10/25/2008 8:10 AM
As a player, Curt Fraser was one tough customer. As the new coach of the Griffins, he has plenty of fight left.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Mention YouTube to new Griffins head coach Curt Fraser and you’ll get an awkward reaction of mirth, melancholy and remorse.
Although the clips are culled from his waning years as a player, they are a reminder of the reputation that he once had.
Fraser was one tough customer.
In his heyday, he was considered not only one of the strongest pound-for-pound fighters in the NHL but also an excellent point producer who wasn’t afraid to get his nose dirty in the tough areas of play.
Here’s what the 1983 Complete Handbook of Pro Hockey had to say about
“Backbone of team because of solid, two-way play, hard work and aggressive approach... one of the league’s best fighters, seldom challenged because of prowess... among the NHL’s strongest players because of his devotion to weightlifting program... few better cornermen in the NHL...”
No, Fraser’s mother wasn’t writing for hockey publications. And while he might dismiss such scouting reports as ancient history, they remain reflective of the way he approached the game and the expectations he now has of his own players as a coach.
The youngest of three boys, Fraser is the son of Barry Beatty, who was playing hockey in Cincinnati for the Montreal Canadiens organization at the time of his son’s birth a half-century ago.
Fraser grew up in Vancouver, where the family lived a block and a half from the rink. “My brothers dragged me down there every night,” he recalled. “I didn’t think much about it then, but they were probably the main reason I developed as a hockey player.”
Like most little brothers, Fraser had to learn to stand up for himself. “My brothers used to kick my tail until I was about 16 and then the tables turned,” he chuckles now.
That was the age when he began playing junior hockey for the Victoria Cougars in the Western Canada Hockey League.
The Cougars were coached by Patty Ginnell, a hard-nosed guy who was able to instill a feistiness and will to succeed in his young charges like few others.
“My dad and Patty played together on the Flin Flon Bombers when they won the Memorial Cup in 1957,” Fraser said. “He’s probably the main reason why I got to play in the NHL.”
Ginnell demanded that his players show the kind of intensity that insisted on playing every shift as if it were your last.
“When he walked into the room, you could hear guys’ teeth chattering because they were scared to death,” Fraser said. “He pushed and pushed and pushed. He was tough. There was no one tougher than him.”
From Ginnell, Fraser learned lessons about competitiveness and work ethic that still bear fruit today, but he was already on his way to becoming a better hockey player.
Prior to Victoria, he had been the last player cut by the Vancouver Nats. That led him to play for the Kelowna Buckaroos, a Tier II Junior A team in the British Columbia Hockey League.
In Kelowna, Fraser played with Mark Lofthouse, a highly talented player who helped hone his offensive skills. With the Buckaroos, Fraser also learned to drop the gloves.
“I had never been in a fight outside of the playground and I remember this 20-year-old guy from Penticton grabbed me one game early in the season and beat the heck out of me.
“I think that happened one more time and I realized that I had to learn how to protect myself and become more aggressive. By the time I was 16, I was the aggressor.”
As far as Fraser is concerned, the WCHL in the mid-Seventies was the toughest division in Canada.
“Back then it was tough, tough hockey. You had to step up and be counted or you’d get run over,” he said, rattling off such names as Larry Playfair, Paul Mulvey, Perry Turnball, Dave Hoyda and Barry Beck.
“I was probably one of the smaller guys on the team but I still liked sticking my nose where I probably shouldn’t have,” Fraser said.
It was old-time hockey, but Fraser was part of the new breed of players who approached the game as a year-round occupation.
“We were the first wave of players who came into training camp in shape and ready to compete,” he said. “We were working out, in the gym every day.”
Fraser augmented his training with boxing lessons and Tae Kwon Do. He was a mean, lean fighting machine by 1978 when he broke into the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks, who had snagged him with a second-round pick (22nd overall) in the NHL Amateur Draft earlier that year.
In his fourth season in Vancouver, the Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals after compiling a less-than-stellar record of 30-33-17 during the regular season.
“It was fantastic,” Fraser recalled. “I’ve never seen a city come alive like that – the waving of towels and everything that happened on the journey to the Finals. It was the best experience.”
Much to his surprise, Fraser was given a one-way ticket to Chicago midway through the following season when he was traded to the Blackhawks for Toni Tanti, a 20-year prospect who had broken Wayne Gretzky’s OHL rookie scoring record with 81 goals in 1980-81.
“I felt awful. I went out with the guys in Vancouver one last time and it was a very tough, emotional night because we had all come up together and now I was the one leaving. It was the worst experience I ever had.”
The following day Fraser was picked up at the airport by Bob Pulford, the Blackhawks general manager who would later be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Here I was with this legend and a day later when I walk into Chicago Stadium, I see on the walls all these pictures of guys like Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and the Bentley brothers, and you realize you’re not in Vancouver anymore.”
Fraser still gets chills when he remembers what it was like to stand on the blue line in the Blackhawks’ fabled barn.
“It’s something that I wish every player I ever coached could have experienced,” he said. “The anthem would start and the cheering would be so loud that you could hardly hear yourself think.
“If you couldn’t get yourself up to play a great game in Chicago Stadium, you had no business even putting skates on.”
In Chicago, Fraser continued to battle with the best the NHL had to offer, building on a reputation solidified in Vancouver by a one-punch knockout of Toronto’s Dave Farrish on a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.
Fraser enjoyed five seasons with the Blackhawks before he was traded to the Minnesota North Stars for Dirk Graham, who would eventually become a captain in Chicago.
He played on and off for the next two seasons, hampered by injuries that prevented him from playing at the high level to which he was accustomed.
“I couldn’t play anymore – there were too many creaks and rattles,” said Fraser, who went under the knife 16 times during his career but still boasts all of his original teeth despite many bloody brawls.
In 1990, Brian Burke, then director of hockey operations in Vancouver, tried to get Fraser to stick it out for one more year in order to work with the Canucks’ younger players. “I got checked by four doctors and they all said, ‘No chance. You’re done.’
“You never expect to have to stop doing what you love. That’s a very, very tough thing for a player. I really didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Burke offered him an opportunity to become an assistant coach for the Canucks’ IHL affiliate in Milwaukee. “I had never even thought about coaching, but I knew from the first time I was on the ice that it was the perfect thing for me,” Fraser said.
Fraser spent two years as an assistant before being promoted to head coach, a position he held for two seasons in Milwaukee. After one season as an associate coach in the AHL with Syracuse, he returned to the IHL in 1995 as head coach of the Orlando Solar Bears, a team he twice took to the Turner Cup Finals.
He earned a ticket to the NHL, where he was given the difficult challenge of leading the expansion Atlanta Thrashers in 1999.
“Everybody wants to win championships, but when you start a team from scratch in the NHL, there are no shortcuts. You have to build slowly from the draft and that takes time, and time is not your friend when you’re the coach of an expansion team.”
After a couple of years as an NHL assistant with the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues, Fraser ended up coaching the Belarus national team. If it sounds like the equivalent of being sent to Siberia, it was an experience that Fraser found especially fruitful.
“I went over there with an open mind and it couldn’t have been better,” he said. “It was something that I would recommend to any coach.”
By teaching hockey fundamentals to players who knew little or no English, Fraser gained a new perspective on the game.
Still, his heart was in North America, so when the Griffins job opened after the 2006-07 season, he threw his name into the hat. He interviewed with the Red Wings, but withdrew from the process soon after.
“I felt I had to go back to Belarus to finish what I had started,” said Fraser, who would ultimately help the team qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
When the Griffins job became available again after the 2007-08 season, Fraser could hardly believe his good fortune. “I knew this was an opportunity that wasn’t going to come again.”
Whether or not it was fate, Fraser always had a nagging suspicion he might find his way to Grand Rapids.
“When I coached in Orlando, we had the most intense rivalry with the Griffins, and there was always something in the back of my mind about Grand Rapids.
“I have a lot of good memories about Grand Rapids and I’m looking forward to creating some new memories.”
The first order of business, according to Fraser, is getting the team back on track. “We’ll work toward getting this team deep into playoffs. Toward that goal, we’ll try to bring these young kids together as fast as we can.”
Fraser knows there will be adversity and challenges but he likes overcoming the odds, as he can attest from his personal life.
Twenty-six years ago, a physical for a private pilot’s license changed his life forever.
“When the doctor checked my blood, he made me take the test four times,” Fraser recalled. “He couldn’t believe he was looking at the results of a professional athlete in excellent physical condition.”
Fraser learned he had diabetes, a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into the energy needed for daily life.
“They were asking me questions like ‘Are you tired?’ ‘Do you get up in the middle of the night?’ “Are you thirsty?’ And I was everything times ten. I had figured it was just part of the day-to-day demands of hockey but I learned I wouldn’t have had long before I would have been really ill.”
At the time, Fraser was worried what the discovery might mean to his career, but in retrospect he wonders if it might not have been a blessing in disguise.
“It actually might have helped me because I had to focus on really taking good care of myself,” he said. “I had always been into physical fitness, but after I found out I was diabetic, I took even better care of myself.”
Fraser learned he was not alone.
Through the International Diabetic Athletes Association (now the Diabetes Exercise & Sports Association), Fraser discovered there were Olympians, marathon runners, swimmers and athletes of all ages and types with diabetes.
Fraser has been active in doing charitable work with both the U.S. and Canadian diabetes associations, and for 12 years he organized an annual golf tournament in his name in Vancouver. “I’ve been involved at every level and I will continue doing that,” he said.
Dealing with diabetes taught Fraser not to take anything for granted.
“There are always going to be problems along the way, but instead of looking for excuses, you’ve got to stay positive. You know that’s not always easy to do, but you find a way."