“He was a big kid, but a little bit uncoordinated,” McCourt said, “like maybe he grew too fast, and he was having a hard time getting his feet to catch up with him.”
However, it wasn’t long before Willie Huber, the tall, gangly German-born Hamilton teammate turned into a Memorial Cup champion and a first-round draft pick of the Red Wings.
Huber, who played five seasons for the Red Wings between 1978 and 1983, died at his Hamilton, Ontario, home Monday from a heart attack. He was 52.
“He really came into his own,” said McCourt, who was later joined by Huber in Detroit. “I mean he caught up to his body and adjusted to Junior A hockey, and really, really impressed us.”
Born in Strasskirchen, Germany, Huber played a total of 10 seasons with four different clubs, including the New York Rangers, Vancouver and Philadelphia. He scored 68 goals with 140 assists and 612 penalty minutes in 372 regular-season games with the Red Wings and was the team’s lone representative at the 1983 All-Star Game.
It’s been about nine years since McCourt last saw his friend and former OHL and NHL teammate, at a gather in Hamilton to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Fincups’ 1976 Memorial Cup championship.
“Him and I were pretty good buddies,” said McCourt, who now drives a transport trunk across Canada four days a week. “We hung around a little bit in Junior. He was a nice guy. Our personalities melded together pretty good. He had a good home life; always respected his mom and dad, and I think that’s something that both of us did. I respected my parents and I think that’s something that melded us into good friends.”
Three seasons after their Memorial title, McCourt and Huber were reunited on a Red Wings’ team coached by Bobby Kromm, who died earlier this month.
“Even in that day and age, it was kind of ironic that we both ended up on the same team,” McCourt said. “I mean, with expansion and everything, things kind of went out the window of your expectations of a six-team league growing up as a kid and watching the NHL. You just wanted a chance, so wherever you were drafted you were ready to go.”
Paul Woods, a former Red Wings forward and the team’s current radio analyst, remembers Huber as a generous individual, who enjoyed playing softball and golfing.
“Him and I got along real well,” Woods said. “We were roommates in the summer some times and took vacations together. The biggest thing Willie and I did was go to Hawaii. We stayed out there for about three weeks and had a real good time golfing.”
During the summer months, the Red Wings’ players participated in charity softball events. Huber was the team’s first baseman, Woods said.
“He was a big part of our slo-pitch softball team back then,” Woods said. “We had a real good group: Jimmy Rutherford, Willie, myself and Brad Smith. It was just a way for us to raise money for charity. … We just had a great time.”
Early in his career, Huber, who was an imposing figure on the ice – he stood 6-foot-5 and was 225-pounds – was the largest player in the NHL at the time. An offensive-minded defenseman, he averaged 13.6 goals and 41.6 points during his days in Detroit.
Former Red Wings forward Nick Libett was traded to Pittsburgh following Huber’s rookie season. But the thing Libett recalls most of the imposing defenseman was his soft-spoken demeanor.
“He was a gentle giant. He really was,” Libett said. “He didn’t have a real mean streak in him – that I saw anyway.”
Yet, Huber’s abilities were undeniable, especially when he was paired defensively with Reed Larson, which gave the Wings a couple of Howitzers that could unleash heavy shots from the blue line on the power-play.
“He was a big, friendly, quiet guy, you know,” McCourt said. “He was a pretty well-rounded defenseman. His agility probably wasn’t top-notch, but he played both ends of the ice pretty well.”
Following the 1982-83 season, the Red Wings traded Huber and forwards Mike Blaisdell and Mark Osborne to the Rangers for forward Ron Duguay, and goalies Eddie Mio and Eddie Johnstone.
Huber played five more NHL seasons, collecting 36 goals, 77 assists and 338 penalty minutes in 283 games.
He is survived by his wife, Dawn; son, Zachary; step-daughter, Brittany; parents, Sonia and Henry; three brothers, and a sister.
Memorials contributions can be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
Funeral arrangements are being handled by P.X Dermody Funeral Home
, 796 Upper Gage Ave. in Hamilton. Visitation is planned for this Friday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m.