If the sweater fits, wear it. That's what Rick Blight, left, told Brad Gassoff after the Western Canada Hockey League graduates were signed by the Vancouver Canucks in 1975 to multi-year NHL contracts. Blight was the Canucks' first pick in the amateur draft and Gassoff was second.
Rick Blight of the Vancouver Canucks is upended by Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers in a 1978-79 NHL game in Philadelphia. (Associated Press files)
Vancouver Canuck Rick Blight missed a shot on an almost open net against the Detroit Red Wings in March of 1978. (John Denniston file photo)
The money, $5,000 from the scholarship fund that bears her late husband’s name, isn’t a lot, but over the years Donna Blight has learned this is about more than the size of the cheque.
It’s about support. It’s about awareness. It’s about listening and reaching out a helping hand.
Each year Blight reads the essays and each year they touch her in a profound way. They are young people, athletes with a story to tell about mental health, and she knows that world.
She also knows Rick Blight would have loved to know it has made a difference.
“It’s so hard to pick five (each successful candidate receives $1,000),” Blight says from her Vancouver home. “We had 46 applicants this year and, boy, each one of them has a story to tell.
“It’s been eight years now. I’m just really proud of it. We hear from the parents and they say you don’t know how much it means. A lot of them don’t know Rick Blight but I know this would mean a lot to him.”
So let’s change that. As we continue our journey through Canucks history, let’s get to know Rick Blight, the man who was about so much more than a sad ending. Blight committed suicide in 2005 and that’s as much as most people know about the former Canucks winger.
But, in life and death, there’s more to his story than the headline from 15 years ago. This story didn’t end with that headline. This story is still being written.
“I really miss him,” says Ron Chipperfield, the former NHLer/WHAer who formed a lethal partnership with Blight on the Brandon Wheat Kings in the early 1970s.
“I know it’s coming up to the 15-year anniversary. He was a great friend of mine. I talked to him two weeks before it happened but he didn’t tell me anything. He made it sound like everything was OK. I just wish he had reached out to someone.”
‘Headley’ turns heads
Blight and Chipperfield were the scoring stars on the Wheat Kings teams that didn’t win a lot but could fill the net. In 1973-74, Chipperfield’s scoring line went 90-72-162 and Blight finished 49-81-130.
Chipperfield signed with the WHA’s Vancouver Blazers the next year while Blight was scoring 60 goals in 65 games in Brandon. That summer, the Canucks selected him with the 10th pick of the first round and, for three seasons, he looked like a star in the making.
“It was interesting,” says Glen Hanlon, the former goalie who was Blight’s teammate in Brandon before joining him with the Canucks. “He wasn’t the greatest skater but he could shoot and he had that goal scorer’s brain.”
“What would be the best way to describe him?” Chipperfield asks rhetorically. “His hockey IQ was off the charts. He could read the game better than 90 per cent of the guys. Look at the stats and you’ll see what a great passer he was.”
Blight, in fact, averaged 26 goals and 62 points per season over his first three campaigns with the Canucks. He also scored four goals against Pittsburgh on opening night of his sophomore year, but he secured a permanent place in franchise lore for another reason.
It seems the man had an excessively large head that led to the nickname “Headley.”
“The standard-size helmets never fit,” says Chipperfield. “Trainers had to pull out the screws and rebuild them.”
This didn’t escape his teammates’ attention. On the road, the Canucks used to commandeer one of the old-time, two-piece garbage cans with the bulbous tops. They’d write Blight’s No. 8 on the can and give it a hockey stick.
“He didn’t have the big ego,” says Chipperfield. “He was the brunt of most of the jokes. He could laugh at himself and you need those guys on your team. It just brings everyone together.”
In 1978-79, Blight’s career in Vancouver took a sharp downturn when a) he suffered a knee injury, and b) Harry Neale took over the team.
The knee would bother him the rest of his career and, under Neale, his ice time was reduced dramatically. That season he was sent to the Canucks’ Central League affiliate in Dallas. After playing 33 games in Vancouver the next season, he spent most of 1980-81 in Dallas, which began a five-team minor-league odyssey. That ended in 1983 with the New Haven Nighthawks in the Los Angeles Kings’ organization.
“We were in Cincinnati one year,” says Donna, a Vancouver resident and former flight attendant who married Blight in 1978. “Wichita the next. I spent one winter in Shediac when Rick played in Moncton. When hockey was over he wanted to go home.”
Moving to mall-less Carman
Home, in this case, was western Manitoba, where Blight’s father Don ran two successful dealerships in farm equipment. The flagship store was in Portage la Prairie and Rick was sent to oversee the operation in Carman, a picturesque rural community located one hour west of Winnipeg.
There, the couple raised their young family: son Ryan and daughter Sarah.
“When I first moved there I asked, ‘Where’s the mall?’” Donna says laughing. “I’d never seen a wood tick until I moved to Carman. Or a cistern.”
They lived in Carman for a decade. Ed Tkachyk, a boyhood pal of Rick’s and a teammate in Brandon, said his friend left the NHL behind when he came back to Manitoba. He wasn’t Rick Blight, the former Canuck. He was Rick Blight, the guy who ran the farm dealership.
“When you first met Rick, self-confidence radiated from him,” says Tkachyk from his home just outside of Winnipeg. “He was different when he moved back here. We became closer. He was a member of the community.”
Always a superb golfer, Blight became a competitive curler. He also passed the stock broker’s exam.
As for hockey, he coached and refereed in Carman but he never played in pickup games.
“I think he liked curling more than hockey,” Tkachyk says, before adding: “He didn’t like the physical part of hockey and I think that’s why he became a ref. He wanted to protect players who needed protecting.”
Frustrated with business
After a decade in Carman, the Blights moved back to Portage la Prairie where Rick ran both dealerships. Farming is a fragile enterprise at the best of times and the family business began to experience difficulties, even if those closest to Rick never knew the extent of the problem.
“I knew he was troubled at work,” says Donna. “It’s a family business and there’s a lot of pressure. I remember him saying there’s no loyalty anymore. I knew he was frustrated.”
Tkachyk went to the dealership one day to look at some equipment and to see his old friend. He thought something was off with Rick as they talked but, “Everyone has bad days.”
“You don’t know,” Tkachyk continues. “We still talk about it today. It’s a tough, tough thing to understand.”
On April 3, 2005, Blight jumped into his pickup truck and drove east from Portage. He didn’t return that night. Or the next night. His frantic wife called police and a nationwide search was launched.
The truck was spotted two weeks later near St. Ambroise by Lake Manitoba. The 49-year-old Blight had taken his own life.
“Every time I think about it feels like yesterday,” Donna says. “They die once, you die 1,000 times.”
Devastated, she moved back to Vancouver where she started a new life.
“I wanted to come home,” she says. “There were just too many memories (in western Manitoba).”
But she wanted to keep Rick’s name alive. She reached out to the Canucks’ alumni association with the idea of starting a scholarship fund in his name. Former alumni president Gerry Sillers was a key contact there, as was Dennis Kearns.
Keeping Rick’s name alive
The alumni agreed to fund the scholarship through the B.C. Crisis Centre. Each year they dole out five $1,000 scholarships to Grade 12 student athletes who are “passionate about your sport and (make) efforts to support your personal mental health and wellness or that of your sports team or community.”
Each year Blight goes through the applications, reads their stories and picks five candidates who are awarded $1,000 each and three more who receive $500. That’s been going on for eight years.
“It’s so hard to pick just five,” Donna says. “These kids are amazing.”
She continues: “(Rick) was a strong guy. He never talked about his feelings. Everything was always fine. Now, whenever someone says they’re fine, I want to dig deeper and start asking questions.”
Through the darkness, light has emerged. Sarah is a registered nurse in the lower mainland. Ryan lives in Winnipeg and teaches in nearby Steinbach. There are four grandchildren.
“I’m so proud of them,” Donna says of her children, before adding, “Every day I think about (Rick). He’s never seen his four grandchildren but I like to think he looks down on them.”
She worries about the scholarship’s future. Rick last played for the Canucks 40 years ago. It’s been 15 years since his death. Organizations change. People change. The years go by. It’s not always easy.
“I keep contact with Donna to make sure she feels a part of things,” says Kearns, who remains active in the Canucks’ alumni. “I hope she feels welcome.”
Still, she draws something from those kids and their stories, something that connects her to them and to her late husband.
“When I came back to Vancouver, I just thought he needs to be remembered,” says Donna.
And, long after the money’s gone, these kids will remember there was someone there when they needed help.
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