Backup on the ice, a star in life
Julian Klymkiw enjoyed 19 notable minutes in an NHL net, but the friendships he made in Winnipeg and around hockey were worthy of the hall of fame
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/08/2022 (275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Julian Klymkiw’s NHL dream lasted just 19 minutes, but the friendships he cultivated through hockey and other sports endured for a lifetime.
A backup to legendary goalie and fellow Winnipegger Terry Sawchuk with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s, he was released from the active roster after breaking his ankle playing soccer. He remained with the team, however, as one of its trainers.
It was in that capacity that he was behind the bench during the Oct. 12, 1958 game against the New York Rangers at the Detroit Olympia. Early in the third period, legendary Red Wings winger Gordie Howe tripped up Rangers netminder Gump Worsley, causing him to crash into his own net. The Gumper pulled a tendon in his left leg and was unable to continue with his team down 1-0.
The Rangers did not have an emergency backup and, soon, all eyes turned to Klymkiw who, not long before, had played 57 games on three of Detroit’s farm teams and took part in Red Wings practices. He hustled into the Rangers locker room and minutes later, skated out to a thunderous ovation as he took his spot in the crease wearing a New York jersey.
Klymkiw surrendered two goals, one to his good friend Howe and another to Marcel Pronovost.
“Gordie was smiling at me when he shot it in,” Klymkiw would say as he recounted his most famous story for the kajillionth time.
Howe nicknamed him the “Little Uke.” The “Big Uke” was Sawchuk, one of the most famous Ukrainian athletes of all time.
Klymkiw died earlier this month at age 89, 24 years after suffering a massive stroke that had doctors suggesting he be taken off life support. His wife, Joan, refused and the “tough SOB” survived, although he did not recover fully, including a limited ability to speak.
He is survived by his daughter, Joanne Klymkiw, son Gregory Klymkiw, grandson Nicholas Krernisted and granddaughter Julia Klymkiw. He was predeceased by Joan in 2014.
Klymkiw made a comeback with the Winnipeg Maroons on Canada’s national team in the 1960s — he even practised with the Manitoba Moose in their early days — but his off-ice connections with hockey lasted the rest of his life.
He was one of the architects of the sponsorship deal that enabled the Canada Cup international tournament to take place in the 1970s and ’80s. But it was his work with CJOB and Carling O’Keefe brewery that fuelled his return to the old Winnipeg Arena for years to come.
Klymkiw was an analyst on the radio broadcast crew along with Bob Irving, who did between-period and post-game interviews, and play-by-play announcer Ken “Friar” Nicolson.
Irving is quick to note that even though Klymkiw played in just one NHL game, it was still an impressive feat.
“In the six-team NHL, there were six goalies. How do you break through? It was almost impossible to get a job,” he says. “He was very proud of his game with the Rangers, and rightly so.”
“He was one of the nicest, most engaging guys in the world that you’d ever meet.”
It was as a public relations and promotions executive with Carling — and later Molson, following its takeover of Carling — that may have been the highest-profile time of Klymkiw’s life.
Jets associate coach Scott Arniel, who joined NHL club as a player in the fall of 1981, along with fellow rookie Dale Hawerchuk, remembers first meeting Klymkiw, the beer rep. The two 18 year olds roomed together and were only too happy to receive some free product.
“Julie wanted us to be loyal Molson members. He said, ‘Let me drop off some beer. Don’t tell anybody.’ He delivered 10 two-fours and put them in our garage for a Christmas party we had. We left some of the beer in the garage and went out on a long road trip. When we came back, we had a beer ice rink in the garage. All the bottles had broken. He had a great laugh about that,” Arniel says.
Klymkiw was also close with Cal Murphy, legendary coach and general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, as well as Ab McDonald, the first captain of the WHA Jets, and Vladislav Tretiak, legendary goalie for the Soviet Union national team in the 1970s and ’80s.
Raised in the West End neighbourhood of Brooklands, Klymkiw was fiercely proud of his Ukrainian roots. He and Joan were longtime members of the O. Koshetz Memorial Choir at the Ukrainian National Federation.
Arniel and Klymkiw rekindled their friendship when Arniel returned to Winnipeg with the Manitoba Moose in the 1990s, first as a player and then as a coach.
“Julie used to take us to Ukrainian churches. We’d go down to the basement where all the babas were making perogies and we’d buy dozens of bags. You had to put your order in with Julie. He was so popular with all the ladies downstairs. They’d be hollering his name and giving him hugs and kisses,” he says.
Arniel cherishes their regular runs to iconic greasy spoons, such as the Dairi-Wip, the Red Top and Junior’s, where they’d load up on cheeseburgers, fries and shakes and spend the afternoon talking hockey.
“We’d sit and listen to his stories. He used to back up Sawchuk and he sharpened everybody’s skates. He would throw Howe’s and Delvecchio’s names around. He always had some great stories,” Arniel says.
“He wasn’t wearing a mask (with the Red Wings). It was crazy. He talked about it like everybody did it, because they did. That’s the way it was back then. You love to hear guys talk about the past and the hard times they went through.”
Joanne Klymkiw remembers accompanying her dad and brother regularly to the Winnipeg Arena for WHA Jets games and visiting with some of the players in the dressing room.
“We’d talk to Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. Our dad would walk around the arena and he’d say ‘hi’ to everybody. It was like he knew the whole world,” she says.
“I’d ask him, ‘Do you know all these people?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, maybe.’ He probably didn’t know all of their names but they thought he did.”
And when Howe would come to town as a member of the Houston Aeros or New England Whalers, the Klymkiws would pick up Mr. Hockey in the Carling O’Keefe station wagon and visit with him at the Northstar Inn (now the Radisson Hotel), where the team stayed.
“I’d be in the front seat and Gordie would be in the back, pulling on my braids. We’d go into one of the rooms and all the hockey players were there. I was in Grade 6 and remember all the boys in my class asking if I’d seen Gordie Howe. They went berserk. They couldn’t understand how I was so calm. We thought everybody got to do that. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I always thought it was normal to have VIP hockey players in our car,” she says.
Just a few weeks ago, Craig Heisinger, who had known Klymkiw for decades through the Moose and Jets, mentioned to Arniel — who had just signed on with the NHL club’s coaching staff — that they were overdue to take him for cheeseburgers.
“It was great to see the excitement in his eyes. I always knew he was happy when he’d say, ‘Oh boy!’ He got us fired up,” he says.
Klymkiw was a regular in the dressing room of both the Jets and the Moose over the years and enjoyed kibitzing with the players. Even after his stroke, a special effort was made by players and executives to keep up the tradition.
“My dad loved Zinger and Scotty like sons,” Joanne says. “They would pick him up and he’d sit in the stands while the Moose practised. My dad could barely speak. The support of the hockey team and his family helped him through. They gave him a purpose. Sometimes when you have a stroke, you can be forgotten by people. Zinger and Scotty gave my dad reason and purpose. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?”
She also remembers Arniel surprising her dad, who battled cancer six years ago, with an unannounced visit at Seven Oaks Hospital.
“He was sitting there depressed, and then Scotty walked in. My dad looked up — ‘Oh boy! Oh boy!’ —and he started crying. These guys were so special to my father. They’d light up his life,” she says.
Those feelings, according to those who knew him, went both ways.