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Longtime local gatekeeper Bill Vielhaber succumbs to cancer

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If there really is an entrance into the Pearly Gates, there could be a new guy on the job this week.

He’ll have a pocketful of candy and stories about Kenny Ploen and Teemu Selanne.

Bill Vielhaber died last week at the age of 85. For the past half century, Vielhaber had been on hand for almost every single home game of the Winnipeg Jets/Manitoba Moose and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Vielhaber was a incurable talker who mostly worked the gates of the arena and stadium in the last decade. He was an encyclopedia of local sports knowledge who called every woman on the job, "Sara", so he wouldn’t forget any names.

"He was one of my favourite stops every game day," said Colinne Dowbyhuz, the Bombers director of events. "He was a fixture."

Vielhaber handed out candy to his favorites, Jolly Ranchers and toffee.

"My mom would complain he spent all of his minimum wage money handing out candy," said Vielhaber’s daughter, Donna. "But he just did it to make peoples lives a little bit better."

Vielhaber’s married wife Elsie in 1957 and they lived in their house on Glenwood Crescent in Elmwood for over 40 years, raising four children; Donna, Laura, Willie and Herb. Elsie recently moved into an apartment.

Donna described her father as an "off-the-wall extrovert. He lived to connect."

Vielhaber was also well-known in both curling and golf circles, having volunteered at Larters Country Club as a marshall and as a member of the Heather Curling Club.

"I’ve never seen a guy who knew so many people," said former Canadian curling champion, Vic Peters, who met Veilhaber while working as a greens keeper at Larters. "And if he didn’t he’d make damn sure he knew them before he left.

"He was 30 years older than me but it was like he was one of my best friends," Peters added. "He’d give you the shirt off his back. He was just a golden guy."

Dowbyhuz said Vielhaber had been working at the Winnipeg Stadium since the building opened in 1953. He was working at the old Winnipeg Arena when it opened in 1955.

"It’s sad because I was really looking forward to him seeing the new stadium as well," she said, of the Bombers new home, Investors Group Field, set to open this summer.

Vielhaber succumbed to a short battle with cancer on Jan. 28. Upon hearing of his illness, True North invited their long-time employee to the Jets home opener against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 19.

"We knew it would probably be his last time in the building," said Kim Boulet, True North’s director of security and event management. "It was a real hard day. He was an ambassador for us. He was full of our history."

And Bill never shied away from sharing that history; with Teemu Selanne or the night cleaners or the media coming though his gate. Said Boulet: "He loved the job and he loved the people."

That last night at the arena, Vielhaber was joined by his two sons, Willie and Herb.

"He was a true gentleman, spirits high, shaking everybody’s hand in the building," Boulet said. "It’s amazing how many ticket holders came to see him. He talked to everybody."

Prior to the opening face-off, the Jets held a moment of silence for Vielhaber and another long-time employee, Martin Svenningson, who passed away last November.

So while Vielhaber never made it inside the new football stadium, he left the hockey arena smiling.

"He was just sooooo happy," his daughter said.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

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