Dishing with DKG: Former NHLer Jim Peplinski takes shots at Wayne Gretzky, Hockey Canada

FEBRUARY 5 / Donna Kennedy-Glans

This is a new conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities. This week: former NHLer Jim Peplinski.

Former Calgary Flame Jim Peplinski clowns around during an alumni game in 2014.
PHOTO BY Brent Calver for Postmedia/File

Hockey is the sport Canadians like to call our own. But the sport is facing off against some big challenges — scandals and battered reputations at Hockey Canada; sports-betting ads flooding National Hockey League broadcasts; and prickly questions about who should fund arenas in NHL franchise cities.

For decades, I was a “hockey mom” and I find myself getting increasingly agitated watching these issues play out. To gain some perspective, I reach out to Jim Peplinski — he’s a respected member of the hockey fraternity and civic-minded.

When I catch up to Jim, he’s at his vacation home on Salt Spring Island. His one bar of WiFi service holds to allow our virtual conversation; the odd word is garbled, but I never lose sight of the funky, neon-coloured T-shirt he’s wearing. In Calgary, I’m cocooned in a green wool turtleneck, looking out the window to a city silenced in a blanket of white snow.

Born in the Ottawa Valley in 1960, Jim moved to Calgary as a 20-year-old right-winger for the Calgary Flames in their original team lineup. And he never left. “When I landed here on Sept. 5th 1980 … it was as if I was coming home,” Jim reflects. “I just think that Alberta is built for how I’m wired.” It’s a feeling we share.

“When I look back now, by far, the biggest advantage I got playing in the National Hockey League was the quality of the people that I got to be with… Doc Seaman, BJ Seaman, Harley Hotchkiss, Norm Green, Ralph Scurfield, Normie Kwong, think about the quality of those people… I think I wrote eulogies for three of them.”

What about the quality of the people now at Hockey Canada? Jim played for Canada in the 1988 Winter Olympics and chaired the World Juniors in 2012. I’ve reached out to some of the people on the board at Hockey Canada headquarters in Calgary, and to corporate sponsors — Canadian Tire, Tim Horton’s — and it’s radio silence. And what’s the payroll for Hockey Canada execs? That information seems impossible to access.

Jim claims he’s hardly followed the scandal at Hockey Canada but does expect that arrogance is at the root of it all. “Show me the incentives and I’ll show you the behaviour,” he quips. I press him to elaborate, and he does: “All of a sudden the World Juniors are kicking out 20 million net and the Olympics are financially rewarding and you get reading your own press clippings. Look at China and look at Russia and that’s what happens when nobody can challenge the leadership.”

How did we let elite sports divert our focus from the grassroots, from shinny hockey and just playing for fun? Jim has answers: “When I co-chaired the World Juniors in 2012, I was concerned about the focus on tournaments and playing around the calendar. It’s ridiculous… I talked to the Americans about what they are doing. They focused on the grassroots, just wanting to get more kids playing. Is it any surprise the number of players from the U.S. in the NHL has gone up and the number of players from Canada has gone down? I don’t think so.”

I pepper Jim with more questions: Did he support the idea of Calgary bidding for another Winter Olympics? Not when there’s that much rot in the IOC. Does he support a new arena in Calgary, to replace the Saddledome? “I can’t tell you that it’s going to make our city, but I’d say it’s somewhat shameful on both sides that there was so much money on the table and they couldn’t come to an agreement.”

What about the Great One using his star power to make millions advertising sports betting? You can’t watch television without seeing his pitch for BetMGM. Jim is someone who could play against Wayne Gretzky without getting his doors blown off; what does he make of this? Because, for myself, the Great One has lost my respect, and I grew up on a farm south of Brantford, Ont., Gretzky’s hometown.

“He’s a long way from Brantford. He’s a long way from Edmonton,” Jim replies, his voice quiet. “I probably played against him (Gretzky) more than anyone in the history of the league because we played Edmonton and then when he got traded to L.A., we played a lot. What a magnificent player, but he has been living in the United States of America for 30 years.”

He acknowledges gambling isn’t altogether foreign to hockey.

“We played a lot of cards on the bus and on the plane,” he adds. “These are slippery slopes. Lanny was always putting together the pool for the Masters. And think about those 50/50s.” He pauses, then adds, with a smile: “The kids had a teacher who used to say gambling is for people who are bad at math.” We both laugh.

What’s Jim doing now? Beyond owning a national vehicle leasing firm, he’s investing private capital, through his company Properly Investments, to support enterprise-minded businesses operated by people who know how to execute. “Ideas are a dime a dozen,” Jim explains, “we need people who can execute.” He’s playing it forward.

Link to original article: National Post