PUCK SWAMI: Saying goodbye to Pioneer Hockey Champion Jim Wiste

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Over 1,000 people, ranging from famous NHLers to Campus Lounge bar regulars, came to say goodbye to former Pioneer Captain Jim Wiste (1946-2018) at a touching memorial service on the ice of the University of Denver’s Magness Arena on January 11th.

DU and Wiste’s family put together an impressive tribute, complete with on-ice floral displays, an excellent video of Wiste’s life (shown on the scoreboard), and a post-event reception with extensive photos of Wiste’s life well-lived — as hockey player, entrepreneur, tavern-owner and host, husband, father, and grandfather.

Wiste, 71, passed away last week of cardiac issues. He was a two-time NCAA All-American hockey player at DU and was a co-captain of DU’s 1968 NCAA Championship team. After DU, Wiste had a 10-year pro hockey career, including over 50 games of NHL service with the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks. In 1976 after his hockey career ended, Wiste moved back to Denver and bought the Campus Lounge, which he built into a popular tavern that became Denver’s hockey living room. He owned and operated the Campus Lounge for 40 years before selling it in 2016. He was also a real estate entrepreneur, a golf course builder, and a long-time alumni ambassador for DU hockey.

The entire current University of Denver hockey team, in uniform, attended the service, along with dozens of Pioneer players from all eras, including many of Wiste’s DU teammates from the 1960s, including Craig Patrick, who went on to Olympic and NHL glory as a player, coach, and general manager. Several of the former players later told me that Wiste would have loved his own memorial.

While tears flowed freely throughout the service, the dominant tone of the evening was also as humorous as the many hockey locker rooms that Wiste and his teammates frequented in his playing days. As someone who knows his way around a hockey locker room myself, there is a very special culture among elite hockey players — a brotherhood that makes player experiences from all eras of hockey nearly identical.  The current DU hockey team roared at the 50-year-old locker room stories told by Wiste’s teammates. The stories likely mimic the current team’s own experiences today, and will likely be similar to the stories that they will tell at the weddings, reunions, and funerals that they will someday attend with their teammates.

Jim’s older brother, Wayne Wiste, also a DU hockey player, began the evening by regaling the audience with stories of Wiste’s often naughty childhood in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, setting the tone for the many stories to follow.

Perhaps the evening’s most entertaining speaker was Cliff Koroll, who, like Jim Wiste was a Saskatchewan-born DU co-captain, who also played many NHL seasons with Chicago.  “We were the among very first group of players from college hockey to make the NHL,” Koroll explained, referencing the fact that in those days, Canadian junior hockey was virtually the only route to the six-team NHL. The warm bond between Koroll and his friend Wiste was created not only in their college and pro playing days together but in the 40+ years of annual DU team reunions in Las Vegas.

Koroll told hilarious stories of Wiste’s DU hockey days in the 1960s, where Wiste was known both for dressing in a tutu to delight his teammates with impromptu “dances” heightened by Wiste’s sometimes shocking post-season weight gains, due to enthusiastic beer-drinking.

One story, which could only happen in pre-facemask days of yore, involved the false teeth many players kept in paper cups their lockers while they played. Wiste, after being once ejected from a game, found himself alone in the locker room and took advantage of an irresistible opportunity. As the game continued without him, Wiste took various teammates’ false teeth and gleefully re-arranged them into other player’s paper cups/lockers, so that his toothless returning teammates were forced to try on multiple dentures in order to find their own fake teeth again. There were also stories of various automobile-related hijinks, including a time many years later when an unpaid speeding ticket, an admiring police chief, and Wiste’s grinning DU teammates colluded in an elaborate, hysterical fake arrest of Wiste in a Las Vegas steakhouse.

Koroll also spoke of Wiste’s budding sense of entrepreneurship at DU, when he’d cook breakfast for his teammates and charge them for it, making himself a small profit for his labor and materials. It was only fitting that Wiste would go on to own a restaurant/bar later in life.

Wiste’s only child, his daughter Courtney, had the most heart-wrenching line of the service when she wistfully said through her tears, “Dad was always there to take care of other people, but he didn’t take care of himself.” Indeed Wiste had already suffered a heart attack in 2013 after playing a pickup game at DU, before suffering his fatal cardiac issues last week. He also suffered in multiple car accidents over the years. Koroll took a slightly different take on Wiste’s lifestyle, saying, “Jim had at least nine lives…We were lucky to get many bonus years with him [after his accidents].”

Courtney also told us of touching private, but life-altering conversations with her father, as they worked together in the grimy basement of the Campus Lounge. She also spoke about Wiste being a “connector” between people as a tavern owner and as a generous landlord. She summed up her speech by referencing his loving relationship with his later-in-life partner, Joanie Cunningham, who the Wiste family welcomed into their lives with affection. Cunningham then spoke briefly about the fun she and Wiste enjoyed, and how that will be her dominant memory of the years they shared together.

Current DU coach Jim Montgomery also spoke warmly of his friendship with Wiste. “I only knew him for five years, since I came here to coach DU in 2013”, said Montgomery. “But I am jealous of all of you [in the audience] who knew him for decades…He was one of those rare special people who made everyone around him better. I felt like I’d known him all my life….There was no better ambassador for Pioneer hockey. He was always asking me, “How can I help?”

Montgomery also spoke of the Pioneer pride and passion Wiste showed when addressing the current Pioneer team before last year’s NCAA tournament. Wiste told the 2017 DU team of his regrets in losing in two heartbreaking NCAA semifinals for the two years preceding his 1968 NCAA title as a senior at DU, and the importance of seizing  DU’s rare opportunity ahead. The 2017 Pioneers obviously took Wiste’s message to heart, winning last year’s NCAA title on the home ice of the Chicago Blackhawks, Wiste’s old NHL team.

Kevin Magnuson, the son of the late former DU hockey all-time great Keith Magnuson (who was also a fellow Saskatchewan-born teammate of Wiste who also went on to NHL fame in Chicago with Wiste and Koroll), was an engaging and warm emcee for the evening. Kevin, who played college hockey at Michigan and later went to DU Law School, emotionally spoke of Wiste as a “second father” to him, after his own father’s fatal auto accident in 2003. Magnuson spoke warmly of his own experiences at the Campus Lounge, even groaning at his memories of the tough steaks served there, which drew knowing groans from the audience in the stands.

Magnuson’s final words of the service on the hallowed ice of Magness Arena sounded especially meaningful in these current days of doubt over the survival of the Pioneer nickname, which Wiste was so passionate to support.

“Go Pioneers!” Magnuson exclaimed in a loud, non-funereal voice, as the Magness crowd cheered one last time for their fallen captain.

Rest in peace, James Andrew Wiste.

You were, and always will be, the very definition of a Pioneer.

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time Denver Pioneer Fan and Alumnus. He shares his views periodically here at LetsGoDu.