasiuk? Oh yeah… we called him “Gaunch”… nobody knows why.”

Wazz: [Laughing] I vaguely remember that nick-name “Gaunch” but I do remember it. “Gaunch” meant underwear; alias shorts or briefs but I’m not sure how I got that nick-name. I do remember the nick-name “Tazz” as every once in a while I would go crazy on the ice, very similar to the Tasmanian Devil used to do in the Looney Tunes cartoons. Like defenseman Gord Malinowski used to tell me; “Every once in a while as a player you needed to remind the opposition that you were still around and capable of reverting into a crazy man”. That would keep the opposition players honest and unsure of which type of player you’d be. [Laughing] Other than that I was normally referred to as “Wazz.”

SGDC: Don Perry coached a deep bench where, talent-wise, every line could play as good and any other. He also stressed a physical game. Any memories on that?

Wazz: I remember a home and home series with the Flint Generals turning into a very physical weekend. It was the final regular season game. I recall the home game on Saturday; we were looking to rebound from an 11-2 drubbing by the Generals the night before. A minute into the game all hell broke loose when Desrosiers, Gary Sittler and Dave Miglia squared off to do battle with three Flint players.  Almost immediately the benches emptied as Coach Perry was in an ugly mood from the night before and made the call quickly.[Laughter] At that time, in the IHL, the first player off the bench was immediately given a one game suspension. Borden Smith who wasn’t noted for his aggressive style of play had volunteered to be the first player over the bench which meant he’d be automatically suspended for a game. He was an excellent captain and to his credit he knew he’d be suspended but was willing to do whatever he needed to do to help the team. As I recall, I was second off the bench and got into the melee ASAP and eventually got jumped from behind by the Flint goaltender who had skated down from his end of the ice to get involved. Actually it was kind of funny because the league commissioner Bill Beagan was at the game to present the Frank Gallagher Trophy to the Gears after the game for winning the north division title. The one thing about the IHL it was an intense league where the players played hard and weren’t easily intimidated.

SGDC: The 1975-76 season did not end well for the Gears, or for you as I recall.

Wazz: I enjoyed the season with the Gears as we ended up in first place in the north division but unfortunately we lost out of the playoffs in the second round to Port Huron. If you can believe it I ended up missing the final 5 games of the playoffs due to an infected boil on my tail-bone. The Gears captain, Borden Smith came in for me and played great. Another thing I remember about the team is that we had four players with over 250 minutes in penalties which was unheard of, even then. What was also remarkable about that year was Dennis Desrosiers’s season. He had 254 penalty minutes with 40 goals and 41 assists for 81 points in only 69 games. That was amazing.

SGDC: So, after that stint with the Gears, what was your next move?

Wazz: After my season with the Gears, I signed with the Fort Wayne Komets and spent two years there.

SGDC: Fort Wayne has long been a huge hockey town with a history going all the way back to 1952. Tell us a bit more about your first season there.

Wazz: How I ended up in Ft. Wayne was due to my close relationship with Ralph Keller when we played together in Hershey. Actually his son and I were about the same age and Ralph kind of took me under his wing and taught me a lot about being a pro. When Ralph took over the coaching reins of the Komets he contacted me when he found out I was in the IHL playing for the Gears. As much as I loved playing in Saginaw for Don Perry and the Gear organization, I couldn’t say no to Ralph. The team chemistry with the Gears was very close with players like Gord Malinowski, Dennis Desrosiers, John Gravel, Marcel Comeau, Gary Sittler to mention a few that were ultimate team players. The next year the Gears were IHL champs so I could have been a part of that championship team, but you can’t look back at what could have been. You have to remember, in the minors most teams carried smaller rosters due to budget restraints which meant the players got to be very close as not only teammates but as friends as well. It was no different in Saginaw. At the end of the season with the Gears we only had 17 players; 2 goaltenders, 5 defensemen and 10 forwards. In today’s game, hockey organizations dress a minimum 20 players for a game and carry an average of 23 players on their roster so there are players sitting in the stands every game biting at the bit to get back into game action.

SGDC: What was it like playing for Coach Ralph “Wendy” Keller as opposed to Don Perry, were their styles different?

Wazz: Both men are similar in that they enjoyed lengthy playing careers as defensemen; Don in the Eastern Hockey League and Ralph in the American Hockey League. However, Ralph and Don were at the opposite ends of the rainbow as players and personalities. [Laughter] Ralph was a very mild and quiet/gentle person and a very skilled defenseman. Don, on the other hand, was a fiery, hardnosed, tough-as-they-come defenseman and he coached that way too. He was probably the most intimidating coach I’d ever played for. As a player he was said to have been one of the best fighters in hockey – ever! His players feared him as a coach much as they respected him. [Laughter]

When I first arrived in Saginaw one of the first stories the guys told me over a few beers was about how intimidating Don was as a coach. They proceeded to tell me how he had once punched a sports reporter from the Saginaw News as he was climbing the steps to get into the team bus for a road trip. It seems that the sports writer had written some very unkind words about the team in the sports section of the newspaper and Don had taken exception.  Was it former Saginaw News Sports staff writer John Pozenel? I don’t know as the players never did tell me his name. [Laughter] But I can say this I do remember seeing John on the bus on at least one road trip with the team and writing an excellent two page article on the team in the Saginaw News Sports called “On the Road with the Saginaw Gears”.

As coaches, I think Don gets the nod over Ralph. I mean time has proven that to be true. Don had a player template and understood the type of player he needed to be successful. [Laughter] In fairness, I had known Ralph for four years as a player and a coach while I had known Don only for three months. In a pro career that spanned nearly 20 years as a skilled defenceman, Ralph had actually played three games for the New York Rangers in 1962-63. Ralph was a very competitive player and brought that intense competitiveness into his coaching style. Unfortunately for Ralph in his second year in Ft. Wayne there seemed to be a breakdown between Ralph and the veteran players especially the ones from the previous year and nobody was happy or having fun. Everyone recognized Ralph as a solid hockey man who “knew the game” but something changed in his second year. Ralph put a tremendous amount of pressure on himself and he just wasn’t enjoying himself anymore and the team struggled. He worked hard and dedicated himself to making the team better. I think he felt that he wasn’t seeing the same commitment by some of the players which was frustrating for him. I really believed that Ralph really missed being a player and that the coaching just wasn’t for him. He’d had a great career as a player and had dedicated himself to the sport he loved. In the end the Komet’s general manager Ken Ullyot let Ralph go and brought in some hotshot coach named Gregg Pilling [Laughter]

SGDC: In the 1976-77 playoffs, Fort Wayne lost in round two. What do you recall about that series?

Wazz: As sports reporter Bud Gallmeier for the News Sentinel in Ft. Wayne wrote in his column, “Ralph who had taken the blunt of the blame for the Komet’s ineptness most of the season, now must get credit for the turnaround. His patience with some players is beginning to pay off. His low key, stone-faced approach to the game is bringing high key response from his team and excitement to the fans”. We had won 5 of our last 6 games to end the season and had won six straight games at the Coliseum. Everyone was playing with a lot of confidence going into the playoffs and we felt ready to take on the defending Turner Cup Champions Dayton Gems. The previous year the Komets had been eliminated in the playoffs by a star studded Gems team but the Gems team was not nearly as good this year. The Gems had ended up in second place while the Komets had ended in third place so the series would be starting at the Hara Arena in Dayton. We had a very physical Komet team that year and if we played physical we thought we would have a good chance to win the series. We’d also had a lot of injuries to key players so the team never really reached their potential during the regular season. I was one of the players with a serious knee injury that had kept me out of the line-up for six weeks. I was just starting to feel better with my conditioning after returning to the lineup. Early reaction to my return late in the season had been more negative than positive. [Laughter] It just took time but by the time the playoffs started I was back to 100% and eager to get the playoffs started. The team played well right from the start against the Gems and swept them in four games. We won game four at the Coliseum in front of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowd of the year. We had some extra days off as Toledo and Columbus went to seven games in their series. The Toledo Goaldiggers ended up winning the series. The Diggers had beaten us seven times during the regular season but we felt confident in our chances based on the way we had played over the last month but we knew they would be tough to beat. The series started in Toledo and things didn’t go the way we’d hoped as we lost 6-3. The loss we could handle but we lost a couple of key players to injury and we weren’t sure when they would be back. However, in game two, before a sold out Coliseum we regrouped and romped to a 7-1 win. As you can guess with a one-sided score things became pretty chippy and the game got out of hand but nobody was hurt. As I recall we had played a good sound hockey game. We continued to play physical and tried to wear the Toledo team down.

SGDC: Your second season in Fort Wayne you were playing for Coach Gregg Pilling and you had switched from defense to forward. Tell us about that.

Wazz: Pilling was a dynamic individual and his enthusiasm was contagious as the players fed off his energy. He definitely was what they call a “player’s coach”. The team was a winner - all season long. Winning is always more fun than losing and Pilling’s approach and association with the players made winning even more fun. Actually Ralph Keller had converted me to a defenseman in my first year with the Komets and it took Gregg Pilling only about 10 games to return me back to my normal position of right wing (I shoot left) for the rest of the year. He still spotted me on defense once in a while during the season when we’d lose a defenseman to an injury, suspension or benching.

SGDC: Overall, as a player how would you consider all of your IHL coaches?

Wazz: As a player, in the IHL, I played for three very good coaches; Don Perry, Ralph Keller and Gregg Pilling. I learned a lot from all three which has helped me as a coach for more than 30 years. In my second year in Ft. Wayne Gregg Pilling took over for Ralph. Gregg had been a very successful coach with the Philadelphia Firebirds in the East Coast Hockey League. Over the years Gregg and I have become good friends. We still run into each other every once in a while as he lives in Edmonton which isn’t far from my home town of Smoky Lake where I presently live. Don Perry used fire and brimstone [Laughter] to motivate his players who usually responded positively to his style. Greg Pilling was also a firey coach and motivator but he was a head of his time in how he coached technically. At the start of the season Pilling gave all the players a play book that he had received from Fred Shero while both men were in Philadelphia. In this play book (which I still have today) there were basic hockey guide lines and principals from the Russian coach, Tarasoff. Pilling always thought outside the box and always tried to look at various ways to give his team the edge on the ice. For example, in our rink, he used to take the metal filings off the floor from the skate sharpener in the trainer’s room and dump all these filings on the floor of the opposition’s bench. He felt that the metal on metal friction caused by the opposition players walking with their skates in their bench could cause some of the players to lose an edge during the game. [Laughter] He also had very bright bulbs put in the visitor’s dressing room so that when the opposition players came out everything around them seemed dull as it took a while for their eyes to become accustomed to the new surroundings on the ice. Ralph Keller was more of a strategist and liked the skilled game more than the crash and bang style that Pilling and Perry enjoyed.

SGDC: So, the 1977-78 season shows up in the record books as your final season of professional hockey as a player. You were pretty productive in that season with 11 goals and 20 assists- what happened?

Wazz: In Ft. Wayne, under Ralph Keller I had played as a defenseman. Then when Pilling took over for Ralph in my second year, Pilling returned me to my natural position as a right winger about 20 games into the season. I had enjoyed playing defense but I really missed being a forward so I was happy to be back as a forward.

My pro career eventually came to an end in the summer of 1979 when I blew my knee out trying to steal second base in a baseball game. It was then that I decided it was time to call it a career. In the end, after 5 years as a pro, I had scored 34 goals in 2 ½ years in the AHL (193 games) and scored 27 goals in 2 ½ years in the IHL (189 games) of those goals 10 were scored as a defenseman when I played defense for the Ft. Wayne Komets.

When I was done, I did some scouting for Greg Pilling when he ended up as the head coach with the Regina Pats in the WHL. I also scouted a little for Marcel Comeau, when he was the head coach of the Saginaw Gears. I actually sent him a couple of players that had been playing junior hockey for me. I even scouted for the Ft. Wayne Komets as well. Eventually I got away from the game and it wasn't until my two sons started playing hockey, that I got involved again as a coach.
SGDC: Canada has about as many guys who played professional hockey and then decided to go and do something else as it has with kids coming up who can think of nothing other than playing pro hockey. Tell us how you made the transition.

Wazz:  After the 1973 NHL draft I opted for the Pittsburgh Penguins instead of the Chicago Cougars of the WHA. My first pro camp was in Brantford, Ont. After the Penguins camp, I was sent to the Hershey Bears in Hershey, PA. In my first year as a pro we won the Calder Cup. We beat John Muckler's, Providence Reds team in the final. Don Cherry was also coaching in the American League then. Most of the players off that team went on to pretty good careers. Robin Burns a teammate eventually went on to start Itech.
The 1974-75 hockey season had me back with the Bears. We played an exhibition game against the Wings of Soviet (Jan. 5, 1975). We beat them 10 - 7. We were actually up 7 - 0 at one point. There were seven members from the Soviet National Team on the Wings that had played in the famous 72 series against the Russians. Aleksandr Sidelnikov, Victor Kuznetsov, Aleksandr Bodunov, Viacheslav Anisin, Juri Lebedev, Konstantin Klimov and Sergei Kapustin. Their coach was Boris Kulagin.
For the 1975-76 season the Penguins reassigned me to the Baltimore Clippers. The head coach there was Kent Douglas (former rookie of the year for the Toronto Maple Leafs). Due to a variety of circumstances I bounced around that year. I played in Springfield for a few months where Eddie Shore would come on the ice, from time to time at 72 years old. I have some good Eddie Shore memories as he was quite an eccentric. The actual coach was Jimmy Wilson but Eddie Shore ran the club. Eventually that year I ended up with the Saginaw Gears. I remember remarking after my first season in the IHL that the league was tough and mean as were the coaches. [Laughter]
SGDC: Tell us and your fans out there (who may be from either Saginaw, or Fort Wayne, or Hershey, or Baltimore etc.) what are you doing these days?
Wazz: In the early nineties, I was heavily involved in minor hockey and summer hockey programs for kids. I got the chance to work with some very talented hockey players. A dozen of the players that I had coached over the next 4 years were drafted by the NHL. There were many other players that ended up having good junior careers but didn't get drafted. There were also players that went the Jr. "A" route and ended up getting scholarships. To that point I'd had a lot of success coaching and scouting. I'd set up a great network of friends in the hockey industry and they were at all levels.
Over time, I was eventually offered the position of being the head coach in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference which is a very strong college league here in Western Canada. I spent 13 years in the league winning one championship and a coach of the year award. My teams went to the finals four times during that time.

Just recently I have decided to retire from coaching and have just signed a contract to be the next general manager of the local golf club. [Laughter] It’s my dream job and I’m looking forward to a long career on the links and in the clubhouse.

SGDC: Now for the end, let’s go way back to the beginning and that little kid named Terry Ewasiuk skating on frozen water up in Canada. What was your road like from frozen ponds to arenas where people pay to see you play?
Wazz: I was born in Smoky Lake (74 miles northeast of Edmonton) and lived there most of my school years. I was an excellent athlete having played in all the school sports. At the age of 14 yrs old I was a starter for our local men’s baseball team but also played all the positions except catcher.
As for hockey, early in my life, my entire hockey I played was in the outdoor rinks. I never played a lot of real games growing up. I only played a total of 24 games between the ages of 14 and 16. Just shinny hockey prior to that in the outdoor rinks and on some slews in around the Smoky Lake area. Each season I averaged 8 outdoor games with many of those games having a parent or fan come out of the stands to referee the game. It wasn’t until I was 16 years old that I actually played a game with a qualified referee. [Laughter] I was always a big kid and by the time I was 15 years old I was 6'2" - 180 lbs with good hands but a terrible skater.
In grade 12 my Uncle convinced me to try out for a Jr. "B" team (1970-71) that was located 60 miles away. I tried out for the team but I labored in my skating and the only reason I hadn't been cut was I was driving and bringing with me another player that the team really wanted. The other player had no other way of getting to the tryouts otherwise. So as long as I drove him out there, the Junior B team kept me around. Then in one of the last exhibition games, near the end of the tryouts, I was involved in a line brawl. I was paired up with the league's tough guy and penalty leader from the league’s previous season. I had never been in a fight before but proceeded to do a number on him. To that point, I hadn't even thought of myself as a fighter. Following the game the head coach, Riley Mullen (former New York Ranger), told me that I wasn't on the team before but from that day forward I was. I ended up having a good year and finished 2nd in scoring behind Dale Lewis (who eventually made it through the minor pros to play with the New York Rangers). The player that I'd been driving out to the tryouts, eventually quit.
Following the season I received no invitations to any Junior camps but I was lucky enough to find a Junior A team that would let me attend their camp as a walk-on. I proceeded to make the team. We didn't make the playoffs but I ended up their top scorer for the season and made the All-Star team. Because our season was shortened I was asked to join the local Senior AAA team, the Edmonton Monarchs, for their Allen Cup run (spring of 1972). I had actually played half dozen games with the Monarchs during the season as an affiliate. The head coach who had once played for the Montreal Canadiens was Gene Actimychuk and the team was loaded with local stars. Len the Komet Hailey, Ron Tookey, Jim Knox, Gary Simmons (picked up for the Allen Cup from Winnipeg), Dale Conrad and Dale Rochefort to name a few. We didn't do that well but what an experience it was hanging around those old seasoned pros (I was 18).
For the 1972-73 season, I was hoping to get some interest from the WHL but I never received one letter to a camp. However, the Victoria Cougars, a second year franchise of the WHL, were holding tryouts in Edmonton. The head coach was Mitch Pechet, from Edmonton. He had once played for the New York Rangers.  I eventually made the team and ended up second in scoring. However, we never made the playoffs. I had 3 coaches that year. Mitch Pechet started, Bob Briscoe took over and we ended up with Eric Bishop, who had also been the GM. Eric was quite a firey coach and more than once I picked up his false teeth off the floor of the player's bench during games. He'd get so riled up that, when he'd scream, his teeth would sometimes fly out. 
Even though I was experiencing personal success, the teams weren't. I'd missed the playoffs two years in a row now. However my stats, size and fighting ability were good enough to get me drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 7th round and the Chicago Cougars in the 4th round. I opted for the Penguins. It's funny because the Philadelphia Flyers had been talking to me for most of the season.
It was like a dream. In just three years I went from having played a season high 8 outdoor hockey games to being drafted into the NHL. I eventually signed a 3 year deal with my father as my agent.
SGDC: Terry, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to give us all an inside look at your career and catch up on what you are up to these days. We get a lot of readers here not only from Saginaw, but also- for some odd reason- from Fort Wayne. Thus, many of your fans can now feel that they have caught up with one of their favorite players. Thank you once again.

Wazz: Wes, I’d like to thank you for giving me an opportunity to answer your questions and re-live some wonderful moments in my life. Although we only covered a fraction of the events over my five years as a pro those years that I played professional hockey were some of the best years of my life and still I cherish them to this day.

Anytime I want to get nostalgic about the old times, I throw in the DVD “Slap Shot” and it brings a tear to my eye every time. [Laughter]

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