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tom hawthorn

On hockey night, you can find white-haired Bob Barlow, 75, at the arena sitting in Section X, Row 8, Seat 14. He likes the seat designation, as it matches a uniform number he once wore.

Between periods, Mr. Barlow cruises the concourse at Bear Mountain Arena in suburban Colwood, greeting his cronies and handing out a free hockey card to children.

"I tell them dreams do come true if you work hard," he said. "I tell them I finally realized my dream at 34."

The colourful piece of cardboard features Mr. Barlow in the green, white and gold livery of the Minnesota North Stars. He wears No. 14 on his sleeves and a crew cut atop his head. The image comes from his O-Pee-Chee rookie card issued after he finally got a National Hockey League job after spending 15 seasons in the minor leagues.

All that training paid off. After a long apprenticeship, Mr. Barlow stepped on the ice on Oct. 12, 1969, as the oldest rookie in NHL history. Seconds later, he was on the scoresheet by firing a 30-foot shot past Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers.

A photograph captured him with both arms in the air in celebration, his toothless grin evidence of a lifetime spent trying to dodge pucks and sticks.

"Took the puck to the bench, told [coach]Wren Blair, 'What's so hard about this league?' "

As his teammates laughed, Mr. Barlow added, "Why didn't you bring me up a little sooner?"

Back in the 1960s, Mr. Barlow used a modest playoff bonus to put a down payment on the split-level rancher he still calls home. The basement includes a small wet bar decorated with memorabilia from his hockey career. Among the items is the puck from his first NHL goal, mounted on a small wooden base.

The basement includes pucks and pennants, stickers and programs, autographed hockey sticks and a library of hockey books.

He brought out a watchcase. Inside could be found jewelled rings from each of the five championships he won in the minors. He wears a different one each night he goes to the rink to watch junior hockey.

To play on a championship team - at any level, in any sport - is to be bonded with teammates forever.

The first pro title he won came with the old Victoria Maple Leafs in 1966. A city not known for exuberant public displays went nuts for the Toronto farm team as it battled the Portland Buckaroos for Western Hockey League supremacy.

Mr. Barlow lived in a duplex in Esquimalt in those days, waking each morning during the playoffs to see a new rhyming sign posted by a hockey-mad neighbour.

"Here will lie the Portland Bucs," read one, "laid to rest by Barlow's pucks."

Victoria won the series, Mr. Barlow leading all goal-scorers with 10.

The team flew home aboard a Viscount turboprop to be greeted at Pat Bay airport by about 100 fans and family members. At Memorial Arena, another 600 gathered beneath a marquee reading, LEAFS YOU ARE THE GREATEST. A junior band played. The crowd spilled out onto the street, blocking traffic. A civic reception and a dinner were held that night.

"A great hockey team," Mr. Barlow says of the Victoria squad.

A year later, two of his teammates were called up by Toronto as playoff reinforcements. Milan Marcetta and Autry Erickson, an Albertan who was named after cowboy singer Gene Autry, both got their names engraved on the Stanley Cup. Mr. Erickson qualified for the honour though he only ever wore Toronto's storied blue-and-white sweater for a single game, making him one of the most obscure players to win the Cup.

Mr. Erickson died in Phoenix last month of stomach cancer, aged 72, his passing mostly going unnoticed in the hockey world. Even Mr. Barlow had not heard the sad news.

He nearly died himself three years ago after suffering a heart attack while doing yard work. Mr. Barlow was unconscious in hospital for three days. Doctors were worried about possible oxygen deprivation.

"They were ready to pull the plug when he woke up," his wife, Marilyn, recalled.

They did not take into account an old athlete's fighting spirit.

He now has a large bump near his collar bone beneath which rests a defibrillator. For a guy who often sported a black eye in his playing days, it looks like just another lump endured in a rough and tumble sport.

In his basement, he proudly displays an induction certificate from the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. He had been captain of the old Vancouver Canucks in 1969, a WHL championship team that boasted a hot-headed defenceman named Don Cherry.

Mr. Barlow went hunting for a more dubious memento of what it was like to be an ice warrior in those days.

Every month, he gets an NHL pension cheque. The total: $5.16.

He waits until he has three before cashing them. It saves on banking costs.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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