War ended NHL career

EARL MCRAE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 2:50 PM ET

PETAWAWA -- He'll be there on Remembrance Day as he always is, he'll go to this very special place in this very special town in our privileged nation, he'll be among the multitude of the grateful before the cenotaph in front of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 517 to honour our fallen in wars, 16 of them from the army base here, 16 so young, so brave, whose lives ended in Afghanistan.

He'll be there for them, he'll be there in his medals, he who also once left this very special place that was his hometown for another war a long time ago in another place far away, he who, but for the grace of God, could also have died, so young, so brave.

SCORED HAT TRICK

He who is 89 years old now, he who will drive to the cenotaph rather than join the marchers in the traditional trek from Giesebrecht's, the wholesale store his immigrant father Eugene started in 1910, when it was a general store and ice cream parlour and cement block manufacturer, the first business in what was then a fur-trade hamlet that the Algonquin Indians named Petawawa, meaning where one hears the noise of the water.

He who left one war to go to a second, he whose first war was a war on ice, he who is Roy Giesebrecht, the last surviving member of the NHL Detroit Red Wings team he played centre for from 1939 to 1942, he who scored a hat trick in the first period of his first game, he who finished third behind Frankie Brimsek and Roy Conacher for top rookie, he who twice scored overtime goals that eliminated the New York Rangers and the New York Americans from the play-offs, he who the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Conn Smythe, said was the best rookie in the league and should have won.

He who is now sitting in the living room of his bungalow, looking lean and fit and far younger than his years, he "Gus" Giesebrecht, the only one of his five hockey-playing brothers -- Jack, Bert, Bruce who played in the AHL, Fred who played senior, Dick who played locally -- to make the big time, the only boy then, before, and since to do so from the town of Petawawa.

Petawawa has had an army base since 1905, and at its zenith in 1943, 20,000 soldiers were trained for World War II at Camp Petawawa, as it was then called, and one of them was No. 19 for the Detroit Red Wings.

Many NHL players short-circuited their careers to volunteer for the war against Hitler, not always with the blessing of their clubs who could ill afford to lose their talent in their quest for the Stanley Cup which, before he joined the Canadian army, Roy Giesebrecht's Wings had contested, the famous series they lost to the Leafs after winning the first three games.

NO RETURN

"I signed up right here in town," says Giesebrecht who, after the war, turned down general manager Jack Adams' offer to return to the Wings in favour of playing senior hockey in the Ottawa Valley and working for the family business which he took over after his father died in 1952.

"I was a corporal with the 2nd Division, Ordnance Field Park. We landed at Normandy 30 days after D-Day in 1944. We had all the ammunition and small arms for the infantry that had gone in, and we had the artillery behind us.

"Just like our soldiers today, and the ones from our base here, they were a fine and dedicated bunch of soldiers. Including England, I was overseas three years. I fought in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. The Germans were firing at us, we had a lot of people hit, a lot of people killed. A shell hit right near where I was, and three of our men were killed."

A small smile crosses his face. "Turk Broda, the Leafs goaltender. He didn't go overseas. He went AWOL so many times, he made the brass furious. I think that's why I got sent overseas. They were so mad at Broda, they decided that's it, we're shipping all the damn hockey players overseas."

When the other soldiers realized he was a Detroit Red Wings player, did they treat him differently? "No. It's not something I told them. I was just another soldier. But some found out. One officer used to ask me a lot of questions. That was okay, I didn't mind."

The fact that your dad had been an immigrant from Germany, did your last name create any animosity in Petawawa during the war? "No. My dad got along good with the army here. In the war years, he served soft drinks to the canteen on the base." He smiles again, saying: "George Kirshner. He ran S&S Auto Supplies in Ottawa before he signed up. He was in my unit overseas. George was a little Jewish guy and I'd tell him 'George, don't you worry, I'll protect you from the Germans.'"

With so many soldiers from the base here having been killed in Afghanistan, what is the emotional impact on the civilian population? "It's very hard," he says.

His wife Teresa, 83, speaks up: "You feel very badly. It's like one big family here. The army is part of the family. Many families live off base in the town.

"One family that lost a son lives on a street right near here. Even if you don't know the soldiers personally, you might see them in the town, in the stores. A name will be familiar. You realize somebody who died could be one of yours."

Roy Giesebrecht survived his second war, but there were times Giesebrecht -- no goon -- wondered if he'd survive his first war. "Oh, it got rough at times. One time a guy hit me near his net and all I could do was crawl to our bench. Back then you saw great body checks in the game, not like it is now. One night against the Rangers, we had four big fights. The next day in the paper, the story said we won three of them and lost one, and what's the picture they ran of the one we lost? Me leaving the ice with a big bloody, swollen nose. Bill Juzda beat the s--t out of me."

Roy Giesebrecht, who for his fine hockey skills was dubbed "The Terror Of The Ice Plains" by the press, is not forgotten by the hockey purists. He has on the arm of his chair a stamped self-addressed envelope with a photo of him in his Red Wings uniform sent by a fan overseas asking him to autograph it.

"I get about 75 of these a month from all over -- Canada, the States, Europe," he says, with Teresa concurring.

UNSOLICITED CHEQUES

And for the last three years -- unsolicited and a surprise to him -- monthly cheques ranging from $9,000 to $10,000 from the NHL Players Association. "I dunno, I guess they're thinking of the old timers who played before the pension plan and the money wasn't like it is now."

Teresa: "A notation comes with the cheques saying 'If you don't need it, send it back.'" Roy: "I don't need it, but I'm not sending it back."

The most money he earned in his first war was $2,200 a season, good money then, but the highest paid player on his team was the late Charlie Conacher at $5, 000.

"I roomed with him because nobody else would. You couldn't get any sleep. Charlie had a steady stream of women coming and going. Yeah, they were great memories."

And this Saturday, Roy Giesebrecht, veteran, will go to the very special place and he'll remember again and his memories will be for other warriors in other places, so young, so brave.


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