Two cousins of the late and great George Pelawa
will face off against each other
This weekend the puck will drop in Bemidji in honor of one of its favorite sons.
Thirty-seven years ago, George Pelawa’s size and skills on the ice made him a household name in high school hockey. He led the Lumberjacks to the state tournament where his star power was on display for all to see, including college and NHL scouts who were enamored with his ability. Months later he was drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames. He signed a letter of intent to play college hockey up the road at the University of North Dakota.
But on Aug. 30, 1986, he was gone. Pelawa was killed in an automobile accident that left the Bemidji community utterly shaken, his family broken and the hockey community stunned.
This weekend a group of eight Bantam AA teams will converge on the city of Bemidi in memory of a young kid who grew his legend as large as Paul Bunyan’s. And his old North Dakota hockey bag, the one he never got to use, will be slung over the shoulder of his cousin who is a member of Bemidji’s Bantam AA team and carries George’s first name.
George Swanberg is 14 years old and loves the game just as much as the cousin he never met. At 6’2” already, he shares some of his cousin’s size. His father, Terry, was 12 years old when he watched his cousin become famous. He was invited by George’s parents Frank and Winnie to travel with them to Canada for the 1986 draft.
“We drove up there in an old Plymouth,” said Swanberg. “We took two weeks to do it and it was one of the best times of my life.”
Swanberg remembers how Pelawa became larger than life on and off the ice.
“He was just a dominant force,” he said. “He was a man amongst boys. He just had incredible speed for a kid his size. It was off the charts for someone who weighed 240 pounds.”
Pelawa’s combination of size and speed was so unbelievably rare that he shot up the draft board and was taken 16th overall by Calgary. But he would never live out his dream of playing college hockey or in the NHL. And those who were enamored with his larger-than-life persona were left to wonder what could have been.
“I had just turned 13 when the accident happened,” said Swanberg. “I still get teared up and emotional talking about it.”
That’s because the memory of that day is still vivid. Swanberg was living in the Twin Cities at the time.
“I woke up that morning and my sister was crying,” Swanberg said. “She’s George’s age, was an ’85 grad. I remember thinking she was having boy problems or something that was a waste of my time. Then I was told what happened.”
Shock and disbelief set in. The family piled in their car and headed straight for Bemidji that morning.
“I remember the car ride,” said Swanberg. “It was about 6 a.m. The whole car ride we didn’t say a word. We just couldn’t believe it. We were basically in denial.”
Looking back on those days is still hard. Swanberg said Frank and Winnie have been like second grandparents to his five children. Back then Frank didn’t show much emotion. But Swanberg remembers seeing the pride on his face when they were at the Forum in Montreal for the draft in 1986.
“I had never heard Frankie use the word awesome before,” said Swanberg. “But we were standing in the street outside the forum and he said ‘this is awesome.’ He was elated with joy and that’s something you never saw from him. He was happier than hell. And then not too long after it all ended.”
But George’s legacy lives on, not just with the tournament named in his honor, but in the spirit of the young kids who play the game with the same passion as him. George Swanberg is one of those kids. He never met his big cousin, but he’s seen him on old VHS tapes.
“I just know he was a really good high school player with a lot of size,” he said.
Another cousin of George Pelawa will also take the ice. Tanner Schrepfer will play with Buffalo’s Bantam AA team. His father, Kurt, is a first cousin of Big George and was a couple years younger than Terry when George had passed away.
“I didn’t get the chance to know George as well, but we would always see him at Christmas time when our families got together,” said Kurt. “I remember seeing it on Kare 11 news and then going to the funeral.”
Tanner has learned about the distant cousin he never met who was a hockey star in the state of hockey. And like him, he is in love with the sport, playing on several teams year-round. This weekend will be the first time George and Tanner have played against each other.
“It will be great,” said Kurt. “I know Winnie is very excited to watch the boys play.”
Young George will carry Big George’s North Dakota hockey bag into the arena this weekend just like he has for the past decade.
“We had George’s bag in the closet ever since he passed away,” said Winnie Pelawa. “When George started playing we figured he might as well have it.”
Older hockey folks who are familiar with George Pelawa’s legend will ask him about the bag often and it usually sparks a memory about Big George, a player from a small northern city who everybody in the hockey community came to know.
Frank and Winnie will be the biggest cheerleaders this weekend watching George and Tanner hit the ice in a tournament named in their son’s memory. It’s also a time for the Bemidji hockey community to honor one of their own, a young kid who became larger than life in just 18 short years, and gone much too soon.
“He had so much promise,” said Terry. “Keeping his memory alive is very important.”
This weekend is another reminder of not just the incredible talent George was, but also of how precious life is. George Swanberg and Tanner Shrepfer and 100-plus other kids will play hockey in Bemidji this weekend, living out their own dreams and setting a path on their own futures. When hockey is reduced to its simplest form – a game to be enjoyed – it truly is a family endeavor that might freeze the toes, but definitely warms the heart.