Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mitch Pechet, hockey player (1918-2009)

Mitch Pechet shown late in his career with the Calgary Stampeders.
(Society for International Hockey Research photo.)

By Tom Hawthorn


The Pechet brothers were farmer’s sons who played hockey together in Manitoba before answering the call of duty.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, their father, a Jewish immigrant, called his sons together.

“You know what you have to do,” the patriarch told them.

All three enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force to fight the Nazis. Only two would make it home after the war.

Mitch Pechet, the youngest of the trio, played right-wing on a line centred by Sam with Morris on left wing. After games, they’d return home to argue about who neglected to pass the puck to whom.

His parents had been grape growers in their native Romania, near the Russian frontier. They abandoned their homeland in 1895, part of a wave of immigration to the Canadian prairie.

“They lived a terrible life,” Mitch Pechet once told me. “Cossacks would get drunk on a Saturday night and burn and pillage.”

William and Sophia Pechet found life in Canada to be decidedly less dangerous, if somewhat colder. Over the years, the family accumulated land and machinery from the annual bounty of acres of wheat coaxed from the fertile Saskatchewan soil.

Mitch Pechet showed a deft scoring touch at age 18, when he joined brother Morris on the Brandon Wheat Kings for the 1936-37 season. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound forward scored 16 goals in just 15 games, though his assists total of four hints at a style of play in which he preferred to shoot than pass.

An even more impressive sophomore campaign, during which he netted 27 goals in just 14 games, led to his being signed by the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League.

He left the prairies to play for the Rangers’ amateur affiliate, the Rovers, who played their home games in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden, a grander and more cosmopolitan venue than the Wheat City Arena back in Brandon.

Reluctant to miss ice time, he once played three games despite a serious ligament injury to one hand. He had his wrist strapped to a hockey stick.

The speedy winger continued to score goals by the bushel, turning professional in 1940 with the Philadelphia Ramblers. He did not have much of a chance to make an impression in the tough-nosed American Hockey League with the Ramblers and the Pittsburgh Hornets, as he soon swapped his hockey sweater for an air-force uniform.

Determined to become a pilot, Mr. Pechet’s training returned him to Manitoba, where he completed programs at Brandon, Verdon and Dauphin. He was later posted to Gimli, Man., also serving at Dorval and Lachine, Que,, before teaching recruits at the No. 3 Service Flying Training School at Calgary.

He was “washed out” in his bid to become a pilot after the diagnosis of a vision defect.

Mr. Pechet continued to play hockey for armed forces teams during his postings. In a 1943 game at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, he helped lead the RCAF Flyers to a 9-4 victory over the Sudbury (Ont.) Frood Tigers. “Pechet played a stout game,” the Globe reported, “grabbed two goals, narrowly missed a couple more.”

In December, 1944, the family received word their eldest son and brother was missing after having completed 27 missions. It was later confirmed that Samuel William Pechet, a flying officer, had been killed when his Lancaster crashed into a Halifax during an attack on the rail yards at Soest, Germany. He was 30.

Six months later, Mitch Pechet marked his 27th birthday the day before what would become known as V-E Day, as hostilities ended in the European theatre of war.

Eager to resume his pro hockey career, he joined the Calgary YMCA to get back into shape for the rigors of a long season. His association with the Y would last more than 60 years, as he daily took part in morning exercises even after turning 90.

He spent four seasons with the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints, who won the United States Hockey League championship in 1948-49 under the guidance of coach Clint (Snuffy) Smith (obituary, May 25).

Mr. Pechet rarely spent time in the penalty box but on one occasion he was at the centre of a bench-clearing brawl. In a 1948 game against the Minneapolis Millers, hated cross-town rivals, Mr. Pechet was serving a penalty when a fan snuck up to punch him from behind. In the ensuing melee, then entire Saints team wound up on the ice in a brawl. The players were each fined $10 for the transgression.

In another game against their rivals that season, coach Murray (Muzz) Patrick sent Mr. Pechet onto the ice armed with a rule book with which to confront the referee. The referee’s response was to skate to centre ice with the compact volume, which he then tore into little bits.

“Now you’ve done it,” Mr. Pechet informed the official. “Patrick had all his phone numbers in the book.”

Mr. Pechet was reinstated as an amateur so he could play senior hockey with the Calgary Stampeders. He almost single-handedly eliminated the Fort Frances (Ont.) Canadians in an Allan Cup playoff series in 1950, as he scored four goals and an assist in one game and five goals and an assist in another. The Stampeders lost the senior hockey championships that season to the Toronto Marlboros, whose roster included a young George Armstrong, a future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Mr. Pechet retired from the game after three seasons with the Stampeders.

He was later inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame at Winnipeg.

Away from the rink, Mr. Pechet became a Calgary restaurateur, operating a dairy bar and restaurant, both of which would be packed after a hockey game. He later ran the Park Hotel and Greenbrier Motor Hotel in Edmonton, as well as the Wales Hotel in Calgary.

After moving to Victoria in 1971, Mr. Pechet became a co-owner and general manager of the Victoria Cougars junior hockey team. He would eventually add coaching duties to his job description.

Two years ago, Mr. Pechet joined fellow Jewish veterans in a ceremony at the Emanu-El synagogue in Victoria. Decades earlier, they had worn helmets and balmorals, replaced on this day by yarmulkes. When once they ate slop dished from a mess kitchen into a tin box, they dined on a meal catered from a kosher kitchen and served on china.

Mitchell Pechet was born on May 7, 1918, at Cupar, Sask. He died on Sept. 30, 2009, at Victoria. He was 91. He leaves his wife, Judy (nee Shapiro); a daughter; two sons; five grandchildren; a great-grandson; and, a brother. He was predeceased by a son, Sam, and by a brother, Sam Pechet, who was killed in action in 1944.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello Tom
Great read!! Thanks for writing a beautiful life story of my Grandpa!
Zaida was a centerpiece to this family...and will always be remembered.
Thank you