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Bemidji hockey star Pelawa still remembered 24 years after car accident

George Pelawa

Shrugging on his jacket, Frank Pelawa squints through the living-room window at the miserable morning. Skies cloudy, rain whipping.

"It was like this the day of the funeral," he sighs.

Homestead to graveyard is a blink. Left on Pond Road, right on Grove Street, left on Irvine Avenue. It takes the modest procession -- parents in their sedan, followed by the photographer in his car, followed by the reporter in his rental -- only a few minutes.

For Frank and Winnie Pelawa, this drive is part of their daily routine.

By necessity.

Because trips into nearby Bemidji -- a pretty city in northwestern Minnesota -- carry them directly past Evergreen Cemetery.

There is an alternative.

But that features the intersection where their son was killed 24 years ago.

Given a couple of decades to consider the merits of each route -- sweeping past the boy's resting spot or the site of his death -- the parents have come to prefer the burial ground. Which isn't great, either, says Winnie.

"You think of it every time you go by."

Today, though, they don't go by.

Since they've been asked to stop, they stop.

Since they've been asked to pose at their son's gravesite, they pose.

Four pucks neatly lined up on the headstone don't surprise the parents. Happens all the time. They cannot explain how pucks get there. They just appear.

"Kids. Friends," says Winnie, shrugging.

Restless, the Pelawas pick at the sap on the headstone. The camera clicks.

George Dale Pelawa, six foot three and 245 pounds, had been approaching Paul Bunyan's dimensions, literally and figuratively. The broad-shouldered teen was threatening the mythical lumberjack's poster-boy status in these parts.

But the burgeoning legend, a three-sport standout, died in a car crash, Aug. 30, 1986.

"Many think of the wasted career, but he's been our shining star for years," Lyman Brink, assistant coach at Bemidji High School, said a week after the accident. "We now have to think of his wonderful past."

First, though, came grief for a future flattened.

Fans in Minnesota mourned -- George had been named Mr. Hockey as the best high-school player in the state.

Fans in North Dakota mourned -- George had accepted a scholarship to the UND, which was loading up for a national-title run.

Fans in Calgary mourned -- George had been selected by the Flames in the first round of the National Hockey League draft.

But there is no mourning like a family's.

"It was a long time ago, pretty near a quarter-century," says Frank, wiping his eyes, "but still . . . ."

When a stranger phoned on a spring-day afternoon, the Pelawas had listened patiently to the rambling request.

Boiled down -- would they be willing to talk about their dead boy?

They were more than willing, as it turns out, but barely able. The collision that ripped the artery off George's heart had irreparably crushed theirs.

"It's like yesterday in many ways," says Winnie. "If somebody has a disease or something, you're prepared. But when it's sudden like that. . . . Your children aren't supposed to go before you."

If the topic is so painful, so wrenching, why extend the invitation into their home?


Because they want people to remember George, their George.

When Flames prospect Mickey Renaud died suddenly of a heart condition eight months after the 2007 NHL draft, the Pelawa story got retold. Similarities between the barrel-chested forwards -- bright futures, sudden ends -- were jarring.

But, given the passage of time, many in Calgary had been unaware of the 1986 tragedy.

Frank understands.

"It rolls over so much, you know, one year turns into . . . " he starts, before succumbing to tears and, for not the only time, leaving the kitchen table to grab a breather in the living room.

Whispers Winnie: "Since the stroke, Frank gets so emotional."

Which becomes the day's rhythm -- reporter apologizing for the intrusion, parents apologizing for the sorrow.

It makes for frequent pauses, with only the coffee pot's gurgles filling the silence. Told numerous times the interview can be delayed, Winnie and Frank shake their heads.

They're dedicated to this cause -- a tribute for their son. So they answer all questions.

They keep alive the George Pelawa Memorial Scholarship. The Flames honoured their 20-year commitment to the award, but that ended in 2007. Since then the parents have quietly and happily shelled out $1,000 for the annual prize.

"Calgary carried it . . . which is very nice," says Winnie. "When that quit, we picked it up, continued it. We never thought much about it, then, all of a sudden, the 20 years were up. So we just decided to carry it through."

But that's a lot of money, isn't it?

"Well, it's worth it," she insists, despite the couple's modest income -- Frank, 67, is a retired mechanic; Winnie, 61, works for Beltrami County Public Health. "Till we die or we can't afford it . . . we'll keep it going."

This came as news to Flames president Ken King, who says the team plans to revisit the legacy program "based on what we now understand to be the current situation. We've talked to the people down there and we think there's something we can do."

Meanwhile, George's childhood chums -- determined not to let the parents foot the bill -- have begun raising funds.

"Maybe in 20 years," says Keith Dahl, "there'll be a whole new group that's heard of him . . . if you keep the scholarship going."

The high school retired his No. 8 jersey and made him one of the first inductees into its hall of fame.

"Most people around here, I don't think, would ever forget him," says Winnie. "Because he did have such an impact."

Still, to ensure George's image does not fade, she provides the visitor with a list of coaches and friends, printed neatly on the front of an old Pelawa's Auto Parts envelope. She collects testimonials from neighbours and friends, hands over maps and clippings.

Mom also convinces Joe, the eldest son and the driver that fateful night, to participate.

A few around town are surprised to hear that he is going to speak to a reporter, that he's making a seven-hour round trip from his East Bethel, Minn., home to do it.

But he does.

Looking uncomfortable in the family's cosy base -- his baby brother's photos and write-ups covering nearly every living-room wall -- Joe sits down, armed with a wad of Kleenex and a glass of water.

"It's still, to this day, tough to talk about it," he says, crying. "It's such a hard emotional situation. Just because we were so close. For many years, it was just me and him living at the end of this three-quarter-mile dirt road. Just doing everything together. It is really hard to talk about.

"Twenty-five years later, it still cuts a lot of feelings."

Sleeping peacefully in the early hours of Aug. 30, 1986, Winnie and Frank never did hear the phone. The one in their bedroom was broken. And because the new front door was heavy duty -- their dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, had chewed through the previous model -- the deputy sheriff's knocking didn't register. He pounded harder.

The parents awoke.

"They already knew George was gone," whispers Winnie.

Adds Frank: "It happens so quick. Then it's over."

Word spread.

Keith Dahl, after football practice at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, was in his dorm room.

"I'll never forget the call," says Dahl. "Well, it was my mom. She says, 'I've got some bad news.' I don't think I said anything for five minutes. I didn't know what to say."

Jason Meyer, a high-school linemate of George's, had partied with the brothers the previous evening. "I was sleeping in. I remember when my mom walked in the room."

He stops.

Stares straight ahead.

"I remember like it was yesterday."

So does Joe. Reluctantly, he croaks out his version of events. Civil engineer by profession, he draws a map to accompany the telling.

The brothers met at a party, figuring it would be their last weekend together before classes started. After hours of revelry, they headed home -- Joe in his Chevy Nova, George in his Pontiac Belvedere.

En route, George pulled over for a bathroom break and his car sank in off-road sand.

No sweat for a couple of lads who grew up with a junkyard for a backyard. They'd roar home, grab a tow chain, tug out the beached Belvedere.

"We never made it back there," says Joe.

At a T-intersection, Joe failed to yield and swung left. Another car, travelling at an estimated 115 to 127 km/h according to police reports, hammered into the driver's side, launching the Nova more than 30 metres.

Joe's legs were shattered, his feet crushed. Through his buzz cut, a thick scar is visible above the left ear.

George, on impact, was slammed into the steering wheel. When the car landed, he was jolted back against the passenger door, causing fatal internal damage.

"It seems amazing, for someone that size, that that could happen," says Joe, who, like the other driver, was drunk. "I'm still dumbfounded that it would injure George like that."

Joe made more bad decisions. Ten summers later, he falls asleep at the wheel, crossing the centre line and killing two passengers in an oncoming car. Convicted of two counts of criminal vehicular homicide, he spends 39 months in jail.

"It's like, how much more can that family take? To deal with what they've had to deal with?" says Dahl. "I wouldn't wish that on nobody."

Entering the world at a whopping 10 pounds and 14 ounces, George was destined to live large.

At four, he was playing hockey. Soon enough, he was dominating baseball and football.

"An all-round natural athlete," says Joe, 16 months older than his brother. "It might have had a lot to do with where we lived. Ran through the woods. Played. We had 80 acres and we knew every inch of it."

When the boys were teens, the family was still using a barrel stove for heat. Which meant chores. "Cut the wood. Load the wood. Split the wood," recites Joe. "It was just part of our upbringing."

So was skating on the pond. And cycling, swimming, hunting, fishing, clowning around.

"In a lot of ways," says Joe, "it was a 365 days a year training program."

It paid off.

Minnesota Twins scouts liked George's touch at first base. National Collegiate Athletic Association powerhouses, after watching him play tight end and linebacker, offered full rides.

"He was getting all these letters and calls," says Winnie. "It was just mind-boggling the number of people who wanted to talk to him."

In hockey, well, he exploded. Zero goals as a Grade 10 winger -- then a goal-per-game pace till he graduated. "Overpowering is a good word to describe him," says Bryan Grand, his high school coach. "Those last two years, he stood out huge."

He had hockey smarts, deceptive dash.

And a heavy shot. Everyone remembers the night in Baudette when George uncorked his trademark half-slapper.

"Hit the goalie right in the mask, cold-cocked him," says Meyer. "His mask was dented in -- the centre of the one wire."

Fuelling the big galoot, not surprisingly, was a mammoth appetite.

Around town he was known as the Great White Shark. To friends, he was simply Big George.

His go-to dish was macaroni and cheese. His signature sandwich, peanut butter and onions, often with mustard. But he wasn't fussy.

Joe recalls an eating contest at the McDonald's in Thief River Falls, the brothers scarfing down entire burgers in single bites. But it was George who sprouted.

Three inches taller than Dad, Joe stands six feet tall. But little brother's frame reached six foot three, his feet size 14.

"Probably 235 pounds," says Winnie, "but when all the scouts would take him out for steak suppers -- we didn't have much steak -- I'm sure he got up to 245."

Not chubby, though. Snapshots reveal a slender young man.

"There wasn't any baby fat on him," says Meyer. "Solid muscle. Chiselled."

By most accounts, George was a gentle giant.

He did have his moments.

Like the day Joe showed up at school with a shiner. His crime? Eating the last of the Cheerios.

"He wasn't a guy out looking for a fight, but if it found him? He got mean and nasty in a hurry," says Meyer. "The only people that messed with him were ones that didn't know him.

"I wouldn't say he's got a mean side to him . . . but he'd put guys down on the ice, so they'd be rolling around for a minute or two. But if he went hunting for people? It could've been ugly."

Details hazy, Frank offers one of his favourite stories. Before a tournament match against a Canadian outfit, George, as is customary in high school, used the full length of the ice for his pre-game laps. This blatant trespassing offended the opponents.

"So I guess they had a couple of scuffles," says Frank, "then they decided George could skate wherever he wanted to."

Another time the right-winger had been approached by scouts.

"Can you fight?" they wondered.

Next game, George tracked down the biggest dude on the opposition, beat him into submission with three punches -- the only blows of the exchange.

All of which made June 21, 1986, a delightfully promising day for Flames followers.

This, of course, is at the height of the Battle of Alberta, the National Hockey League's bloodiest feud. And to hear that the Flames had drafted some 245-pound beast out of the wilds of Minnesota? Man, wait till Edmonton Oilers bully Mark Messier gets a load of this guy.

"I don't think he would've been a prolific scorer, more like a Clark Gillies," Ian McKenzie, the Flames' co-ordinator of scouting at the time, says now.

"A chiselled, big, strong man. He probably would have played at 250. At least."

Draft day, one wise guy suggested that only two things could keep George out of the NHL -- a knife and a fork. Yet body-fat estimates range from six to 10 per cent, tidy numbers to be sure.

To put the lad's size into perspective -- of the 21 first-round picks that year, 16 played pro at 200 pounds or less.

"If he was born in Canada," Dave Peterson, the U.S. Olympic coach, said at the time, "he would have been the No. 1 pick overall in the draft."

Instead of Joe Murphy.

"He's not an NHL prospect," Herb Brooks, legendary hockey man, said, "he's an NHL player."

But the nearby Winnipeg Jets had passed on George -- "We like him," John Ferguson said prior to the draft, then snatched Pat Elynuik at No. 8 -- as did the home-state North Stars, who opted for Warren Babe with the 12th pick.

The Flames, relieved, used the 16th holler to nab Big George.

Pleased by the splash, the Pelawa clan motored homeward from Montreal. They hit Niagara Falls, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In family photos, George proudly wears his Flames ball cap. He seldom removed it. (It had been on his head the night he was killed. Now it holds down a prominent spot in a glass-encased display beneath the television set.) All that stood between George and NHL glory was a year, maybe two, at UND.

Asked if their son had declared a major, Winnie and Frank hoot. "Hockey," they blurt, laughing.

Meyer remembers helping George move into the UND dorm. "We met this farm hick, saying he was only going to be there a year or two. He was talking about how good he was, how this was just a stopoff. And we're like, 'Who's this clown?' "

Eddie Belfour, as it turns out.

George, like Belfour, had one thing in mind -- NCAA pit stop, then NHL paydays.

"I knew damn well what he was going to do," says Dahl. "Who wouldn't if you're a guy like that? He's the type, too, that would've liked nothing better than to take care of Frank and Winnie and Joe."

Startling is the fact that the boy would be -- should be -- middle-aged.

"Someone asked me about that a couple months ago," says Winnie. "She asks, 'Do you still think about him playing hockey?' She was thinking he'd've still been playing hockey. I said, 'He'd be 42 years old. I don't think he'd be playing hockey anymore.' And she said she didn't realize it had gone that long.

"Joe is 43 . . . and I know George is always a year younger. But in many ways, he's still 18, you know."

Dahl knows the feeling.

Asked to picture his pal these days, he replies, "I would think of it as turning on the TV and watching him and he's 20 years old, 21, 25. It's hard to think of him at 42."

Meyer contemplates the same question, then figures that George would be "washed up." Which is a pleasing thought. It means that the kid may have become a man in the NHL, then retired having maximized all that potential.

(Contrary to online insistence, Tom Cochrane's hit song Big League -- "All the right moves when he turned eighteen, Scholarship and school on a big U.S. team" -- is not about George's demise. Kathleene Cochrane, the performer's wife and manager, confirms this.)

George's considerable fame can be bittersweet.

Their Polish name (Pe-lah-va, by the way) is easily recognized. Recently, Joe was buying fishing gear. The clerk glimpsed at his credit card and asked if George was his brother.

"I'm glad they remember," says Joe, tissue to face. "(But) it brings up a whole flood of memories, thoughts, situations, feelings. I've tried to limit my talking . . . to the non-emotional aspects. It does end up swelling up a lot (of emotion)."

Joe's life is riddled with regret, including wishes that he'd somehow better appreciated George's enormous talent.

Example -- on Feb. 22, 1986, the kid turns 18 and bags a playoff hat trick.

Cool, but no big deal.

"We assumed more awards, more accomplishments, more recognition, was coming," says Joe. "It just seemed like normal events."

It was the little brother's last birthday.

Other triggers sting Winnie.

"Whenever I see No. 8, I think of George," says mom, tearing up. "I think a lot of people here do. Even other teams that you see on TV."

George's bedroom is used by guests. But his stuff -- such as the Flames sweater, the high school jerseys -- is crammed out of sight. And has been for nearly a quarter of a century.

"Things are still in the closet," says Winnie. "We just left the door shut. I just put everything in there and closed the door. It was just easier."

But she's declared herself ready to start sorting her boy's treasures.

Frank, too, is slowly coming around. In the tragedy's aftermath, he'd avoided watching sports. Just couldn't bear it.

But the other day, he pipes up.

"Hey, where's the draft this year?"

Los Angeles, he's told.

"Next year, it's at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center," says Frank, aware that it would be the 25th anniversary of his son's draft day -- in their home state to boot. "I was thinking of going down there."