(PHOTO: Saskatoon Blades Hockey Club)
It’s a long way from the pool hall in Weyburn, Saskatchewan to the Chicago Blackhawks bench at the United Center.
But Lorne Molleken made it.
In the latest installment of our pandemic-inspired series on legendary Western Canadian hockey figures, we check in on the man known universally in hockey circles as “Mooner”.
Or, as a kid growing up in Weyburn, he was known as “Half Moon”. His father Ken was nicknamed “Full Moon” and brother Doug called “Quarter Moon”.
You can’t make this stuff up. And to get the wild ride you’re about to read started, the 64-year old Molleken says growing up in Weyburn was as good as it gets.
“It was awesome,” Molleken said on the phone from his home at Long Lake, SK this week. “At that time my Dad owned the pool hall and the taxi company. You could go anywhere in Weyburn at that time for 65 cents. The pool hall was a big, big part of our lives and all the Weyburn Red Wings would come there. Getting to know them was great, plus my Mom and Dad were billets of the Wings. Eventually, I became the stick boy for the Wings and my idol growing up was Wayne Bell, who was the goalie for the Weyburn Red Wings.”
Molleken’s playing career is worthy of a book unto itself. Maybe even a movie. As a very good goalie, he played junior in Swift Current, Lethbridge, and Winnipeg before embarking on a pro career that spanned eight seasons and included stops in Philadelphia, Saginaw, Springfield, Broome, Indianapolis, and Toledo.
At age 30, Father Time came knocking on Lorne’s career and the transition into coaching came pretty quickly.
“My one knee was really starting to bother me,” Mooner remembered. “In ’85, I’d just signed a 3-year contract with the Minnesota North Stars and my good friend Dirk Graham had signed with them the year before. We’d played together in Toledo with the Goaldiggers.
“As my knee got worse and worse and playing hockey wasn’t a whole bunch of fun anymore, that summer I’d sent out a bunch of resumes to all the teams in the SJHL. Lo and behold a week before camp, I got a call from the Swift Current Indians. Their coach Paddy Ginnell had just left to go to New Westminster so I drove up to Swift Current, went through the interview process, and got offered the job.
“Back in those days you didn’t get paid a whole lot of money and we had three kids so at that time you just had to add another can of water to the soup to make sure everybody got fed. I started coaching in Swift Current, but Paddy got fired in New West and came back. They bumped me down to Assistant Coach, and that wasn’t going to last too long.”
It didn’t. But in a twist of fate, Lorne was called home for his dream job. In fact, pay attention because there are many, many instances in this series of the adage “everything happens for a reason”.
“The next summer (1986), Tom Webb hired me to coach the Weyburn Red Wings and I was the proudest guy in the world,” Molleken smiled. “Going to the Colosseum as a kid, I remember running up and down the aisles and the hallways and Tiger Williams just hammering the shit out of us into the walls! His dad Taffy ran the equipment shop at the end of the hall. That was all part of it.”
It did not take long for Molleken to make a name for himself in the SJHL, and around the country. He already had as a player but as a coach, his fiery demeanour carried over from the crease to the bench.
“I was in Weyburn for two seasons (1986-87, 1987-88),” Molleken continued. “Gerry James was coaching in Estevan. One night in Melville in the old Vault, the referee was Dennis Pottage. We lost in OT on a disputed goal. The net was off the mooring and they scored from behind the goal line.
“Across the ice I went and tried to get after Pottage in the refs’ room. You’ve known me a long time Roddy, but back then I was a bit of a free spirit. The refs barricaded their door so I couldn’t get in to get at Pottage. This guy came at me in the stands and we got into it. The next thing you know the RCMP’s got me.
“I was charged and Tommy Webb hired a lawyer for me. Wayne Kartusch was the SJHL President at the time and he suspended me for 30 games or something. Whatever, it was for the rest of the year. I went to court and my punishment was doing community service. I did it in Weyburn and it meant cleaning up the rec centre and playing crib with a blind guy!”
Like most coaches, Molleken’s life has always been nomadic. It’s sort of like the theme song for the TV show Littlest Hobo. “Every stop I make, I make a new friend. Can’t stay for long, I turn around and I’m gone again.”
The same applied here. After two years in Weyburn, Mooner was making the move up to the ‘Dub.
“I’d become friends with Gerry James who’d been around the SJHL forever. In 1988 he got hired in Moose Jaw and that summer he asked me to come be his assistant,” Molleken recalled. “That touched off the greatest spell of my life because I still have a ton of friends in Moose Jaw and am still a huge fan of the Warriors.”
If you recall in our last series entitled Shockey Hockey, Parry Shockey smirked, “You know how they do business in Moose Jaw”.
You’re about to get a lesson in it.
“I remember sitting in the office at the Civic Centre having a cigarette and all of the executive came in,” Lorne said. “The president came in, his name was Jim Longley, and he said they were there to fire Gerry. This was only a month into the season! The Governor was Barry Webster and that afternoon they hired Greg Kvisle as head coach.
“We had an up and down season (18-52-2) and at the end of it all, we had a meeting and Barry asked me to take over as head coach and Greg was just going to be the GM. Webby said our win/loss record would dictate if I got an extension or not. I thought, ‘well that’s nice’.”
But the Warriors did well enough under Molleken. Their record of 27-42-3 was good enough for sixth out of eight Eastern Conference teams and they made the playoffs.
“Our big line was Blair Atcheynum, Rob Harvey and Jerome Bechard,” Mooner reflected. “Greg brought in Cory Beaulieu, Scott Humeniuk, and Smokey Reddick as our goalie. We swept our west coast trip I think, and the old Civic Centre was packed for the rest of the season. We got into the playoffs in the last game against Regina when Paul Dyck scored in OT for us.”
It sounds like a dream almost, doesn’t it? But Molleken was flying by the seat of his pants, and he knew it.
“To be honest with you Roddy, I knew nothing about coaching,” Lorne admitted. “To this day, I’ll tell you I learned an awful lot about coaching from Greg Kvisle. Anyway that year we beat Medicine Hat in the first round but lost to Swift Current in Round 2, and they went on to win the Memorial Cup.
“We roughed up the Broncos in that series and I’ll never forget when they beat us, Graham James wouldn’t let his team shake our hands, that fucking loser.”
Molleken’s first stint in Moose Jaw lasted just three years, but it was memorable.
“To this day, I’ve coached a lot of players, but the players from that Moose Jaw Warriors group, I still talk to and consider them close friends,” Mooner reasoned. “Like Scott Thomas, Scott Reid, Bechard, Jason Fitzsimmons, all those guys are my friends to this day. As much success as I’d go on to have with teams, the one guy that always, always stood by my side was Barry Webster. The Moose Jaw connection’s always been very, very special to me.”
But when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. For Lorne Molleken, it was just a short jaunt up the highway to a rival team who boasted a jaw-dropping new arena.
“Anyway in the summer of ’91 (former WHL President) Ed Chynoweth called and asked what my contract status was and I told him here in Moose Jaw, it’s just a handshake,” Lorne said. “He said the P.A. Raiders would like to talk to me so my wife Patsy and I drove up there for an interview. In the meantime, I’d got word the Saskatoon Blades wanted to talk to me too and I was to go meet with them at the Brodsky Construction office.
“Same trip, Patsy and I found our way to the construction office in Saskatoon and when I walked in, there was Mr. (Nate) Brodsky, Jack, Rick, Bob Brodsky, and Darryl Lubiniecki. I just about fell off my chair. The next morning I was named head coach of the Saskatoon Blades.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Or at least, this was the era when I entered the Western Hockey League as the 20-year old play-by-play Voice of the P.A. Raiders. That’s where I got to know Lorne and the truth was, if you wanted to watch playoff hockey deep into the spring, we had to make the drive down to Saskatoon because the Blades were making deep runs just about every year. And Saskatchewan Place was packed to the gills.
“That one year in the playoffs, 1992 I think, we played P.A. in the conference final. They’d won the regular-season title,” Mooner set up. “Jeff Nelson was their big guy. We had Shane Calder, Rhett Warrener, Glen Gulutzan was our captain, Norm Maracle in goal, and we beat P.A. in six games. But before Game 6, Lubie comes down and says we can’t start the game for at least another 15 minutes because people were backed up all the way down Idylwyld into downtown trying to get in! There were between 11,000-12,000 people there that night but before half of them even got in, we were up 4-0.”
The Blades lost a seven-game WHL championship series to the Kamloops Blazers in 1992 and the exact same thing happened again in 1994. Both times the Blazers went on to win the Memorial Cup.
The Blades never won it all during Molleken’s time in the Bridge City, but the NHL was watching and liked what they saw.
“At the 1995 Memorial Cup in Kamloops, I sat down with Kevin Pendergrast and Teddy Green who were two of the top guys with the Oilers. Eventually, I had to make my way to Edmonton to meet with Glen Sather.”
That’s right. The kid from Weyburn who used to rack ‘em up for the Wings at the pool hall was about to get a one-on-one interview with the architect of five Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers.
“The Oilers were renovating at Rexall Place so their temporary offices were on the top floor of the Forum Hotel across the parking lot,” Molleken reflected. “I went in and met with Glen Sather. GLEN SATHER! You think I was shitting my pants?”
Apparently so. Everything was setting up quickly for Molleken to take over the AHL’s Cape Breton Oilers in Sidney, Nova Scotia and now it was time to talk money.
“Glen said he was gonna pay me $75,000 and I said there’s no way I could work for that. You know what he said?” Molleken chuckled.
“THEN GO DRIVE A MILK TRUCK!”
“I said ‘I’ll take the job!’ Hahaha.”
And with that Mooner was headed back to the pros, only this time as a head coach.
It wouldn’t be long before he was under the bright lights of the National Hockey League.
Stay tuned for Moonlighting, Part II.
The Rod Pedersen Show airs daily at 12:00 pm ET on Game+ TV Network in over 1.2-million homes in Canada and the USA. It’s available in Manitoba on Bell/MTS Cable, in Saskatchewan on SaskTel Max TV, in Alberta & BC on Telus Optik TV and in Washington and Oregon states on TDS Cable. It’s also simulcast on Facebook Live and RodPedersen.com/ListenLive