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Teammates share memories of Atlanta and Calgary Flame Ken Houston, who passed away from cancer

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

When Jim Peplinski thinks of Ken Houston, and he's been doing a lot of that these last few days, what comes immediately to mind is the Old West.

"Just a stand-up, honourable guy,'' the co-captain of the Flames' 1989 Stanley Cup-winning team is reminiscing. "A wonderful person.

"He was a tough guy. A tough player. But never a bully. Never a goon. Never took advantage of anybody unless they were taking advantage of someone else. Doc was all about playing fair and square.

"You know who he was? He was John Wayne. Honestly. That's the way he behaved. That's the way he was at the rink. That's the way he was off the ice.

"That was Doc."

When the Atlanta Flames relocated to Calgary in the fall of 1980, Ken Houston, the guy everyone affectionately called Doc ("I don't think I ever called him Ken,'' admits Peplinski), packed up his career and moved north with the franchise.

Houston spent the first two seasons of the Flames existence here after five in Atlanta before being dealt along with goaltender Pat Riggin to the Washington Capitals.

Saturday, Doc passed away at age 64 of cancer in Chatham, Ont.

"He used to have this blue leisure suit,'' recalls Peplinski of those long-ago days. "Two suits, actually. One blue, one beige. And he had a matching cowboy hat for each of them.

"He'd wear those with so much pride. Just sit over a coffee or a beer and shoot the breeze. The quiet, silent type in the background, laughing, throwing in the odd quip. He didn't say very much but when he did it was either funny or meaningful.

"And when you had to count on him, when it mattered, he was there."

In 112 regular-seasons games in Calgary, Houston scored 45 goals and added 44 assists. But his value extended far beyond statistics, to the quiet, yet tangible presence he exuded.

"Those games in Philly at the old Spectrum,'' says Lanny McDonald, voice cracking with merriment, "were, as you know, just a total (gong) show.

"But whenever we'd go in there, Doc would have this big grin on his face. Like: 'Hey, boys, strap 'em on cause it's gonna be a party. And you'd better answer the bell.'

"Just one of those guys you loved playing with because you knew he always had your back.

"He may not have been a prolific scorer or a phenomenal defensive guy but you always knew he was … there.

"Such a great teammate. He would stick up for anybody. Even - and I hate to say it - if they were in the wrong.

"It was so sad to hear that he'd passed away. It was like 'Oh, my God. You've got to be kidding …'"

The ol' Okotoks Potlicker, Bearcat Murray, remembers a proven NHLer who immediately accepted the new trainer.

"Just a big, good-looking guy,'' says Murray. "Extremely likeable. And tough. I liked him as a player and I really liked him as a person. He was really good to me.

"On the ice, I don't remember him being dirty or chippy or mean. He was just plain tough. Hard to handle, big and strong. 

"Guys had a helluva time with him. But he didn't go out of his way to do damage. Just did his job and enjoyed it."

Al Coates would go on to become GM of the Flames, of course. Back in 1980, though, at the dawn of things here, he was heading up the organization's media relations and PR staffs.

"Kenny,'' Coates says, "had a real reserved chuckle. A sense of humour type of thing where - and I mean this in a good way, a kind way - it didn't take a lot to make him laugh; for him to see the humour in something.

"Sometimes nothing was said, somebody'd do something stupid and you'd hear this chuckle coming out of this big man.

"As a personality, just a real good, solid individual that everyone liked."

The characteristics of integrity, of standing up for teammates and always there for the good of the cause, are all common themes among those who knew Doc, who trooped out on the ice with him.

"I remember him fighting Clark Gillies at the Corral,'' says Peplinski with an air of admiration. "Just two big guys going toe-to-toe. It was a doozy.

"Doc had this great, understated sense of humour. He'd come out of the shower, throw on a towel and go stand in front of the mirror. Then he'd look at himself and say: 'Oh, don't you ever die, you big Doc.'

"Every time.

"Later on, any time that I'd see him, he always looked the same. Big, tall, dark moustache. And I'd always say: 'Don't you ever die, you big Doc.'

"So when Eric Vail texted and told me he'd passed away he wrote: 'Don't you ever die, you big Doc.'

"'We lost Doc yesterday.'"

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