It was 1958, the height of the Cold War, and there was more at stake than just a game when the Soviet Union faced off against Canada in the World Hockey Championships in Oslo.
Two different playing styles and two ideologies were at war. Wren Blair, general manager of the Whitby Dunlops, the Senior A team representing Canada – which had seen the Soviets capture Olympic gold for the first time in 1956 and the following year boycotted the world championships over the invasion of Hungary – knew he had to exploit both to get a win.
Not happy with how the Dunlops were playing, and with the eyes of Canada on them, he resorted to his favourite tactic: infuriating his players toward a win. He started with Bob Attersley, who was not just his star centre but also, back home, the president of the Young Conservatives of Ontario.
“You know, Bob,” he said, “the way you’re playing today, I’m beginning to doubt your political beliefs.”
It worked. Attersley saw red and threw himself at the Reds, scoring two goals and one assist. The Dunlops beat the Soviets 4-2 and brought the World Hockey Championship home to Canada.
Blair, who died on Jan. 2, in Oshawa, Ont., at the age of 87, often wondered if that championship was the pinnacle of a life that encompassed every aspect of hockey, from the backyard rinks of Oshawa, to the arenas where he managed NHL teams. Or had it reached its height when he helped discover Bobby Orr? Or when he was the first coach of the Minnesota North Stars?
“He was just a great hockey man,” says Sandy Air, who played right wing on the Dunlops team that won two Allan Cups and the World Championship. Blair was the product of an earlier era, when a canny and determined fellow could walk into the Ontario headquarters of a British rubber company and talk it into sponsoring an ice-hockey team.
It was not, however, an era of gentle encouragement at the side of the rink. “He was the most demanding coach I ever played for,” says Air. “He would curse you, and urge you to play at least 100 per cent every shift, every game. We didn’t like it when it was happening, but we loved it after we won.”
Or, as his old friend and business partner Jim Gregory remembers, “He was a bastard. He was very fiery, very emotional, unbelievably hard-working.”
Gregory, former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and now senior vice-president of hockey operations at the National Hockey League, was Blair’s partner in a boys’ hockey camp and a resort in Haliburton, Ont. For Blair (known in hockey circles as “The Bird”), one thing mattered, Gregory says: “In an attempt to win a situation for his organization, he’d do everything he could to try to come out on top.”
Take the time that the Dunlops were playing the Soviet Union at an exhibition game in Toronto, a few months before their epic showdown in Oslo. Furious that they had given up two goals in the first few minutes, Blair screamed at his team – including such stars as future Boston Bruins coach and manager Harry Sinden – that they should go to the box office and pay the $10 admission fee, the same as the other spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Dunlops won, 7-2.
In March, the Dunlops were on their way to the World Championships – via ocean liner, because Blair had yet to overcome his fear of flying. Thousands of fans and the King of Norway showed up to watch the game at an arena built by the figure skater and actress Sonja Henie. Canadians were riveted during the championship tournament, and every day brought new telegrams from the prime minister, provincial premiers, business leaders, each carrying the implicit message: You’re playing for a way of life here, boys. You’d better win, or don’t bother coming home.
Sinden was captain of the Dunlops and remembers just how much of a burden was placed on their young shoulders: “Everybody in Canada was hoping we’d win back the prestige we’d lost with the Olympics – 1958 was the year we got our pride back.”
And if the man at the side of the rink was yelling himself red in the face, it was all for good cause: “Wren didn’t have a terrific technical knowledge of the game,” he adds, “but he was a great motivator. He would never let us give up. He was at us constantly from behind the bench.”
The Dunlops won, to great fanfare back home. The victory allowed Blair to leave his day job as an appraiser at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., where he was making $6,000 a year. Over the next few decades, he would coach, manage, scout for, build from the ground up, and co-own an array of clubs in several leagues, from the Kingston Frontenacs to the Oshawa Generals, from the Minnesota North Stars to the Los Angeles Kings. The film-loving Blair moved around the continent with his wife, Elma, whom he married in 1945, and their children Jill and Dan.
In the early 1960s, when he was managing the Frontenacs, a Bruins-affiliated team in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, Blair reached another pinnacle in his career when he scouted – and wooed – a young hockey sensation from Parry Sound, Ont. It took diligence, patience and a certain amount of coaxing to sign Bobby Orr, a story related in Blair’s memoir, The Bird .
Along with some other members of the Bruins organization, Blair went to check out a couple of Bantam players at playoff game in Ganonoque, Ont., in 1960. It was a younger player, a 12-year-old on the Parry Sound team, who caught his eye: “He never left the ice,” Blair wrote, “except once for a two-minute penalty … I thought he was out of this world.”
So did a few other people. The Bruins won the battle for Bobby Orr thanks in part to Blair’s careful cultivation of the young player and his parents, Arva and Doug. A player couldn’t sign a Junior A card until he was 14. For the next two years, Blair would make the Frontenacs’ team bus take a detour through Parry Sound so he could visit Bobby and his family, displaying a solicitude with the youngster that he didn’t lavish on his adult players.
“I always joked that every time Arva [Orr] came out onto the back porch to shake out her dust mop, I was sitting on it waiting for Bobby to come home from school,” Blair said in a documentary about the legendary Bruins defenceman. “I felt it was very important to build up a relationship with Bobby.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 1998, Orr said, “The Canadiens and Leafs both came up [to Parry Sound] and looked at me, but thought I was too small. I believe they became interested later on, but Wren Blair and the Bruins were the most aggressive and they talked my parents into letting me leave for Oshawa.”
In 1962, when he was 14, Orr signed with the Bruins-affiliated Oshawa Generals, a team that Blair had been instrumental in rebuilding (it had folded nine years earlier after Oshawa’s Hambly Arena burned down, and was resurrected when Blair built a consortium of the Bruins and local businesspeople to restart the franchise.)
Wren Blair was born in Lindsay, Ont., on Oct. 2, 1925, the son of Audrey and Alvin. The family moved to Oshawa when Alvin took a job in a dairy, and his son grew up playing shinny on the rink outside Westmount Public School. His strengths didn’t lie on the ice, as realized a couple of decades later when he put his first team together:
In 1967, the NHL doubled in size from its original six teams to 12, and he became the inaugural coach and general manager of the new Minnesota franchise. When the first game ended in a tie, he turned the air in the dressing room blue. A North Star tried to calm him down: “Chief, we have a whole season to go, take it easy. You’re going to have a heart attack.” The coach retorted, “I doubt I’ll ever have a heart attack, but I know one thing for sure – you never will.”
The first season was marred by the death of Bill Masterton, who hit his head after being knocked to the ice during a game in January. The North Stars played (and lost) a game with the Philadelphia Flyers on the evening of his funeral.
After Minnesota, Blair helped to rescue the Pittsburgh Penguins from bankruptcy and was director of player personnel for the Los Angeles Kings. He also helped to arrange the deal that brought the junior North Bay Centennials to Michigan as the Saginaw Spirit.
What was important to him was the game, not where it was played. “Hockey was in his blood,” says Gregory. “He thought about it constantly.”
Blair leaves his children, Jill and Dan, his grandchildren Ryan, Brandon, Laura and Jen, and his great-granddaughter Madison.