“Wild” Willie Trognitz once committed an act so violent he received a lifetime ban from a pro hockey league. But in the 1970s that act of mayhem would earn him a promotion AND a major league hockey contract.
He couldn’t skate or stickhandle well, but these skills weren’t necessary for Willie to succeed. In hockey’s goon era, his mighty and mangled fists were all he needed to achieve his hockey dreams.
But a much more meaningful achievement would come later in life when Willie was honored as a Canadian hero for an extraordinary act of courage.
This is the incredible story of Wild Willie Trognitz – a tale of bloodshed, intimidation and the eventual redemption of one of hockey’s most notorious enforcers.
Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Raymond William Trognitz grew up playing a belligerent style of hockey in town that would produce its share of tough hockey players such as “Battleship” Bob Kelly and Billy Goldthorpe.
Willie’s two-fisted approach earned him a feared reputation with the Thunder Bay Vulcans in the Minnesota-Thunder Bay Hockey League 1971-72. His aggression was noticed by the NHL’s California Golden Seals, which overlooked his modest skill set and chose him in the sixth round of the 1973 NHL Draft.
The Seals eventually dispatched Willie to the lowest rungs of minor league hockey – first the southern hockey league and then the International Hockey League.
Trognitz seemed doomed to a career on buses and $3-a-day meal money as a box-office attraction in such towns as Dayton, Toledo, Charlotte, and Columbus. In his three-plus seasons in the “I” he accumulated 827 penalty minutes and two suspensions in 215 games. In 1975 he took a 10-game unpaid sabbatical for jumping a referee in a runway in Toledo.
His coaches, especially Ted Garvin in Toledo had little interest in developing Wille’s skills.
Trognitz was best known in Toldeo as playing LW on a line with with equally notorious enforcers PAUL TANTARDINI and DOUG MAHOOD on a line called called Murder, Inc.
That roughhousing troika helped the Goladiggers to an improbable 1975 IHL championship, remembered by Toledo fans as the “Miracle on Main St.”
But Trognitz grew tired of his often cartoonish one-dimensional role as a goon and was traded to the Columbus Owls in 1976.
By 1977 Columbus had moved to Dayton, ohio. Five games into the 1977-78 season Dayton squared off in an October 29th game with the Port Huron Flags.
The game, however, was secondary to the anticipated fight between the Trognitz, the league’s reigning heavyweight champion and a newcomer gunning for his title: A wild-eyed 6-foot, 6-inch maniac named Archie Henderson.
This was Henderon’s rookie season and he’d go on to accumulate 566 penalty minutes in 88 regular season and playoff games that year – but to earn his enforcer credentials he’d first have to deal with Trognitz.
But to the fans dismay, Trognitz and Henderson never squared off during the game. But in the IHL, the game was never over until the last drop of blood was spilled.
As the game ended, with Port Huron winning 4-1, Dayton's Rick Dorman and the Flags' Gary Rissling resumed an earlier fight. Trognitz, who was leaving the penalty box, rushed to join the fight along with players from both benches, and in quick order there was a battle royal. Henderson grabbed Dayton's John Flesch by the shirt. Wild Willie who was 6 feet tall and weighed 215 pounds, skated to Flesch's defense, jumping Henderson from behind and landing five or six punches to the face—one of which broke Henderson's nose.
Henderson, Flesch and Trognitz went down in a heap, and along came Port Huron's Gary McMonagle to pull Trognitz off Henderson. Trognitz responded by delivering a savage beating to McMonagle. After that Trognitz skated to the Dayton bench and was talking with Coach Nick Polano as the officials, general managers and police tried to get the two teams to their dressing rooms.
At that point Henderson put down his gloves and stick, broke away from a linesman and charged around the rink and up the boards toward Trognitz.
Trognitz exhausted from his previous two bouts, raised his stick but they did not deter the charging Henderson. Trognitz then swung his stick at the oncoming Henderson and caught him on the forehead with the blade, splitting his forehead open.
Upon seeing Trognitz's work with his stick, a Port Huron fan somehow got onto the Drayton bench and slugged Trognitz in the side of the head which caused Trognitz to fall. With Henderson dazed and bleeding and Trognitz now dazed on the ice, the officials were able to corral them both into their respective dressing rooms.
Henderson needed eight stitches for his forehead and got his nose reset while also being hospitalized with a concussion.
Willie explained the upgly incident this way:
"There's no question that what I did was wrong," Trognitz said. "I hit him on the head with my stick, and stick swinging can't be part of the game. But I'd already finished a game, I had had two fights and I was exhausted. This giant lunatic charges me, screaming, 'I'm gonna kill you,' so I reacted, figuring he'll never eat five feet of lumber to get at me. They told us before the game that Henderson was a bloody lunatic, and I was just trying to get him to stop.
Five days later Wild Willie was "permanently suspended," banned for life from the International League, by President William Beagan. The whole affair gained worldwide attention.
But of course it was the 1970s so …, just four days after the lifetime ban, the World Hockey Association's Cincinnati Stingers, in dire need of an on-ice policeman, offered Willie a ten-game WHA trial. And just like that, Willie was not only back in hockey but was promoted to the major leagues.
The Stingers had begun the season as one of the WHA’s most promising teams, but they won just one of their first ten games and the teams was being pushed around, especially by the Birmingham Bulls, which featured a bloodthirsty quartet of Steve “Psycho” Durbano, Gilles “Bad News” Bilodeau, Frank “Seldom” Beaton and Slapshot’s Davey Hanson.
The Stingers countered by building their own four-goon chain gang of Trognitz, Paul Stewart, Alf Handrahan and Bruce Greig. The WHA had turned into a circus and Trognitz was expected to be in the center ring. However, aside from a three-bout game vs Curt Bracknbury of the Quebec Nordiques, Willie had no takers in his ten game trial as opponents teams respected his presence on the bench and the Stingers stars were left alone.
Trognitz rejected the Stingers offer of another ten game trial at $150 per game and sat out for a month. Although Stingers coach Jacques Demers classified Trognitz as a “weak skater who does not handle the puck very well, ” the Stingers relented and gave Trognitz a legitimate contract for the remainder of the season. He picked up 2 goals and 94 penalty minutes in 29 games, while his clear lack of basic hockey playing skill was apparent to all.
Trogntiz would return to the minor league grind in 1978-79 in the short-lived Pacific Coast League. He was signed to a contract by the NHL Colorado Rockies in 1979 and spent the season with the Central Hockey league’s Fort Worth Texans. Again, It was the 70s so you won’t be surprised to learn the his roommate and best friend on the Texans WASSSS … Archie Henderson.
Trognitz racked up 203 penalty minutes in 55 games and achieved his final bit of hockey notoriety in 1980 when he welcomed the eventual Gold Medal Miracle on Ice Team to Fort Worth by slicing open Dave Christian’s face just 26 seconds into the Texan’ exhibition with the traveling US Olympic team.
So at this point you’re probably wondering about when the “Hero Part” of the story begins. Well, it goes something like this …
With his last games in the books, Trognitz returned home to Thunder Bay where he began working for the Canadian Coast Guard. It was a good job for Trognitz and his fearless approach in the face of danger would come to good use on October 30, 1996!
"When I played hockey, I beat up people for a living. Now I rescue people," he said.
His most publicized at-sea rescue was the rescue of the cruise ship “Grampa Woo.”
Trognitz was on board the coast guard ship, the Westfort, when he and the rest of the crew responded to a distress call on Lake Superior.
The call came in during hurricane-like weather conditions.
Twenty-foot waves crashed across the deck of the Westfort. The below freezing October weather quickly formed ice and the crew soon faced the possibility of capsizing.
For Trognitz, the night provided legitimate fright on Halloween. He admits that he was scared for his life.
"That was the most intense rescue that I've been on," he said. "I honestly thought that would be my last day. We all did. We were almost rolling over and we were on our side many times. The boat was literally on its side."
The Westfort was so top-heavy that it started to roll on its side nearly 90 degrees. But despite the dangers, Trognitz and the rest of the crew pushed forward.
Just moments after crewmembers were rescued, giant waves violently smashed the Grandapa Woo against the rocks, shattering the boat into pieces and sinking it to the bottom of the Bay.
That rescue earned Trognitz and the two other crew members the Governor General's Medal of Bravery.
With Willie Trognitz enshrined as a Canadian hero and Archie Henderson continuing a successful career as an NHL scout, it reminds us once again, that if you want the job done right … hire a hockey enforcer.