This week’s Sault Legend is the one and only Gene Ubriaco. To talk to the man, you would never know the historic moves he has made in hockey because he’s warm, gentle, likes to laugh and a good soul.
But his contribution to hockey is historic; helping to bring Manon Rheaume into the NHL, coaching Mario Lemieux, working along-side Stan Mikita and Wendell Young, the list goes on and on.
Gene even was once offered to go to the St. Louis training camp for baseball but “I’m glad I went into hockey,” he says.
Ubriaco played youth hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, and was a member of the 1953–54 Doran’s team which won Sault, Northern Ontario and All-Ontario titles.
He says he has Angelo Bumbacco to thank for that.
“Angelo was the guy that would sell tickets and made it all possible. Thank God for Angelo!” he said.
Gene used to play bantam hockey in the old Central Park and Angelo helped him get to tryout for the Jr. Greyhounds. And the Doran’s team was just as enticing to him.
“The reason I wanted to play for Doran’s was because my mother was freezin’ her butt off at the outdoor rinks.”
It was the coaching of Abbie Naccarato and Hec Pozzo that really pushed him though. And Angelo was there as always to help out where he could.
“The funny thing is, I didn’t realize until the season was over that I had something like 28 points in just 14 games.”
He played center on a line with Freddie Perlini and Gary Barone.
Ubriaco signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and moved to Toronto to play for their junior affiliate Toronto St. Michael’s Majors where he posted some great numbers, almost a point a game for the last three years with them.
There he played alongside Frank Mahovolich and Dick Dufff and got to skate at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Another interesting story is when he got called to play for St. Mike’s he had a charlie-hoarse on the train all the way down to Toronto, which was a long ride in those days. Someone told him to sit on it and it would go away. Gene, being full of anxiety about skating the next day at the Gardens didn’t know what to do but accepted the advice. And it worked.
He moved around from there to the New Westmister Royals, Sudbury Wolves, Rochester Americans and the Pittsburgh Hornets.
This was at the time of the NHL expansion and Gene wanted to go to the NHL like you wouldn’t believe.
He signed with the Hershey Bears for four years who were the farm team to the new Pittsburgh Penguins.
He gave them an ultimatum one day on the phone. He asked for more money with the Bears than they had ever payed and that was his ticket to going to Pittsburgh.
He played with them for two years before being traded to the Oakland Seals (pictured) and the Chicago Blackhawks.
It was there that his playing days were sadly over. The Blackhawks offered him a 3-year contract to play for their WHL affiliate and he said “I retired over the phone.”
It was soon after that his coaching career began.
He coached six different teams before ending back in Pittsburgh coaching the Penguins. It was there that he got to work alongside another old friend Phil Esposito. Because of owner changes Phil and him got the boot two years later.
That was the catalyst that started a Sault group with Gene, Phil, Angelo and Tony Esposito. Phil and Tony started the Tampa Bay Lightning and Gene was coaching their farm team in Atlanta.
“It was a thrill because Angelo was a scout and Tony and Phil were managing. Four guys from the Sault and an NHL team, can you believe it,” he laughed.
It was there that Manon Rheaume came to Gene and asked for a shot at the big time. Phil asked Gene if she was ready and Gene agreed. “She won’t embarrass us,” Gene told Phil. Taking that lead, Phil let Manon make history as the first female goaltender in the NHL.
“I’ll never forget after our first game with us I gave her a box of cigars,” Gene said.
Gene today, has been working as he did then with Wendell Young with the Chicago Wolves. “It’s probably the best job I ever had so far.”
“I met the owner in Rome,” Gene said when he was coaching the Italian Olympic ice hockey team in 1992. Even there the Sault history came out as at each game the Italians had a moment of silence for Carmen Tucci, a Saulite who died.
Gene still also runs a hockey camp for the hearing-impaired that he started with Stan Mikita over 40 years ago.
It is here in this column that we remember Chico Maki who passed away last year. So when you walk down Wallace Terrace remember that Chico and Gene used to play road hockey there. Rest in peace Chico.