Friday, August 14, 2009

DU Legend & Campus Lounge Owner Jim Wiste

(above) DU Alum Jim Wiste pictured with Joanie at the Snoopy Senior Hockey Tournament this summer is Santa Rosa, California

Editor's Note: As a lead-in to the upcoming 60th anniversary celebration of Denver Pioneers hockey, LetsGoDU begins a four-part series comprised of stories coming out of last month’s Snoopy Tournament in Santa Rosa, CA in which the DU alumni team successfully defended their Marcie (60A) Division championship.

In this first installment, Jim Wiste (DU '69) shares his insights with Hockeys Future writer D.J. Powers on a variety of topics including playing for the legendary Murray Armstrong, current head coach George Gwozdecky, and how he came to own one of the DU hockey community’s favorite gathering spots, the Campus Lounge. The "Campus" located near DU, is annually ranked as one of the best Neighborhood Bars in Denver by Westword.

Exclusive to LetsGoDU
By DJ Powers

Q: Let’s start off with DU Hockey's upcoming 60th Reunion Celebration. Are you planning to be there and what are some of your thoughts about it?

JW: Oh yes! I think it’s going to be fantastic. It’s 60 years when hockey started in Denver. A guy by the name of Doug McKinnon is going to drop the first puck. He was DU’s first captain. I think there are two players from the original team that I think was in ’49. There were seven coaches and I think there are seven NCAAs (championships). I think it’s going to be great for the university and great for the players to come back. We had a 50-year reunion obviously ten years ago and now this is our 60th year. I don’t know if there’ll ever be another one just because all of the coaches may not be alive much longer that have coached (over the years).

Q: How did you come to play for the University of Denver?

JW: Well, in those days it was really surprising because Murray was the only person that recruited that also coached. He would look in the papers to see who was doing well and then he would maybe make an appointment to see your parents. He made one trip up to Saskatchewan and would come into my living room and sit down. Then he would say to my father “you know, if he were my son this is what I would suggest that he should do.” (Laughs) You know, he kind of hurt the university because his recruiting budget was probably only about 3,4, or 500 dollars and he drove everywhere. Back then it was a handshake. You didn’t sign a Letter of Intent. I didn’t know if I had scholarship until I came down and found out that I was in the dorms and that my books were free. So I thought ‘oh, maybe I have a scholarship.’ But now, it’s like everything else. Now, they make big thing out of a (player) signing with all of the legality of it and other teams trying to get somebody. But back then it wasn’t anything complicated. So it was just Murray saying that he wants a player on his team and he tells him. Other than that, it wasn’t anything fancy.

Q: What was it like playing for Murray?

JW: Well, Murray was kind of a legend in his own time because he had good teams and was the best motivator that I’ve ever seen. I played pro for ten years and I’d never seen a better motivator. Murray could motivate you. He was a salesman in his younger days and he could sell you. He would grab you by the hand as you walked out of the dressing room before a really important game and he would look into your eyes, be spitting into your face and say “good luck to you, son.” Then you would go out there and as we (players) used to say the piss is running down your leg during the national anthem, so you’d better be ready for the game. When Murray motivated you, he was good at motivating you. They only had one coach, so it was hard to teach a lot of players. We worked on fundamentals and did skating drills and different other things, which were really important, but not like it is now. They have film that they can break down everything and they can tell you if your little pinky is out of joint. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but you can back it up.

Murray was also respected. Out of respecting him, you worked hard for him. He was a man’s man. I think he was honest with his players and he worked you hard. Now I think the players have got it so soft. But I think the players today will tell you that they have a broader variety of things to do. They’ll do weight programs and running and so forth, whereas we were just mainly on the ice.

Q: What were some of the best things that Murray had taught you that you were able to take with you and apply to yourself as both a hockey player and as an individual?

JW: I think the integrity for being an honest person. He always used to have this saying that you could look yourself in the mirror in the morning when you’re shaving and you’ve given your best. That’s kind of one of the sayings that he had. There’s a book out that somebody wrote on Murray’s sayings because he always had these sayings. Like if you got hurt, he would always say ‘tape an aspirin to it. It’s a long way from your heart. You’re ok.’ And these were things that we all put into our repertoire and still say to each other. If you had a question, Murray would say ‘honest to God, Jim?’ George (Gwozdecky) has done a great job with the players too, but they’re two different eras. And people try to compare the two and you can’t. George has got to have guys out there looking for new players. He has to have help. Murray couldn’t have done this.

Q: What are some of the similarities do you personally see between Murray and George?

JW: I think George has great respect by his players. He has great character and doesn’t put up with anything if there’s a problem. The team comes first to him, and Murray was like that too. Actually they’re both kind of a lot alike in a way. George has made a name for himself, won some NCAAs (championships), and has been one of the top five coaches (in the NCAA) for about the last four or five years. It’s hard to come into the situation that he did after Murray Armstrong, who was here for 25 years. But George has made his own niche and I think winning those championships were important. So I think George and Murray are lot alike in their characters.

Q: Obviously not any player can play at DU. It takes a special type of player that could not only play at DU but also succeed there. Players who’ve come here such as Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger, and even recent former players like Gabe Gauthier and Adam Berkhoel had not only the talent, but have (or had) the character that made them fit so well into the DU system. In terms of character, how are these players similar to those that played at DU when you were there?

JW: I’m fortunate to be able to skate with them. I met Rhett Rakshani and can see why he’s the captain. Mark Rycroft when he was here at DU was like him (Rakhshani) too. So they’re no different from the players that played for Murray. The same kind of guys that play for George played for Murray. Both are character people, as well as other guys like J.P. Testwuide. It’s a fraternity and in those guys, you can see that they pick it up. Just looking at their skills on the ice, you can tell that they’re way better than we were. But we never got a chance to meet them through the old-timers hockey. When you look at a player on the ice, they’ve got a helmet on and a mask. And you hardly recognize them until their senior year. And now we get to see them in the dressing room. George has a deal where he’d have alumni come in and talk to the team. You ask him what he wants you to talk and he would say whatever you want. And he’d even open the door up. And we’ve all done that. Alot of the players (that are alumni) have. So I think that’s pretty good on George’s part that he would take the chance on allowing us to talk about anything to the team that we wanted, whether it be what it’s like to be a freshman or anything about hockey or about life. I think the players always enjoyed it because a lot of the older guys would have things to say. And I give George credit because that’s like saying ‘come into my bedroom and you can say what you want.’ He wasn’t afraid to open the door. That shows me that he is self-sufficient with his own operation. When you can say that, you’re not hiding anything because I can walk into the dressing room and say I think this or that. Now George would say ‘say what you want to say. I don’t care what you talk about, just talk about something.’ I’ve had a lot of my other (Snoopy) teammates do it and we’ve all approached it from different angles. Some have approached it on a humorous angle and some have approached it on a serious angle. Well, I think that brings character into it. So I give George credit for that. He’d just look at you and say ‘do what you want to do.’ I’ve talked to them (the team) a couple of times and depending on how well the team is doing or what’s happening, it’s hard to tell them when they’re in first place what they’re doing wrong. Yet when they’re struggling, it’s not my job to tell them what to do right because I’m not their coach, but George has opened up those doors and just told me to say what I want to say.

Q: Let’s shift gears here for a bit and talk about the Campus Lounge. How did that all come about?

JW: Well, when I finished hockey, I had played about ten years, I wanted to do well in something and had no idea. I really hadn’t done anything in ten years, so with my degree I thought it was tough, but I wanted to be my own boss. I’ve always loved the food business, and actually the Whites owned it. John White played for DU and I knew his dad pretty well. One day he skated with us and asked if he ever wanted to sell his business. Each time we skated, I’d talked about it a little more. And the funny thing about it was that I didn’t know a thing about the restaurant business. Maybe it was a good thing because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bought it. (Laughs) So that’s how I bought it and it’s been 33 years. It’s kind of nice because when I go and watch sports and talk sports, I’m fortunate to do something that I enjoy doing. Sure, there are a lot of tough things, but it’s been good to me. The DU people have been good to me. They’ve frequented my place. The faculty and other sports teams like the Boston Bruins or the Chicago Blackhawks would come in too. So that’s how I got into the business.

Q: I know that you had played professionally for a number of years. So what was it like making that huge jump from college to the pros?

JW: We were probably, and really and truly, the first college players to come out. There were players such as Keith Magnuson, Cliff Koroll, and myself, along with Tony Esposito with Chicago. College players never played in the NHL back then. Now it’s unbelievable. It was good and bad because players would take an extra run at you because you were a “college player” and maybe felt that you weren’t tough enough. They were jealous of you because you had a college education. So we were kind of the pioneers of that. I’m proud of that. Now you look down the roster and there’s I don’t know how many college kids that are in the NHL. It’s unbelievable. But we were really the first to come out. I think college players are more dedicated and I think they have a vision of what they want to do. I’m not downgrading the other guys, but that’s how much college hockey has come along too. Like when DU starts each year, they may have eight freshmen coming in and by the senior year they may have two or three because the rest have all turned pro already. So that shows the quality that they have and things like that. So we were kind of the pioneers on that end. I remember going to Chicago’s camp. We trained before we even went to camp and the other pros didn’t. We were in better shape and focused on what we were doing a little more. Now all of the pros do that. Maybe we helped them in a way that they didn’t know about because it’s an all-year job now. In the old days, you went to camp thinking that you could get into shape in about two or three weeks. Now these guys are practicing all the time.

Q: As an outsider, I have the opportunity to look at how you guys interact with one another both at the rink and away from it. And while all of you are friends and come from different mothers, you’re all brothers too.

JW: Well there’s an old saying that if you can’t be yourself around your friends, then they’re not your friends. If I can’t say what I want to say around my friends, then they’re not my friends. I might say the wrong things, but I can do it. Who else can I do it around? Who will forgive me or who will help me? So a lot of people look at us and say ‘you guys are kind of honest with each other.’ We’ll look at each other and say you’ve got this wrong in a joking way or you might say ‘you’re being an ass.’ (Laughs) So that’s the biggest compliment that you can pay your friends is to be yourself among them. And you know, it doesn’t come overnight. You have to gain that respect or have that respect to give. So I think we’ve done that and it’s carried on. At least I hope it has carried on. There have been a couple of hiccups along the way, but how can you have a program that doesn’t? When you’re on top, there’s nowhere to go but down a little bit. DU has been picked first this year and that’s the kiss of death in a way, but you know what? I’d rather be picked first than last. I think that shows the strength of our program too. We all go to the games and we all support them. The reunion is going to be great. I think it’s always tough too because we’re all at that part in our lives where we’re going to lose a few each year. So that’s tough.

Q: Would you say that “family” is a more generally accurate description of the team, especially in the way you guys support one another?

JW: Oh yeah, and we all are. We’re sitting there tonight, playing in the over-60 group, we all know that we can’t do the things that we used to do, but we’re just sitting there cheering each other on. If a guy gets hurt, we’re all concerned. We’re friends and we’re here because of that. There’s still that competitiveness. You can’t lose that because let’s face it you still want to win. If you can look into mirror and say that I gave it my best, then that’s all that matters. Even when I played pro, I remember one of the older pros that was our goalie say to me after we had been beaten 7-2, “I played the best that I could.” And I thought, he was right. He tried his best and did his best. If don’t play your best, then you’ve got a problem. Maybe you could say that I could’ve been in better shape or more prepared. But those go on in life and in business. So be prepared and be there. Hockey is no different than running a business. You’ve got to be organized and have leadership and do a lot of things, so those things carry on. I think they’re important. I’m fortunate enough to be here talking to you and say that I’m a Pioneer and I’m proud of it.

Q: In your personal opinion, how would define a Denver Pioneers hockey player?

JW: I would like to define him as dedicated, sincere, honest, hard working, and compatible with other people. Maybe we would like to have everything but we can’t. But I think a lot of those qualities are maybe 80 percent of what they are because if he isn’t then all the other guys would give him a hard time. Like maybe we would have a guy that’s a little bit of problem and we would all say ‘c’mon, you have to lighten up.’ (Laughs) We would govern ourselves. We’ve always done that. I think they still do that. So when you bump into a guy and if he’s a Pioneer, then he’s your friend. And if he needs help, you help him. If he needs some advice, then you give him some advice. And I think it’s sincere. So those are the things that you look upon as a Pioneer.

Q: What was the greatest memory that you took from your time at DU?

JW: I think winning an NCAA championship was a great memory. But I don’t like to say that everything is about winning because I know some guys that didn’t win. They always say that you’ve won an NCAA championship. That’s not really it. I think the friendships with guys like Cliff Koroll, Keith Magnuson and the guys that I met that I went to school with is a great memory. And it’s not just in hockey either. The people that I’ve met when my life changed and I couldn’t mention them all was the best thing that I’ve gotten out of it. So if you asked what the biggest thrill from hockey, I’d say winning the NCAA championship. They always say that what you can go back to is priceless, which are the friendships that we formed. And we’re all still good friends.

5 comments:

vizoroo said...

Great article! Looking forward to the next three.

puck swami said...

Fantastic!

Wiste's terrific insights give every reader a sense of the brotherhood that is Pioneer hockey.

Thanks to DJ for spending the time.

du78 said...

Fabulous article!!!!!

Spent many hours at Wiste's place back in the day and he is a pleasure to know.

msbdu said...

I agree, great article. The DU hockey tradition is something special. Can't wait for the 60th reunion.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Thanks DJ and Jim. The Pioneer tradition and history is something I love to hear about, especially since I wasn't around to witness it first hand. These guys laid the foundation for my favorite team/program in all of sports. Can't thank them enough.

DJ - maybe a book is in order :-)