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A NHL star remembers a good friend

When Danny Grant’s hometown decided to put his name on a new arena, he had just one request.
Fredericton is a quiet place of 50,000 people in western New Brunswick. It is industrial enough to be the capital of the province and house a major college — St. Thomas University. Recently, however, the town showed it had something else, too — a heart about the size of Manhattan. What follows is a tale involving a new hockey arena, a politician and a sweet gesture from one of the town’s favorite sons who wanted to honor an old comrade. Like many places in Canada, hockey is the town’s passion. Fredericton was understandably proud when a native son — Willie O’Ree — became the first local lad to make it to the National Hockey League when Boston called him up in 1958. The fact that O’Ree was the first black player meant a lot to the NHL. But to the folks in Fredericton, it wasn’t as big of a deal. Willie had been black as long as they had known him and they just saw him as the hometown kid who had made good.

O’Ree only played 45 games in the NHL but had a long, successful minor-league career and was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. Last spring, his hometown honored O’Ree by naming the city’s new sports complex after him.

Shortly after O’Ree put Fredericton hockey on the map, another local lad — Danny Grant — came along. O’Ree was a strong presence on the ice but Grant was a certified goalscorer. Montreal thought so highly of the lad they made him their top amateur draft pick. He lit up the Ontario Hockey League for a few years but couldn’t crack the Canadiens’ lineup. A 1968 trade to Minnesota, however, was just the opening Grant needed. For the next seven seasons (six with the North Stars, one with Detroit) he averaged 30 goals a year. He played four more seasons after that but was hampered by injuries and was never as effective. Still, he finished with 263 goals and 535 points in 762 NHL games.

While in Minnesota, Grant teamed up with a fellow named Fred "Buster" Harvey. If Grant was a tailgunner, Harvey was the guy who placed the ammo in the gun. Although he scored 41 goals one year in the minors, his best NHL season was half that total. Still, Grant felt a closeness with Harvey, who was five years younger than him.

There was a good reason. You see, Harvey also was a native of Fredericton. As luck would have it, the two New Brunswickians ended up teammates in Minnesota and later in Detroit.

"I went to grade school with Buster," said Fredericton mayor Brad Woodside. "He was a heckuva nice guy."

Small-town roots run deep, particularly in burgs like Fredericton. So it was that both Grant and Harvey returned to town after their pro careers ended. Later, both joined O’Ree in the New Brunswick Hall of Fame. Both spent sometime coaching locally (Grant with St. Thomas and Harvey with the amateur NBJHL team) in addition to other fulltime employment in town.

Not everybody who does that gets honored by their neighbors. But when the city recently decided to build a new hockey arena and a second sports complex, there was little question what it would be named. There would be no bidding with corporate money for naming rights. No, the Danny Grant Centre sounded just fine and dandy to Frederictonians.

The City Council signed off happily and that seemed to be that.

When Harvey passed away after a bout with cancer last November at 57, Grant was one of the last fellows who visited him. Although he was thrilled with having an arena named after him, Grant felt it was an honored that needed to be shared. So, he contacted Woodside with an unusual request: he asked if Harvey’s name could be added to the marquee in some way. "Danny and I are good friends," Woodside said. "I wanted him to be sure he wanted to do this. I told him to think it over and get back to me in a couple of days."

Grant did as he was asked but his mind was made up. At the next City Council meeting, he did something that rarely happens these days: he startled a group of politicians.

"He made a very emotional presentation," Woodside said.

The city councilors unanimously agreed. A week later, Woodside sounded like he was beaming over the phone. "It was a wonderful gesture on his part," he said of Grant’s request. "I know Danny overshadowed Buster a bit in the NHL. But you would have never known it to talk to him."

They have just started to clear the ground and do the preparatory work for the new arena in Fredericton. The City Council hasn’t decided on an official name yet for the place but it will probably end up something like the Grant-Harvey Centre. And when it opens next year, Danny Grant will be on hand to graciously accept the honor his hometown has bestowed on him. But his thoughts may also slip elsewhere that day. He may be thinking of a fellow who was a longtime friend who won’t be on hand in person but will get his day in the sun as well.

Said Woodside: "It was one of the most selfless things acts I have ever seen or heard of." On that, too, there will be unanimous agreement.

(Dave Wright is a senior editor at August Publications.)