Welcome to the Guildford Flames Legends series. A series which will put the spotlight back onto the great players which formed such a vital part of the history of the club. Players who created many special moments on ice and players who helped build the infrastructure of the club; Cult heroes, championship winners – The very players who we think about when the “good ol’ days” are discussed.
The spotlight today falls on a man who became the first ever ex-NHL player to pull on a Flames jersey back in 1994. With 256 goals and 182 assists, he averaged 2.62 point per game over a 3 year spell. But these numbers form just a small part of his Flames story – Less than 25% of his time in Guildford in fact. He spent an additional 10 years working behind the scenes with the Flames both from a business perspective and as head of the Guildford junior programme. A man so ingrained into the fabric of the club that his iconic number 11 shirt was retired and hung from the rafters.
This is the legend of Fred Perlini.
Born on the 12th April 1962 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Fred was on the ice learning to skate as soon as he could walk. His father Fred Snr, a professional hockey player once with the Chicago Blackhawks and an inductee to the Sault Ste. Marie Hockey Hall of Fame, was of course a huge influence to Fred and his future career. But Fred Snr was much more to the local community than just another hockey player. “My dad always made the rink at our local school and we had one in our back yard” recalls Fred. “My dad, Georgie Howe, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr were my hockey heroes growing up”.
From very early on in his life, it was clear that Fred was a natural talent on the ice and had all the tools to excel as a professional himself, following in his dad’s footsteps. “When I was 14 I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to the sport and become a pro.”
At 16 years old, Fred played his last season in his hometown for the Sault Ste. Marie Legion Midget AAA, lining up alongside Ron Francis and Mike O’Connor (father of Ben), and his success was staggering. In 27 games he bagged 107 points. The next season, the OMJHL (which became the OHL 1 year later) beckoned. Had he stayed in his home town, he would have iced for the Greyhounds – A team which just 2 seasons prior saw Wayne Gretzky play his final year in juniors and play in the famous 99 jersey for the first time.
Fred opted to join the Toronto Marlboros for the 1979/80 season, where he iced alongside Wayne Crawford (the pair would reunite again in 1996 as teammates for the Flames). Over the course of 3 seasons; as he grew as a player, his points return nearly doubled year on year, scoring 111 points in his final season.
“In the summer of 1980 I was working a construction job. I was down in the ground preparing the basement of a high rise apartment building with the foreman and a bunch of the work crew.”
It was the 11th June. The NHL entry draft day.
“We had the radio on in the background listening to the draft. When they called my name the guys went nuts!”
And Fred? “I finished my shift, went home and celebrated with my family.”
Fred iced his final season for the Marlboros in the 1981/82 season – A year where he finally got the call.
Wednesday 30th December, Fred walked into the Maple Leaf Gardens – The church of hockey, as a player of the Toronto Maple Leafs, taking on the St Louis Blues.
“I was 19 and I was very nervous” recalls Fred. “Once I got in the game I felt comfortable.” That night, the Blues came away with a 6-4 win, but Fred immediately made his mark as he picked up an assist in the game. “I felt like I belonged.”
The next night the Leafs went to the Joe Louis arena to faceoff against the Detroit Red Wings, Fred’s childhood team. The Leafs walked out with a 5-2 win. Fred came away with a goal, an assist and the second star.
Despite his success, Fred didn’t get the call again until the 20th February. His next call up on the 10th March against the Chicago Blackhawks saw him secure his place in the hockey hall of fame record books.
“I played an afternoon game in the OHL where I scored a hat-trick. I then get the call asking me to play against the Blackhawks that evening and I scored in that game also. It was pretty special.”
Between 1982 and 1986, Fred played for St Catharines Saints and the Baltimore Skipjacks in the AHL, recording 141 points across 257 games. In the summer of 1986, the opportunity came to play in Italy.
“Well, I was supposed to go to Italy and play for Asiago on a big contract but my passport fell through.” Chris Kellond, a good friend of Fred’s who was the captain of the Murrayfield Racers called him and put him in touch with Nottingham Panthers Coach Alex Dampier. “Alex offered me a spot in Nottingham playing in the Heineken League”. Alex’s sales pitch was simple – “It’s not the NHL or AHL but you’ll have some fun playing again.”
So he did. And if you were lucky enough to see Fred Perlini play at any rink in the UK, you knew you were seeing a masterclass every night he stepped on the ice. 171 points in just 35 regular season games for Nottingham. “I never wanted to leave Nottingham, but Fife made me an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.” The following season and he scored 176 points in 35 games in his only season for the Flyers.
From there he played for the Deeside Dragons, Trafford Metros, Telford Tigers, Blackburn Blackhawks, Streatham Redskins, Basingstoke Beavers and Lee Valley Lions. 7 teams across 6 seasons. 150 games and a staggering 951 points.
Whilst the number of teams hint at Fred being a journeyman during his time in the UK, this would be a very unfair label to place on him. “One thing I want to make clear is the only reason I jumped from some clubs to others is because they promised management opportunities and security and it never happened.”
The next move in his career came with the same promises, but after being let down so many times previously, could this team, who had only played 2 seasons of hockey, be trusted?
The Guildford Flames were in serious financial trouble during the first half of 1994. The previous autumn, the main team sponsor, Pepsi Cola, had withdrawn their support and players had threatened to strike over unpaid wages. With the club on the verge of collapse, SportFact Ltd, led by Chairman John Hepburn, took over the franchise from Barry Dow in the summer of 1994. Ron Charbonneau was hired as the team’s General Manager and with just 5 players retained from the previous season, a host of new players arrived at the Spectrum. Amongst them, the 32 year old Ex-NHLer who had terrorised UK defences for the past 8 years – Fred Perlini.
“The move to Guildford was for various reasons. Firstly, my good friend Darrin Zinger was instrumental to the move. It was a great set up for hockey – The rink, the area, the new ownership and importantly for me, the security of a 3 year contract.”
By this time, Fred and his wife Vicki, had 4 year old Brett to also consider.
“Probably more importantly than the long contract was the area to bring up a family. Guildford had great schools and great people – All the intangibles were there for a family. The Spectrum alone not only had the best facilities to play hockey but for the family there was the pool and many other things there and in the local area. My first memory of the Spectrum was that it was the best facility in the UK for hockey and my family.”
The final piece of the puzzle for Fred was his long term future after his hockey career came to an end.
“John Hepburn and I talked long term. Not just the 3 year contract, but we talked about moving into management or coaching after hockey which was always my goal.”
With their new star player signed up to play alongside club stalwarts Ryan Campbell and Paul Thompson, Fred did what Fred does – For a ninth season, Fred lit up the league and despite a 7th place finish in the league for the Flames, Fred led the scoring for the team with over 100 goals in all competitions and 196 points overall.
“The main memory from my first game in a Flames jersey would be the thought that we had a long way to go to build a great organisation. In fact, all the memories of the first season relay to not just on the ice but promoting hockey in the area.”
Throughout the season, players were helping out behind the scenes to help build the club after the recent turmoil. Whilst Ryan Campbell was still working hard behind the scenes which eventually saw him move into the Flames office, Fred and Terry Kurtenbach started up the Drug Freeze programme, which after 24 years is still going strong.
“The Drug Freeze programme was an idea I gave to the organisation to start. Terry Kurtenbach and I would go to all the schools in the area and talk about the bad effects of drugs and pass out hockey cards. We had a police officer come with us as well and we would really educate the kids on the dangers of drugs. I really enjoyed this – We made it to many schools and talked to hundreds of kids.”
The Flames put on numerous fan events throughout the 94/95 season to repay their loyal support through the hard times.
“Fan events are part of being a professional and promoting our sport, but I loved getting to know our fan base personally and it really meant a lot to me that they came out to support us. The people of Guildford in my day were awesome to me and my family.”
The following season, Fred was paired with Ryan Campbell and Troy Kennedy. The trio were unplayable, with the lethal line firing the Flames to the promotion playoffs.
“Ryan and Troy are very good players. Ryan did a lot for the organization on and off the ice, the rebuild of the Flames was a big part of the Campbell era. Troy was a hard working player on both ends of the ice and was a great addition to our team, it’s always fun to play with great players but more importantly they were good people off the ice. But the most memorable part of the season was my wife being pregnant with Brendan. And being around a group of such good, young players.”
The Flames finished 3rd overall in the playoffs, but missed out on 1st place by just 3 goals. But despite the disappointment of missing out by such a fine margin, the main focus was the progression of the players and the organisation overall.
“Missing out on first place was not that big of a deal, the team and organisation were going in the right direction and John Hepburn was happy with the results. And the proof is in the pudding because the first championship winning team came just a couple of years later.
“It wasn’t about the personal goals, it was about our hockey club making the playoffs, it was about setting up the ground roots of making the playoffs and carrying on that tradition for the young guys so they understood the hard work it took to get to the playoffs and continue that in future teams. So the whole process of making playoffs was a big learning curve for the team of young players.”
The following year, British hockey restructured and Guildford, despite being involved and advising on the new league set up, opted against moving to the ISL, instead choosing to play in the new British National League and former team-mate from Toronto, Wayne Crawford signed as player-coach.
“Wayne was a great player. He wore his heart on his sleeve and it’s tough to be a player coach. Crow and I always had a good relationship, whether it’s talking old hockey stories, golfing…”
The Flames had another solid season, finishing 4th in the league, but the team suffered with injuries all season resulting in over 40 players icing through the season. Amongst the injured was Fred, with a bad back injury. It was his final season on the ice.
“It’s always hard when a team battles injuries, new teammates and all. I hurt my back the last year of playing at 35, I had a slipped L5 disc. It’s hard because the doctors always said it would take time, so you’re not around the team that’s the hardest part besides the pain. My wife Vicki was a tremendous help off the ice, getting me through it all. I did come back at the end of the season and ended out my career on the ice. That was important to me – Scoring goals with a bad back and giving the fans and club a farewell.”
With Fred’s retirement confirmed, John Hepburn remained true to his word and Fred was eventually offered a position as head of the Guildford Junior Programme, but it was not an immediate transition from player to coach.
“The junior program was not just handed to me I wanted to earn it. Vicki and I continued to do a lot of work in the community; we started up roller hockey in the schools and for me it was all about giving back as well as educating myself on coaching youngsters. My heart was with the juniors because I had two boys coming through. I also went out and took my coaching levels to prepare the best I could.”
The dedication shown by Fred to continuously push himself in his pursuit of a new role within the game was not going unnoticed within the hockey community.
“At this point I was receiving offers from other clubs to coach their senior teams, but I needed to be close to my family and did not want to move away from Guildford.”
“John eventually approached me and said there was an opportunity to take over the junior program and I felt I was ready for opportunity.”
It was a role Fred proudly held for the next 10 years, coaching and developing future Flames players such as Andrew Hemmings, David Savage and Ollie Bronnimann, along with many others who went on to make the rosters of professional teams.
“The transition from player to coach was easy for me. I felt it an honour to represent these youngsters as well as my own boys and teach them the game properly. As well as teaching the kids, it was my job to work with the first team coaches. Together we built a great programme in Guildford that I am very proud of with a lot winning teams and many championships throughout the age groups. After 10 years of playing the next 10 years of coaching was just as fun. It was great to see all the kids developing as well as my own boys. Plus I had a lot of fun being able to work radio and Flames TV for the club”
By the summer of 2001 the Flames had captured 7 trophies since Fred’s retirement 4 years prior and Fred’s outstanding contribution to the rebuild of the organisation, both on and off the ice were recognised by the Flames as his number 11 shirt was officially retired with a ceremony on Spectrum ice.
“When I was contacted by the organisation it was my proudest moment in Guildford. We had Peter Gordon host the ceremony, John Hepburn was on the ice with me and the support from the fans was so awesome, as well as from the players and my friends. My family had a great night. It truly was a great honour.”
In 2007 the Perlini family made the decision to return home to Canada after 21 years in the UK.
“Moving to Canada was a family decision, it was time. My folks we’re getting older and we wanted to spend more time with our entire family in general. As for the boys, their careers speak for themselves as far as the move went.”
There can be no argument over the success of the Perlini boys since the move back home. Both drafted to the NHL – Brett to Anaheim and Brendan to Arizona; following in their father’s footsteps. It’s a point which Flames fans are very proud of: 2 NHL drafted players – sons of club legend and the first ever ex-NHL star to pull on a Flames jersey – who started out their careers on Spectrum ice. But how much credit can the Flames fans claim in regards to the importance the city of Guildford played in the careers of these 2 great players?
“The city of Guildford can claim a lot of importance. Both my boys learned their hockey in the UK from the time they were 2 and in Guildford. If they were not on skates they were on rollerblades. Brett and Brendan both played domestically up through the programmes we built, and won many champions starting with under 10s right through until under 16s. They also both played in many south west conferences, winning many personal accolades, championships and tournaments with England. Brett’s England team won the Quebec tournament.
“Brett came to Canada full time at 14 Brendan at 12. They both visited friends this past spring in the UK and loved it, they have many great childhood memories. They both were members at Worplesdon golf club, their schools were excellent and they got a chance to visit these areas after ten years with some very close Perlini family friends they grew up with; Callum Best and the Duggan family for example. They both love Guildford and are proud of the hockey tradition there; what their dad represented and they did as well.
“People ask me why Brett is not playing for the Flames. He simply was not approached. Several Elite League teams were in touch with Brett’s agent, but I do not get involved with the business side.”
Brett and Brendan were not Fred’s only juniors to be drafted to the show. He also played a part in producing more NHL stars when he got back home.
“During my time at Belle Tyre a few years back I coached several kids who made the NHL. Brendan was one alongside Dylan Larkin, Zach Werenski and Kyle Connor to name a few.”
Fred and his family will always be an important part of hockey; both in the UK and stateside. For fans of the Guildford Flames, the Perlini name will always be linked with Guildford. Fred is one of the few people who can be fully credited with making the Guildford Flames who they are today and even after 11 years, everyone linked with the club, from management to fans, will be eternally grateful for all of the work Fred and his family put into the club and the community.
“I’d like to say that Guildford was a big part of our lives. It was the right opportunity at the right time to buy a house in England and raise my family. Playing hockey, working with management and the community has taught me a lot of life lessons. I’ve met so many great people there and I do not call them supporters, they are my friends.
“It’s so hard not to leave people out when I talk about my career because I have made so many good friends throughout the years. As well as all the people I’ve already mentioned, I’m still in touch with Andy Sparks and Rylan Ferster.
“And of course, I’d like to say a big thank you to John Hepburn for making my time in Guildford so very special.
“I do want to come back over and watch Brett play and spend some time in Guildford, Nottingham and London. As a family we really miss the country and the people; we all have our stories and we seem to share them a lot when we are all together. Who knows, maybe I will come back and coach there again. I’ve been offered other organisations but turned them down.
“Currently I’m working for a private school with a private rink and running the programmes, also I’m heavily involved working with NHL and prospect players as well as running our family hockey clinics business.
“My message to all is I love and miss Guildford and hopefully will see you all soon.”
All images provided by Fred Perlini