November 22, 2012
Argos' Annis Stukus was one of a kind
By PETER WORTHINGTON, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The Grey Cup looms, and a big deal is being made of the fact that the last time the Toronto Argonauts won the Cup in Toronto, was in 1952.
Jeepers, that's 60 years ago!
The Argos have won the Cup five times since then (for a total of 15), but always when the game was played in another city.
For some of us of a certain generation, football players of those days have a special place in our memories -- such as Joe Krol, the most versatile player in Canadian football history (quarterback, running back, defensive back, punter/place kicker), who played on six Grey Cup winners, five of them for the Argos. Krol died in 2008 at age 89.
Others on that 1952 team included Royal Copeland, Ulysses Custis, Al Bruno, Red Ettinger, Knobby Wirkowski, Zeke O'Connor, Bill Bass, Rod Smylie.
The Argo I remember most vividly of that era, though, was Annis Stukus (two Grey Cup rings) and arguably the most colourful sports personality in the country. Curiously, my path kept crossing that of Stukus' over the years, until he eventually graduated from building teams to becoming a columnist with the old Toronto Telegram, where I also laboured.
Stuke and his two brothers, Bill and Frank, were the backfield of the Argos. Not for nothing was he known as "the Loquacious Lithuanian," with an opinion on practically everything -- even things he knew nothing about.
I first encountered Stuke in the navy at HMCS York, in Toronto, where in 1944 he was a navy physical training instructor.
I was an ordinary seaman and one day was summoned with others to be confronted by Stuke -- noisy, confident, intense. He asked my weight, then told me to report to the gym at noon with shorts and running shoes.
At noon, I discovered that I, along with others, were to stage a noon boxing match for the entertainment of everyone else. In those days, I hated boxing -- my eyes wept if I was hit on the nose, and I feared looking like a cry-baby. Stuke couldn't have cared less, and paired me with another guy who knew nothing about boxing.
When the time came for us to enter the ring -- each promising not to hurt the other -- we flew at each other fists flying, arms akimbo, intent on doing maximum damage. The sailors loved it -- two guys with no skill flailing at each other.
I got the decision and the prize was a one-dollar credit at the canteen -- that worked out to 20 chocolate bars in those days, or 20 bottles of pop. It was the first time I was ever rewarded for fighting.
It got me started in boxing, and later in Britain I got pummelled so badly that when I went to the University of British Columbia after the war, I was determined to learn more about the sport.
At UBC was Jimmy Gove, who trained the 4th Armoured Division boxing team. Under his tutelage I won the UBC light-heavyweight title, fought in the Golden Gloves, and later in the Western Command army championships.
All thanks to Annis Stukus.
Stuke became head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos in 1949, and came out of retirement to do the place-kicking for the team. He had a gift (curse?) for making headlines wherever he went -- which included running professional hockey teams.
In 1954 I had returned to UBC from being in the army when Stuke became head coach and GM of the Vancouver (later B.C.) Lions. I used to attend Lions practices and witnessed Stuke's agony of trying to form a credible CFL team.
He recruited Doug Hepburn, who had won the gold medal at the World Weightlifting Championships in 1953, and the weightlifting title at the 1954 Empire Games. He revelled in the title "World's Strongest Man."
Hepburn had a club foot and was slightly cross-eyed, but Stuke recruited him as a potential lineman for the neophyte Lions. A good try -- but a flop. When running, Hepburn's club foot made him go in small circles. Stuke couldn't straighten him out. His peripheral vision was also a problem.
Stuke erupted in a nervous rash that season -- an especially rainy season in Vancouver. Empire Stadium was built on a bog. And I remember attending one game in the rain when a punt failed to bounce in front of the intended recipient, and instead burrowed deep into the mud. Players on both sides simply stood and stared at it.
After a couple of years, Stuke gave up the Lions job and wrote for the Vancouver Sun, which was then in an innovative mode. It sent Stuke to cover one of the periodic crises in Taiwan (then called Quemoy).
Stuke's first dispatch noted that everyone on the island resembled Normie Kwong -- for 13 years a Hall of Fame running back, first for the Calgary Stampeders and then the Edmonton Eskimos. Human rights zealots deplored Stuke's observation; Normie Kwong roared with laughter. Issue defused.
Sandwiched in a long and varied career, Stuke was general manager of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, and in 1967 became GM of the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey League. He signed Bobby Hull to a 10-year contract with a then-unheard-of $1 million signing bonus.
Later, he was an executive for the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team.
Stuke entered both the Canadian Sports and Canadian Football Halls of Fame. He died in 2006 at age 91.
The CFL's annual coach of the year award is named in his honour.
Fitting, indeed, that Argos coach Scott Milanovich should get it this year -- assuming, of course, that the Calgary Stampeders cooperate.