‘This is the game I love’: B.C. goalie coach retires at 81

After coaching hockey goaltenders since 1997, Gerry Pang has finally decided to hang up the skates.

The year is 1947. Ten-year-old Gerry Pang sits in his living room with his mother and brothers, listening to Hockey Night in Canada on the radio. This has become a tradition on Saturday nights while their father is fighting overseas. He doesn’t know it yet, but these moments will spark a love within him for hockey that will last a lifetime.

Now, more than 70 years later, Gerry Pang has finally decided to hang up his skates.

Pang, a Fernie resident, had a love for many sports throughout his youth and adulthood, and also served for nine years in the army. He eventually slowed down, had kids, and passed on his love for sports to them.

One of his sons, Darren Pang, is a retired Chicago Blackhawks goaltender, and current hockey media personality with the St. Louis Blues. Gerry introduced him to hockey when he was five-years-old and it got to the point where he couldn’t get him away from the rink – 24/7, the kids wanted to play.

When he was 17, Gerry played three seasons of professional baseball with the Air Canada Fastball Association in Val-d’Or, Quebec. As a young man, he loved fastball. Somewhere in his archives, Gerry has a letter from John Mullins, chief scout of the Milwaukee Braves, now known as the Brewers. It was an invitation to come to camp and play pro ball. However, he was making more money playing Senior A fastball in Quebec than they would have paid him in the States. He was scolded by his father for not taking the opportunity.

Looking back, Gerry believes that if he had taken that invitation to play pro ball, his life would have taken a much different path.

“Life looks simple, but destinations are tough sometimes,” Gerry shared.

Gerry played old-timers hockey up until the age of 54. Even after he retired his own goalie pads, he continued to coach youth as a way of staying in the sport. He came to Fernie from Canmore in 1991 with the intention of staying for just one year. Before he knew it, nearly three decades had passed.

“As an ex-goalie who didn’t go far, that became just natural to help,” said Gerry. “And I just fell in love with teaching.”

Nothing ever got between Gerry and hockey. For him, hockey is life.

“Hey, I’ve had a heart attack, I’ve served nine years in the military. I served in the Middle East in the 50s, got blown up, almost lost my right ankle and foot, spent seven or eight months recuperating,” he said.

“But that didn’t stop me. My idea was, I’m getting back on the skates and I’m going to play hockey again.”

Pang started coaching locally in 1997 after receiving a phone call from the head coach of the girls’ midget team, the Fernie Bladerunners. Pang worked with this team for five years, and in those five years, they won four B.C. Championships and four Western Shield medals – two bronze, one silver and one gold.

While he was coaching the Bladerunners, he got a call from Fernie’s Junior A Ghostriders team. At the time, they were the only Canadian team in the American Western Hockey League. Gerry has fond memories of teaching many great kids over his three years with this program.

Gerry took a couple of years off but in 2002, he was called back to help teach the Ghostriders, and he’s been with them ever since. March 1 marked his 28th year in Fernie. Gerry has been coaching the Ghostriders for half of these years.

After coaching hockey goalies since 1997, Gerry Pang has finally decided to hang up the skates. (Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Asked why he came back, Gerry said, “Once you play a little bit of hockey, and got a little touch of coaching, it comes to the point where, this is the game I love. I love this game. I like to go golfing. I always said, I like golf, I love hockey.”

Throughout his 21 years of involvement with hockey in Fernie, Gerry has missed only a few games. He missed just one game in the past four years with the Ghostriders, due to a flu. Before that, he missed only a few weeks with the Junior A team and the Bladerunners after he suffered a heart attack in practice.

“I was working with the Bladerunners, we were doing a drill and I thought I was 20-years-old. I came off the ice, and all of a sudden I felt bad. I said to Rob Poupart who was the head coach at the time, Robbie get me to the hospital, I’m having a heart attack.”

After a week in the Fernie hospital, Gerry was taken to Calgary, where he stayed for surgery, rested for a few days then strapped on his skates again. When he entertained the idea of returning to the arena, he was advised against it. To this Gerry responded, “I don’t care. So I had a heart attack. I can still walk. I feel fine, I want to go see the boys practice.”

“When you commit to helping a club then your commitment has to be 100 per cent,” he added.

Whenever he ran a goalie camp, Gerry had one strict rule: you didn’t pay him and you didn’t charge the kids.

“I think every Canadian grows up wanting to be a hockey player, until the costs start to run. The costs today are unbelievable… but the hockey’s still good.”

Gerry carried his knowledge of what the sport used to be with him throughout the years, and implemented some strategy of old into his coaching. One example was the two pad stack, a last-resort goalie move from the 1960s and 70s.

“I thought, this is just another weapon they can put in their arsenal, and if they get a chance to use it, it’s there.”

Gerry has always been and old-style hockey coach. In the old days, hockey players weren’t that big, and the equipment was pretty flimsy. There was less physical contact, and more speed and skill.

He remembers back to 1972, when Canada beat Russia in The Summit Series.

“The Canadians came into camp, they weren’t in very good shape,” said Gerry. “They came off the golf course, and I’m sure they must’ve had a six pack of beer with them when they walked into the dressing room.

“But they had one thing the Russians didn’t have – they had heart. And that’s one thing I’ve always mentioned in pre-game talks. You’ve got to have heart to play this game. You’ve got to. You’ve got to have the love for it, and you’ve just got to have the heart.

“If you don’t have heart, you’re not going to go nowhere.”

There’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years. Still, the best place to talk about hockey is the post office. Sometimes, he runs into people ready to hand out criticism.

“Everybody becomes a coach now, right off the street, they’re a coach. But they don’t know what teams go through. No team has gone through what we did this past year with the loss of three great gentleman,” he said.

“Every home game was an away game for us. But that’s part of life, that’s part of growing up. I think that might have helped a lot of young players we had this year, grow up, become young men.”

At the Ghostriders’ year end banquet, Gerry made sure to thank the volunteers, and the parents of all the players who came and played hockey for them this past year.

“They brought these kids into the world, and allowed us to develop them into better hockey players, and young men.

“You come in as boys, and you leave as men. I’ve never run into a bad Ghostrider, in all these years. So many good people, and so many great parents.”

Gerry says it’s the players and all the volunteers who are the reason he’ll keep coming back to watch games, even in his retirement.

Sixteen years after he said he was done the first time, Gerry has stepped back for good. He says his last few years with the Ghostriders have been filled with enjoyment, and he especially enjoyed working with the coaching staff and medical team. He says he’ll always be proud to represent the Ghostriders, anywhere.

Gerry has spent so many years with the hockey team that he says it’ll be impossible for him to just forget about it. That being said, he’s looking forward to his new-found free time. He also looks forward to going to a Ghostriders game, paying admission, sitting down in the stands and watching the team improve as the season progresses.

Even when he’s banging the ball around on the golf course, Gerry knows that he’ll still be talking about hockey.

Looking back on his life, Gerry’s enjoyed every minute of it. He’s 81 now, turning 82 in November. People have asked him how he’s stayed healthy through his life. They ask if he’s on some kind of special diet. To this, Gerry says that he eats whatever he wants. If he craves a hotdog, he’ll have that. A hamburger, that too.

Throughout his life, Gerry has seen a lot, done a lot, and overcome a lot. And for many years of his life, sports have been the reason he’s gotten out of bed in the morning.

“He’s done everything,” said 2017/18 Ghostriders captain, Mitch Titus. “I tried my hardest to learn from Gerry. Panger… he’s… he’s incredible.

“He’ll tell you stories that will make you cry, he’ll tell stories that’ll make you laugh until you can’t laugh anymore. It’s pretty amazing, having a friend like that.”

Gerry sees sports as a common denominator.

“You can fall off the fence, you can sit on the fence, or you can climb over the fence,” he said. “I see kids today; maybe they’re not playing hockey because of the expense. But when they’re playing sports, they become better people.

“If the glass was half full, I think sports fills the glass.”

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