Nadia says Walt was a tough little boy. When he was five—or at about the time he began watching the Stooges—he cut his hand on broken glass. The gash required eight stitches. "Walt never cried," Nadia recalls. "The first thing he said when he came out of the emergency room was, 'Momma, look at the pretty thread I got in my hand.' He wasn't scared of pain or blood or nothing."
By his own account, Walt was a bit of a knucklehead as a kid. His Stoogeness didn't include leading friends around by the nose with a monkey wrench, but he did swat rocks at cars with a tennis racket, hammer the headlights out of his father's Plymouth and give the girl next door a Curly cut.
Nadia didn't exactly curtail her son's lively childhood. At the dinner table she would start food fights with Walt, Peter and their two older sisters, Mary and Irene. "I'd pelt them with radishes, and soon there'd be olives, tomatoes and beets flying everywhere," says Nadia. "We'd only stop when nothing was left on the table." Walt's trophies in the china cabinet still sport old vegetable and fruit juice stains.
Walt learned to skate at age eight and laced up his first pair of Bauers at 11. "I never pushed him to play hockey," says Nadia. "The only thing I ever pushed him to do was put out the garbage, and I still can't get him to do that."
Poddubny played a month of Junior A hockey at Brandon, Manitoba, but got homesick and left. He was 18. "Get a job," said Dad, who is a millwright.
And Walt did, briefly. In fact, in a 10-month period he got half a dozen or so. He was a roofer, a bouncer, a guard in a maximum security prison. He was even a surveyor for 15 minutes but quit because he "didn't like holding a pole with two burned-out hoseheads."
Hoseheads, Poddubny kindly reminds those who don't remember the cockamamy McKenzie Brothers from SCTV, are young Canadian males at their dumbest and lumpiest. Their conversations consist mainly of "take off, eh," and they seem to survive on a diet of beer, back bacon and donuts. "I've got a lot of friends who fall into the 'hoser' category," he says. "Hell, I could have been one myself if I hadn't gotten out of Thunder Bay. So, take off, eh."
Poddubny got out of Thunder Bay and back into hockey after deciding he didn't like regular work after all. "I really didn't think about not making the NHL," he says. "I figured I'd drive off that bridge when I got to it."
In 1979-80, Poddubny had 30 goals and 17 assists in 43 games with the Junior A Kingston ( Ont.) Canadians but was such an unknown that he wasn't drafted until the fourth round—he was the 90th pick overall—by the Edmonton Oilers. He played most of the 1980-81 season with Wichita, Kans., of the Central Hockey League. "That was my Stooge year," he says. "I just ran around wreaking havoc." In 70 games he had 21 goals and 29 assists while amassing 207 penalty minutes. "In your first year, if you don't show everyone you'll answer the bell, they'll hack you to pieces," he says. "When I wasn't picking fights, I was joining in others just to gain respect. It wasn't until my second season that I realized I wasn't going to make the NHL on my fighting ability."
The Toronto Maple Leafs traded for him with 11 games remaining in the 1981-82 NHL season, and in 1982-83 he broke the Leafs' rookie goal-scoring record with 28. But eight games into the next season he broke his left ankle and missed 42 games. He later suffered a broken right ankle, a broken thumb, a broken rib, torn knee ligaments and an infected foot, and played less than half the schedule in both 1984-85 and 1985-86. His linemates in Toronto were a couple of Czechoslovakians, Miroslav Frycer and Peter Ihnacak. The trio weren't known for their scoring, but they led the league in misspellings.