November 29, 2015

Ernie Wakely

Ernie Wakely was a patient man. It took him 10-years of pro hockey in the minors before he got a legitimate shot in the NHL.

He did very well in the minors but was unfortunately buried in the strong Montreal Canadiens system. When Ernie was signed by the Canadiens they had just won five Stanley Cups in a row. Ernie's only NHL action while a property of the Canadiens was one game back in the 1962-63 season and one game in 1968-69.

Ernie started his career in the MJHL, playing for the Winnipeg Braves. He then continued to play for teams in WHL, EPHL, AHL and CHL. His personal credentials included winning the Terry Sawchuk Trophy in 1964 (fewest goals against-CHL). He also led the MJHL and EPHL in GAA. Ernie made the AHL and CHL All-Star teams as well.

But despite having solid numbers in the minors, he was stuck there seemingly forever. Ernie himself admitted that this was tough.

"It was hard to block that much time out of your mind. When you get to the major leagues, you don't automatically forget everything that went before it. You remember. You have to, " he said.

The worst thing about the minor leagues according to Ernie was the traveling.

"That was the worst thing. Really, it would get awfully tiresome. You'd play three or four games in four nights and it would really get to you. You'd play one game in one town one night and then have another game someplace else the next night. So you'd travel all night after the game. We didn't go by plane, or most of the time, even by train. We'd bus it from one city to another. So by the time you'd get to the next city, it was pretty late and you were pretty tired. And then you'd have to play another game. Some of those nights were very long."

Ernie got discouraged by not getting the chance in the NHL and the low point of his career came in 1967 when the expansion came along. Ernie had just finished a fine season with the Cleveland Barons of the AHL and as the NHL expanded from 6 to 12 teams, Ernie thought he would get picked in the expansion draft. Hundreds of new players were picked but not Ernie.

Ernie admitted that it was really tough to not be picked by any team.

"It had been so long. I had waited so long and then it looked as if no one wanted me. I was very dejected. It was really the low point of my career."

At that time Ernie was thinking about retirement but said to himself that he would give it one more try. It was a very wise decision because after that one more season, on June 27, 1969, while attending a computer programming course he got a call from his wife who told him that he had been traded from Montreal to St.Louis. Ernie immediately knew that this was his chance to get a fair chance in the NHL.

But soon he realized that he would be stuck behind two of the greatest goalies of all time: veterans Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, who both had won the Vezina nine times in the last 14 seasons, were the top two goaltenders in St. Louis..

Despite this "problem" Ernie saw it as a tremendous opportunity. First of all neither was the youngest anymore so he thought that his time would come. At the same time Ernie saw it as a great opportunity to learn something from these two Hall of Fame legends.

Ernie did more than just watch that first season (1969-70), He got to play 30 games and had the lowest GAA in the entire league (2.11). And although he was 30-years of age he was learning all the time. What was so special for him was that both Plante and Hall many times would come over and offer some advice. They were very helpful. Plante was traded shortly thereafter and Ernie knew that he was the one who would become the No.1 goalie in the future for the St.Louis Blues.

Ernie played another two seasons for the Blues before being selected by the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA. He signed a more lucrative contract with the Jets and went on to play in the WHA for the next seven years. Ernie became only one of handful players to have played every season in the WHA, between 1972 and 1979. Aside from Winnipeg he also played for the San Diego Mariners, Cincinnati Stingers, Houston Aeros and Birmingham Bulls.

Ernie retired after that 1978-79 season. Thanks to his patience he ended up playing in the "big leagues" for 10 seasons (3 in NHL and 7 in WHA) while playing together with such great stars as the before mentioned Plante and Hall, as well as Bobby Hull.


Anonymous said...

In hindsight, it really is absurd that no team selected Wakely in the 66 expansion draft. In the end, this worked out in his favor. Broderick flopped with Minnesota in 69, and Champoux with California in 73-74... Wakely ended up doing quite well.

Kerwin Maude said...

Ernie Wakely, was a solid goaltender and one of my favorites to wear the mask. I almost wore a Wakely or Esposito fiberglass molded mask, and later chose a Giacomin one after wearing many of Plante's. I always tried to watch Wakely and others I admired on Hockey Night In Canada. Thanks for the memories in an era that has since passed but not forgotten. I recall wiping out Canuck's George Gardner and Orland Kurtenback into the boards at hockey school with my poke check after hitting the puck first. Later both shot from the blue line, and neither scored to the elation of my role model, my father. The pros set the pace for generations to follow, and hockey became a religion in North America as we were glued to the television, traded cards and emulated styles off of many legends of this fabulous game that knew no borders.

Kerwin N. Maude
Vancouver, Canada