The North Stars were in their first season in 1967-68 and forward Walt McKechnie was also a first-year pro. Wren Blair, the Stars’ general manager and coach, acquired the 20-year-old McKechnie on Feb. 17, 1968 from the Phoenix Roadrunners of the Western Hockey League.
McKechnie had 24 goals and 58 points in 67 games for the Roadrunners and would be voted as the WHL’s Rookie of the Year. He played four regular-season games without a point for the North Stars, but then Blair turned to McKechnie for nine games in the 1968 playoff run and young Walt scored three goals with a couple of assists.
“I had a good playoff and we almost beat St. Louis to reach the finals,’’ McKechnie said. “I turned 21 in June and a few weeks later was in my first NHL camp in Haliburton. I was in two training camps up there, with veterans like Moose Vasko, Leo Boivin, Bob McCord, Wayne Hillman, and it was a mind-boggling introduction to the NHL.
“I hadn’t drank at all when I met those guys. That changed.
“We were sleeping on cots in the barrack for Wren’s hockey school for boys. Snoring, burping, wheezing from 30 hockey players. We were in the middle of the woods, up there with the black bears.’’
Blair had started the camp and hockey school in 1965. His partner was Jim Gregory. It wasn’t built to size for an NHL players, but as McKechnie pointed out this last week:
“The camp itself and having the North Stars for three years put Haliburton on the map in Canada for hockey. Hundreds of kids came here every summer to improve their hockey skills – and that’s still going all these decades later.’’
McKechnie would know because he’s had a home on a lake in Haliburton County since 1980. “I started working as one of the players at the camp in 1970,’’ he said. “I’d be up here for 10 weeks in the summer. And it’s a beautiful area.’’
Many more Canadians discovered that as the decades passed. Haliburton County is 2 ½ hours northeast of Toronto and rates near the top of hot spots for Canada’s summer migration to cottage country.
McKechnie settled in Haliburton. He owned and ran McKeck’s, a family restaurant, for 20-plus years in Haliburton. He is currently serving a third term on the city council.
“We have the same rink that was used for North Stars training camp,’’ McKechnie said. “It’s a great old rink that has been restored. We put a new roof on it and other improvements. There are plaques paying tribute to Wren and Jim Gregory for their importance to Haliburton hockey.
“They were an interesting pair. Wren was the loud guy; Gregory was quieter, not a screamer. That gave him more lasting power as an NHL general manager.’’
McKechnie said those three Septembers as being home to the start of North Stars training camp are still fondly remembered by Haliburton’s older generations.
The North Stars moved training camp to Winnipeg for 1970 and 1971. The facilities were more adequate for adult hockey players. The characters remained as plentiful as in Haliburton.
“I’ll never forget the sight of Gump [Worsley] when we were doing our daily running in camp,’’ McKechnie said. “Gump would be in a track suit, wearing his brogue shoes, smoking a cigarette and walking at a steady pace.’’
ADDENDUM: Near the end of the conversation, I said to McKechnie: “Tom Reid says hello.’’
McKechnie said: “The No. 1 disturber of the peace in training camp, Haliburton or Winnipeg, was Tom Reid.’’
That observation was texted to Reid and he responded: “Don’t believe ‘anything’ you hear.’’