Who knows how many times legendary Western Hockey League team owner and coach Ernie “Punch” McLean gave the locker room speech about never giving up when things look grim? Certainly enough to lead his New Westminster Bruins to four consecutive Memorial Cups in the mid-1970s, and two national titles; enough that 80 of his players made the National Hockey League; enough to embrace the risk of his second career as a prospector and gold miner. Most recently, last week—at age 77, and lost five days without coat, compass or food while working his Settea Creek gold property in the dense bush of northwestern B.C.—he gave the speech to himself.
Even a guy as stubborn, strong and proud as McLean—hungry, wet, cold and beset by mosquitoes—had fleeting doubts. “Is this it?” he’d wondered. “Is this the end of the trail for me?” But with the nickname Punch, earned over a lifetime of misadventures, he had a rich vein of resources to draw on. What he loves about sports are the life lessons about winning, and losing, he said in an interview Monday, back in the comforting confines of a Burnaby hockey complex. By then he seemed none the worse for wear. His face is as craggy as the landscape he prospects and his handshake could squeeze ore from a rock. “I’ve used this philosophy in life,” he says. “If anything happens, you just keep on going, because if you quit, it’s over.”
McLean was plucked from the bush Thursday by helicopter pilot Jim Reed, and returned to his base in tiny Dease Lake, about 250 km from the Yukon border. He was unaware that the RCMP, assisted by Reed and the resources of friends and family, had mounted a massive search. McLean had been marking a trail Sunday, Aug. 16 while waiting to rendezvous with his geologist when he tumbled 25 m down a crevasse. “I wasn’t injured. I flopped along like a little kid rolling down a snowbank.”
He was disoriented, and when he clambered out he didn’t know he was on a game trail on the opposite side of the creek from where he fell. He spent days walking the wrong way before making a course correction. He figures he might have walked out by Friday along an ATV trail to a float-plane dock on Turnagain Lake. But he was more than thankful for the rescue, and for the roast chicken feast laid on by Reed’s wife, Sharon. When the weather cleared Sunday, McLean flew south, where Fran, his wife of 56 years, waited at their Coquitlam home. “I’m so happy to have Ernie home,” she says, “and very grateful for everyone’s help in bringing Ernie back to me safe and sound.”
This is hardly the first time she’s waited anxiously for McLean to emerge from one scrap or other. In his hockey days, he was a full-contact coach known to fling the occasional garbage pail or hockey stick on the ice to fire up the troops. Once, the story goes, he lifted the toupée off a hapless referee. In 1979 he was forced to publicly apologize after a brawl between his Bruins and the Portland Winterhawks. Seven Bruins received conditional sentences for common assault.
In the bush there have been mishaps too numerous to mention, though some, he admits, have been embellished into legend. Having his foot run over by a bulldozer, however—that was painfully true.
Then there was the plane crash in 1972, while doing a freelance assignment in northern Saskatchewan as a pilot for Dome Petroleum. “On the way back,” he says, “I iced up and went down into the woods. I lost my eye and my jaw was all broken up.” It took three days to reach help. “This time I wasn’t hurt,” he says. “That time I had a pair of shorts rolled under my jaw and a white T-shirt holding everything together.”
McLean plans to be back working his claim within days. There’s just weeks left before weather makes the site impassible. As for the attraction of gold, it’s not that dissimilar to prospecting for hockey talent. He tells the story of reluctantly accepting a late recommendation to add a player, just turning 16, to the Canadian team he coached at the world junior championships in 1978.
His name was Wayne Gretzky and he looked awful scrawny. “I said, well look it, I’ll put you in places where you’re not going to get yourself in any trouble.” Turns out that place was in front of the net. Gretzky emerged as the tournament’s leading scorer. And, yes, says McLean, that’s what if feels like to find a nice fat streak of gold.