By Charlie Hodge
The ‘New kid in Town’ will soon be back in town visiting with old friends.
Gene Carr, hockey player extraordinaire who dazzled ole time Kelowna Buckaroo’s hockey fans in the late 1960’s will attend the local hockey team’s reunion July 14 to 16 in Kelowna.
“I won’t be swinging the golf clubs but I’ll find something to do,” Carr chuckles over the telephone. One can easily visualize his mischievous grin smirked across his handsome mug. It’s that same grin he carried throughout his career.
Gene had reason for the grin then. He was good at what he did and loved it. “Hockey was always it for me. I loved the game.”
Gene has reason for the grin now. Life is good and he is thankful for what he had and has.”Sometimes I pinch myself when I think about the life I’ve led, people I’ve met or got to know, experiences I’ve had. Much of it is because of hockey and where it took me. It’s (life) great!”
Carr, for non long-time locals, was a blond hair, blue eyed, handsome teenage hockey player out of Nanaimo who dazzled even more on the ice than off. He was pure poetry on hockey skates, cutting the ice like few players ever seen before in junior hockey. Aside from his gifted agility, balance, and speed on the blades Gene had outstanding hand-eye coordination and a feel for the game. He was a slick stick-handler and precision passer, skills that projected him to the NHL.
Certainly some of his natural talent was genetic since father Red Carr was a former pro player who spent the 1948-49 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was Dad, in fact, that decided Gene needed to leave home to hone his skills further.
“Dad walked up to me and said, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to Kelowna to play hockey. You’ve learned what you can here you need to learn more. My friend Don Culley is there, he can help you.’”
“I was 16 and homesick in no time,” Gene recalls.
“But Dad was right. Culley was a great coach and a great man. I loved ‘Saul’. He was a real gentleman and taught me a whole bunch on the ice and off. I remember I had to wear a tie to an event and was totally embarrassed because I had no idea how to tie one – so I asked Saul. He not only taught me how but also gave me a set of his own cufflinks to wear. I still have them,” Carr softens.
“I love Kelowna. I grew up there really. Grade 11 and 12 at KSS, hanging out with friends at Hot Sands and the Aquatic Dances, the pizza joint. What a great place. Kelowna holds a special place in my heart.
“If things had worked out differently I could still be there today,” Carr says with a twinge of melancholy. It is a thought left hanging, briefly.
“The hockey was wonderful as well. We had a great bunch of guys on the two clubs I played with (1967-1969). A real mixture of Canadian boys from across the country. Larry Lenarduzzi, Ron Pyle, Wayne Olafson, the Strong brothers Terry and Wayne, Dave Cousins, Pat McMahon, Dan McCarthy. Then my wingers were Butch Deadmarsh and Cliff McKay. Man were they fun to play with,” Gene rejoices. “What I call real ‘Country hockey’.”
Carr’s skills naturally attracted the attention he was hoping for and he spent the following two seasons lighting up the scoreboard for the Flin Flon Bombers. While there Carr scored 58 goals and tallied 119 assists for 177 points in just 122 games.
No one was surprised when St. Louis drafted him fourth overall in the NHL amateur draft. Some were surprised however when the Blues traded Carr to the New York Rangers just 15 games into the season. Gene was part of a multi-player deal including Jim Lorentz and Wayne Connelly to the Rangers for Jack Egers, Andre Dupont and Mike Murphy.
It was never a great fit. Carr was largely played on left wing due to the Ranger depth down the middle. In addition he suffered two significant injuries to his spine, though he kept quiet about them.
“You kept your mouth shut about that stuff. It was your living. You did not always want the trainer knowing you were hurt cause you might lose a shift. Lose to many shifts you might lose your job.
“It’s harder for players to hide that now. They are watched close by lots of staff. I’m sure lots of them try and fight through the pain.”
Partway through the 1973-74 season Gene was traded to Los Angeles for a first round draft (Ron Duguay). The trade significantly impacted Gene’s life both on the ice and off. Over the next four seasons Gene was predominantly used for penalty killing largely due to his quick speed and sense of the game. Otherwise, due to depth up front from the likes of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Butch Goring, Charlie Simmer …Gene was delegated to third or fourth line work. That was probably a blessing in disguise as his body continued to be pelted with injures.
Carr remained a fan favourite despite his lack of ice time, partly because of his flamboyant lifestyle off the ice. Soon after the trade to LA Carr was interviewed on radio and when the DJ asked the “new kid in town” who his favourite band was Gene replied “a relatively new band on the scene The Eagles.” That response inspired a lifelong friendship with one of the radio listeners – Eagle singer/songwriter Glenn Frey. It also inspired the opening lyrics to Frey’s song New Kid in Town, an Eagle hit.
“Glenn was a hockey fan, a Detroit area boy I think. He bundled up a couple of albums and sent them to me at the Forum with a note. Turns out he had already seen me play a game or two and so he wrote ‘Geno. If you love my music as much as I love watching you play hockey then we have to meet.’ I called him the next day and we were instant friends.”
Frey often attended Kings games and sometimes wore Carr’s #12 jersey while playing his concerts.
“We shared a lot. Good times and bad. He used to call me ‘Hockey Hollywood’. Most of my friends over the years have been musicians, many of them through Glenn. Certainly I met some neat folks through him: Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh of course, Elvis, Jimmy Cagney, Bob Hope, Linda Ronstadt. But Glenn was a special man and good friend and I miss him dearly.”
Frey assisted Gene in getting out of LA as well. Carr had missed much of the 1975-76 season due to surgery needed to remove fluid that had built up on his spine. Once he was healed though he sat on the bench a lot. It drove Carr crazy.
“I loved LA but I wanted to play hockey and was not getting the chance in LA. I knew my injuries were taking their toll and I wanted to show what I could do, given the chance, for one season. I loved LA but I also hated Bob Pulford. Pulford was a jerk.
“Irving Azof was my manager, thanks to Glenn, and so during the summer Irving went to the owners and said, ‘Either you trade Gene or the Eagles will never play the Forum again’.”
Five games into the new season Carr wound up playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I was thrilled. All I wanted was a chance to prove myself.” Carr scored 56 points including 19 goals, silencing the critics.
But the pain drain was getting too much. A free agent Gene signed on with the Atlanta Flames – a move he now questions.
“I probably never should have tried to play but it is hard to quit the game you love. It is hard to admit the body just cannot take the abuse any longer.”
When he was done with the game ‘Geno’ returned to living in the Hollywood area.
“I love LA it is great, but I must admit I sure do miss Kelowna. I am looking forward to seeing some old buddies like Deadmarsh at the reunion. It’s a very special place to me. A big hunk of my heart is still there.”
Former players have until June 14 to register before event tickets will be offered to old time fans who may want to attend.