By Darren Lum
The NHL and everyone that knew the rugged defencemen with a heart of gold are mourning the passing of Bryan “Bugsy” Watson.
One of five children, Bugsy was born in Bancroft on Nov. 14, 1942. His father worked for the municipality and his mother was a home maker. Watson died from pneumonia in St. Michaels, Maryland on July 8. He was 78 years of age.
Over the course of his career, Bugsy played in 877 NHL career games at defence from 1963 to 1978, starting his career with the Montreal Canadiens in 1963 and finishing his hockey playing career with Cincinnati in the World Hockey Association in 1979. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Lindy and their children Stephen Watson and Lisa Watson, a sister and brother and two grandsons, as reported by the Washington Post.
He was as tough as they come, said long-time Eagle Lake resident and retired NHLer Walt McKechnie of his good friend, who he played with for five years on the Detroit Red Wings and the Washington Capitals.
“There are so many words I can use to describe him, but if you’re talking about how he acted on the ice and the way he played I can sum it up in one word, fearless. He was absolutely fearless. No matter how big you were. How tough you were. If you wanted to go [fight], Bugsy would oblige you,” he said.
The two were also neighbours for a time on Eagle Lake before Bugsy sold his seasonal residence in the 1980s. He returned to town regularly. McKechnie said Bugsy being allowed to rent the home in the summer was part of the sale agreement.
The Dysart councillor remembers meeting Bugsy for the first time when they were both at the Hockey Haven hockey school in Haliburton during the early-1970s.
It wasn’t just his hockey that people remember Bugsy for, McKechnie said.
“He was a great friend. Off the ice he was very well-liked and respected. A lot of people on Eagle Lake, Moose Lake and Haliburton Lake and all around this area are all getting in touch with me and all sharing a story. There are so many great times we had with him,” he said. “I remember him as a good family man. His wife Lindy, they were a great couple and his two kids, Stevie and Lisa.”
He adds every summer when Bugsy came to the area his friend always made a point of going to Curry Motors to share some laughs with the likes of Don Popple.
At 5’9” and 175 pounds, Bugsy was not physically imposing during his NHL days.
What he lacked for in size, he more than made up for in his drive, aggression and commitment to the team. It was this commitment to winning that earned Bugsy his nickname by virtue of his irritating play while covering star players such as Bobby Hull, who was a top goal scorer of the 1970s.
McKechnie adds there is more to Bugsy than the numbers he spent in the penalty box.
“He was a way better hockey player than [he was given credit for] … his penalty minutes kind of took away from how good a hockey player he really was,” he said.
He adds, “He was probably one of the best backwards skaters I’ve ever seen. But he was tough. If he was on your team, you’d better be prepared – there was going to be some action. If it wasn’t happening, he would stir it up.”
During the 1977-1978 season while playing for the Capitals, McKechnie remembers how Bugsy always led the charge against the infamous “Broadstreet Bullies” of Philadelphia.
McKechnie said Bugsy chose to cottage in Eagle Lake, knowing the area. He grew up in Bancroft and was also a Hockey Haven regular, which was run by Jim Gregory and Wren Blair. They looked to recruit players like Bugsy from the Haliburton and surrounding area to help teach the next generation.
Parties were something of a specialty for Bugsy during the 1970s and 1980s, McKechnie said.
“Used to be called Bugy’s corn roast. Bugsy’s and Lindy’s corn roast. I’m telling you there would be a couple hundred people there. He’d have live music and they used to put on these skits,” he said.
He adds son, Steve, would also play with the band. There was often a theme related to these parties such as Motown or country and western.
Many of these parties would go on until early the next morning.
“The reason he got away with it back then was because he made sure everyone on the lake was invited,” he said. “If you didn’t come, you couldn’t complain.”
McKechnie expects a big party when his family can cross the border from the U.S.
In addition to amassing 2,214 penalty minutes during his 16-year NHL career with Montreal, Detroit, Oakland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Washington, Bugsy was also recognized for his humanitarian efforts with the Charlie Conacher Humanitarian Award in 1978, which was related to his work with the Special Olympics.
Minden resident and retired NHLer Ron Stackhouse laughs for several seconds before answering what it was like to play against Bugsy.
“I remember playing Pittsburgh one time and there was a bit of a scrap between a couple of guys and Bugsy was looking for something to do, so I just grabbed a hold of Bugs because I’ve known him for years at the hockey school. I said Bugs, just cool it, you know? He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know.’ No sooner I let go of him and he took a swing at me. I’m about a foot taller than him, right? He and I had a bit of a wrestling match. That was just him,” he said. “That was his forte was causing disturbances on the ice.”
Stackhouse said he worked alongside Bugsy and McKechnie at the Hockey Haven during the summer and spent time also at social events up in the area with the other NHLers.
He remembers a mischievous side to Bugsy and how no one was immune, including Toronto Maple Leafs legend, Johnny Bower.
“John would commute up here from somewhere down Fenelon [Falls] way or whatnot, but Bugsy told him one time that somebody had lost a horse somewhere down his way and wondered, ‘if he had seen it driving back and forth?’ And John said, ‘No, I haven’t. I’ll keep my eye out.’ Bugs had him looking for this non-existent horse. He would get a report from Johnny Bower every time he came up. Johnny would say, ‘I’ve looked and saw this one and that one, but I didn’t see that horse,’” he said, barely able to speak for the laughter. “He was always stirring the pot in some way.”
Loss is difficult, but with Bugsy it’s not long before the tears of sorrow are replaced with tears of joy for the life lived and remembered.
“I’ve been talking to his son quite a bit in the last few days. We start off having a bit of a cry, but before long we’re laughing. We’re telling stories about what’s gone on. He was a great guy. He sure left his mark, like I said,” Stackhouse said.