Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Holubtsi Kid recalls comeback

Member of 1949 Providence Reds, who bounced back to beat Bears after trailing 3-1

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The Hershey Bears had them on the ropes, up 3-1 in the series. It looked pretty bleak for the local six.

One more victory and the Bears had the Cup. But the youngsters from Manitoba hadn't given up hope.

After all, they knew what a Calder Cup championship could mean.

"This is what you play for," one of them said, the other day. "Everybody wants to get up. You're playing to be in the NHL."

The player speaking wasn't Jason Jaffray, the hero of Game 2, nor Moose playmaker Jason Krog. Although it could have been.

It was Pete Kapusta, the Holubtsi Kid.

* * *

Kapusta is 85 years old now, one of the last surviving members of the Providence Reds, the last team to ever rebound from a 3-1 series deficit to win the American Hockey League championship. It's an unenviable task that, 60 years later, the Manitoba Moose are trying to repeat.

The Holubtsi Kid had potted 24 goals that season, to go along with 45 assists. But then Kapusta could always score. Never less than 20 as a pro, when 20 goals actually meant something, in nine seasons with the Reds (1946-1955).

And Kapusta was just one-fifth of the Manitoba connection in Providence. There was Harvey Fraser, from Souris, a centreman who chalked up 87 points that year. Brandon's Chuck Scherza, a rugged sort, had 14 goals and 13 assists.

Back on defence, there was Danny Summers and former Boston Bruins/Montreal Canadiens pointman Terry Reardon, both Winnipeg lads.

Kapusta, Reardon, Summers and Scherza are all honoured members of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame. Fittingly, their plaques now hang in the mezzanine level of the arena that houses the very team trying to match their accomplishment.

It was a long way to Providence from the Canadian Prairies, but all the Manitobans had their own journey.

Scherza left Brandon when he was 16 to play for the Regina Abbotts (now Pats) junior team. He was subsequently traded to the Oshawa Generals.

"Oh, that's all I played for, to be a pro hockey player," Scherza, now 86, said from his home in Pawtucket, R.I.

As a child, Scherza and his father, Charles, used to listen to Foster Hewitt on their standup radio in Brandon on Saturday night. "I'll never forget that," he said, over 80 years later.

After a handful of games with the Bruins and Rangers between 1943-45, Scherza joined the Reds in 1945. He never left Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, Kapusta was originally conscripted by the New York Rangers organization in 1942. The Blue Shirts regularly held scouting camps in Winnipeg.

Kapusta was just 18 when he first showed up to play for the Rangers' farm team, the New York Rovers, who also played out of the venerable Madison Square Gardens.

Kapusta grew up on Alfred Avenue in the North End and starred for the minor hockey Excelsiors, founded by former Free Press sportswriting icon Vince Leah.

"Hockey was my life from the time I was a kid," Kapusta said. "My father would have to drag me in from the rink for supper. I'd eat with my skates on and go back out."

Yes, it was a different world. Players were chattel. There were only six NHL teams, with just 18 players on the roster at most, so life in the minors was meagre.

The game was a parallel universe, too. The arena in Cleveland didn't have any glass along the boards. Recalled Kapusta: "The fans could grab you. Finally, they decided to put chicken wire up."

Some things never change. At the end of Game 5 Tuesday in Hershey, a few belligerent fans behind the Moose bench were spitting and taunting Manitoba players. They could badger the Moose because the glass behind the visitor's bench is so low. Somebody get out the chicken wire.

But that was life in the minors. During another game in Springfield, Kapusta was cut in the ear for 33 stitches. "I got it stitched up in the dressing room by the doctor," he recalled. "He was drunk as a skunk. I thought, 'This is going to be one hell of a job.'"

But that was only a scratch compared to what happened to Scherza years later, as a playing coach for the North Bay Trappers of the Ontario senior league in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Scherza was swooping in to stick-check a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchman with less than a minute to play. The opposing defenceman was attempting to lift the puck out of his zone. The stick came up.

"That," said Scherza, "was when I lost my eye."

* * *

Tom Army remembers Game 7. How could he not?

Sure, he was just a kid, the son of longtime Reds trainer George Army, but Tom vividly recalls the night at the Auditorium where Providence completed a comeback that hasn't been matched for over half a century.

"The place was packed to the rafters," said Army, now retired, from his home in Providence. "The arena had about 5,000 seats, but there must have been 6,000 that night."

"We never thought we were going to lose," Scherza added. "We never thought we were going to lose any game. We had a team there that was one happy family. When we played Hershey (after Game 4), it was just one game at a time."

Close your eyes, and you can almost hear Manitoba's storied captain Mike Keane talking.

Indeed, that's Scherza's advice to the Moose as they attempt to match the Reds' feat.

"Don't worry about the next game," he cautioned. "Just worry about one. If you worry about the next game, forget about it."

The Reds were up 4-2 in Game 7, when the clocked ticked under two minutes and Providence forward Jack McGill took the puck behind his own net. The fans sensed victory. Said Army: "I thought the roof was going to come off the place."

* * *

Chuck Scherza was 26 years old the night the Reds won the Cup. He's lived a lifetime.

Scherza served as the Reds captain for five years and has been inducted into the Providence Reds Hall of Fame. And to this day people on the streets of Providence -- and in letters from around the world -- ask Scherza for his autograph.

Yet while Scherza never won another championship before losing his eyesight in North Bay, he can still see that night in Providence.

"I haven't forgotten, no kidding," he said, without hesitation. "I think about it every night I watch a hockey game. I get them all on the tube. I think about it all the time."

Funny thing, championships. Players will give their eye teeth for them. Even an eye. The feeling never goes away.

Time passes. Teammates pass. Memories and photographs fade. But there's always the night you won the Cup.

Wonder what the young men of the Manitoba Moose might be thinking of, as old hockey players, 60 years from now?

We'll see. But an oldtimer from Pawtucket could give them a glimpse into the future.

"Like I said," Scherza concluded, and you could almost see him smile, "I never slept that night."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2009 C3

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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