Walt McKechnie played parts of five seasons with the Red Wings and played in over 900 NHL games. He was the Maple Leafs' first-round draft pick in 1963.
Walt McKechnie never won a Stanley Cup championship in the course of his 17 season NHL career. But it’s fitting that the 6-foot-2 center who played for both the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs was, as a youth, a spectator at one of the most iconic playoff games in Wings-Leafs history.
“I grew-up in London, Ontario, so all I ever dreamed about was being a hockey player,” McKechnie said. “Toronto was my favorite team for sure, and Detroit wasn’t far behind. I can remember when I was about 12 years old and I went to the old Olympia the night that (Bob) Baun scored that goal, and I was there.”
Put “that goal” and Bob Baun in the same sentence and many hockey fans will know the exact game. While playing for the Leafs, Baun (who later played for the Wings) made history when a shot by Gordie Howe broke his ankle during Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup playoffs. Refusing to go to the hospital, Baun was taped and given painkillers so that he could finish the game. He eventually scored on Terry Sawchuk, forcing Game 7 that the Leafs won, securing their third straight Stanley Cup.
“My aunt and my mother had taken me to the game,” McKechnie said. “And we had bought standing room and my aunt asked one of the ushers, she said, ‘My nephew’s going to be playing on that ice some day so you want to get him a seat.’ So the usher was great, he put me down on the steps right at that end where Baun scored.”
The prediction by McKechnie’s aunt turned out to be correct, but it was a circuitous route that brought the center back to Olympia Stadium as an NHL player. While playing for the Boston Bruins, McKechnie found out about his trade to the Wings when an atypical tip-off from a journalist alerted him to the fact.
“I was playing for the Bruins and just before I walked out of my hotel room at about 4:30 to go down and catch the bus, the phone rang,” he said. “And I ran to the phone and it was a news reporter for Vancouver. And he says, ‘Do you realize there’s a one way ticket for you out of here to Detroit tonight?’ ”
McKechnie had heard nothing about the trade at the morning skate, and it wasn’t until after the pregame warm-ups that coach Don Cherry finally confirmed that the center would be departing for the Motor City later that night. After a long night of travel, McKechnie ended up playing his first game in Detroit the next day – in one of his new teammate’s skates.
“I put on Nick Libett’s other pair of skates and played the game in them,” he said.
As for being traded among NHL teams – he played for eight different teams during his NHL career – McKechnie asserts that it’s all just part of the game.
“When you’re traded you’re traded,” he said. “Be thankful that some other team wanted you, that’s what my mother used to tell me.”
For McKechnie, playing with the Wings was special not just for what happened on the ice.
“I have great memories of the old Olympia,” McKechnie said. “That was a great old building; that was a great honor to be able to play in that building.”
Much of that affection for “The Old Red Barn” came from the camaraderie of the locker room and the playful joking of two of the athletic trainers, Lefty Wilson and Tommy Lynch, who alternately stirred up trouble and kept the players at ease.
“Just great people,” McKechnie said. “Lefty, the fun we used to have teasing him, it was just unbelievable.”
Even before a game, there was time for ribbing between the players and the trainers. McKechnie remembers Libett giving Wilson a hard time for his tape jobs.
“If Lefty was taping your knee,” McKechnie said, “the way they used to re-support the knees, he (Libett) would yell out to you and say, ‘Hey Walt, tell him to tape your hip because by the first period it’ll be at your knee.’ So we had a lot of fun. A lot of teasing. You had to have thick skin.”
Another interaction with Wilson marks not just the fun that they had but also the difference in injury treatment since the ’70s.
“One time I remember I had a partially separated shoulder but you could still play a bit, when you had shoulder injuries they’d tape your arm down against your chest, you could still stick-handle” McKechnie said. “So I went in in the morning to get some treatment and I said to Lefty, ‘My shoulder really hurts when I do this, when I lift my arm up over my head.’ He says, ‘Well, don’t do that.’”
Although McKechnie only spent three seasons with the Wings, his career path eventually brought him back to Detroit, after playing with the Washington Capitals, Cleveland Barons and Colorado Rockies.
McKechnie returned in the early ’80s to a new arena and new ownership. But the change of scenery at Joe Louis Arena didn’t provide a shortage of humorous behind-the-scenes events, particularly one between Jim Schoenfeld and coach Nick Polano.
“Something had happened,” McKechnie said. “Schoenfeld got kicked out of a game and Nick yelled at him, or I don’t know what happened exactly, but Jimmy was in the dressing room … threw his stick up in the air to the ceiling or took a swing at something and hit the water sprinkler on the top. Knocked the nozzle right off so water’s just guzzling out. Here we come in, there’s like six-inches of water in the dressing room because they couldn’t get it shut off. It was so funny.”