Hometown Hockey in Oro-Medonte

Our family has had a cottage near Oro Station, on the shores of Lake Simcoe, at the foot of Oro Line 7, since the summer of 1970. (It’s Oro-Medonte Line 7 now. Has been for quite a while. But I still think of it under the old name.) About a month ago, when Rogers Hometown Hockey announced that the Township of Oro-Medonte would be the host site for the fourth broadcast of the season on November 8 (two days ago), I sent Ron MacLean a picture that my mother had taken of my brothers, our father, our dog Grover, and me playing hockey on the lake circa 1974.

“Beautiful!!” replied Ron, who also said that he could “use some Intel on that stop,” if I had any thoughts. “Will send our research in 2 weeks,” he added, “but if you find a nugget, don’t hesitate.”

Just the sort of challenge I enjoy a little too much! So, I went to a few of the newspaper sites I like to use and entered the search terms “Oro Township” and “Hockey” to see what turned up. A few interesting items did…

Among the first was the story of an Oro girls team playing for the championship of the B division in the 1962 all-Ontario girls hockey tournament. (Oro lost to Cannington; Don Mills beat out the hosts from Alliston to win the A series for the second straight year.)

I also learned that there had been an Oro Township Hockey League from as early as 1923 until at least 1939. A story datelined from Barrie on March 10, 1923, appeared two days later in The Globe from Toronto telling of how East Oro had defeated Oro Station 3–2 for the championship of Oro Township and the honor of being the first holders of the Drury Cup, donated by Ontario premier E.C. Drury. (Edward Charles Drury was from the area and, as the leader of the United Farmers of Ontario, he served as the province’s eighth premier from 1919 to 1923.)

Clipping from The Globe. Photograph from The Story of Oro (1972, 1987).

Another fun story I found was that of the Leigh family of Hawkestone (at Oro Line 11). Apparently, nine of the 11 members of the Hawkestone Hawks, who went undefeated in the Oro Township Hockey League for four straight seasons from 1936 through 1939, were Leigh family brothers or cousins!

Clipping from the Windsor Star on April 19, 1939.
(The Hawkestone team had fewer Leighs in 1927!)

But the story that intrigued me most was from The Globe and Mail on February 10, 1950. It was a small note about a bantam phenom (age 12) named Bob Garner of Oro Township “who scored 10 goals in a 15–0 win over Coldwater last week.” The writer advised that hockey scouts had better look him up.

As I wrote to Ron when I sent him the clippings, “When I was a kid, we used to get a lot of our hockey gear at Garner Sports in Barrie. It’s closed now. Don’t know if it’s the same family, but I like the chances!”

I did a Google search for Garner Sports and found a story from 2007 on the web site of Donna Douglas, a veteran Barrie journalist and communications consultant. From Donna’s story, I learned that Garner Sports had been founded by Bill Garner, a big name in Barrie sports, in 1931. It was later run by his son Jack (who would have been running it when we used to shop there in the 1970s) and then by his son, John. It would turn out that Bob was a part of that same Garner family (Bill’s son, and John’s brother), but that he never worked in the store.

Bob Garner with the Weston Dukes in 1951 and relaxing at home 70 years later.

I learned from Donna via email that the Garner family was from Shanty Bay (at Oro Line 2) and that there were 10 children in the family. (I believe that Bob later told me there were actually 11 children.) Donna didn’t know of Bob, but posted a query from me on a Facebook group for people who’d grown up in Barrie. Soon enough, I heard from Stew Garner, Bob’s son, who put me in touch with his father. Bob and I conversed by phone, email and by text over the next few days, and he told me some great stories about growing up in Oro and about his hockey career.

Like me (only probably a lot moreso), Bob played hockey with his family on Lake Simcoe while growing up. As a boy playing on Kempenfelt Bay, he told me that “on a clear day, it felt like you could have a breakaway and skate all the way to Brechin!”

The only indoor rink he remembers while growing up in Oro was in Guthrie at Oro Line 4. (The current rink there is the third or fourth to stand on the same site. The original was built in 1922 and opened in 1923, but was destroyed by a tornado in 1934. The rink Bob played in opened in 1937 – the same year he was born.) “It was great to play there, but you didn’t want to be the first to arrive [at six o’clock] in the morning,” he says. “You’d have to light the fire in the stove to warm the place!”

Bob doesn’t remember scoring those 10 goals against Coldwater in the bantam game for Oro back in 1950 … but he told me he scored even more goals in other games. NHL scouts may not have noticed him right away, but a few of them would soon enough.

The first indoor Oro arena at Guthrie.

Just a few days later, on Saturday, February 18, 1950, Bob played at Maple Leaf Gardens with a Barrie peewee team at what The Globe and Mail called “the Inter-Suburban Athletic Association’s second annual elimination tournament for under-13 hockeyists.” Teams included Weston, Barrie, Pape Playground, Leaside, York Township, Forest Hill, Brampton, Bowmanville, Cooksville and East York. Bob led Barrie to the finals, where they lost to Weston. According to the newspaper stories, he scored seven of his team’s eight goals in the three games they played.

The 1950 tournament was held in front of a “three-man board of judges composed of [NHL scouts] Bob Davidson, Harold Cotton and Reg Hamilton.” Bob tells me he kept in touch with Davidson for many years, but since Barrie was considered Boston Bruins territory because the Bruins sponsored the Junior A Barrie Flyers, Baldy Cotton spoke with Bob and told him that Boston was putting him on their negotiation list. “They could control players as young as 12,” Bob says, “and guys didn’t even know they were on the list.”

The Guthrie Arena after the tornado.

In 1951–52, Bob left home to joined the Weston Dukes in the Toronto suburbs. He was only 14 years old, and the Globe says he was the youngest person playing Junior B hockey in all of Ontario. Weston was a Toronto Marlboros farm team and therefore part of the Maple Leafs system. Future Leafs Billy Harris, Bob Baun and Kent Douglas, as well as a couple of other NHL players, were among this teammates over the next couple of years.

Bob told me that Hap Emms (who owned and operated the Barrie Flyers) must have traded his rights to Toronto … but I found a newspaper clipping in the Globe from January 7, 1953, where Emms accused Stafford Smythe and the Marlboros of stealing Bob Garner and Dave Sanderson out of Barrie. (Bob found that interesting!) He played six games with the Marlboros in Junior A during the 1953–54 season, but by that fall Emms had signed Bob away from the Marlboros and brought him back to Barrie.

After playing briefly with the Flyers in 1954–55, Bob spent most of that season and the next playing Junior B with the Brampton Regents. Bob says it was Rudy Pilous who brought him to Brampton … but I don’t know what Pilous’s connection to Brampton was. (Brampton may have been a Junior B affiliate of either the St. Catharines Junior A team or the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL. Or both.)

Bob says a big reason why Stafford Smythe got rid of him (and perhaps why Emms did too) was because he got married at the age of 16! That’s partly why he feels he never got a chance to play in the NHL. Also, he wasn’t all that interested in professional hockey because the money was terrible at that time. He had a job with the appliance company Moffat back then, and later worked as a dealer for another appliance company.

Bob continued playing intermediate and senior hockey around Barrie until the late 1960s. He played for Barrie teams in OHA intermediate and senior Georgian Bay circuits with teams in Collingwood, Midland and Orillia. There were a lot of former NHL players in those leagues too. Harry Lumley is probably the biggest name. Cal Gardner is another. Ivan Irwin, Bob Hassard, Ray Gariepy and Gerry McNamara too. “It was very competitive,” Bob remembers, “but fun.”

After hockey, Bob became a stockbroker in Toronto for many years. He’s now retired and living in Orillia. I’m glad he got to enjoy a brief moment of hockey fame all these years later (it was more like 15 seconds than 15 minutes!) when Ron MacLean mentioned him on the broadcast on Monday night.

Bob and I both enjoyed our correspondence over the last couple of weeks, and we look forward to meeting each other in person one of these days.

13 thoughts on “Hometown Hockey in Oro-Medonte

  1. Hi Eric, I have about zero interest in hockey per se but love reading your posts — how you manage to dig up these fascinating connections and talk to people about their memories of playing. I especially loved Bob’s comment, “on a clear day, it felt like you could have a breakaway and skate all the way to Brechin!”

  2. That was so interesting, and I love the photo of your dad and brothers. The tornado that destroyed the arena had a personal touch to me. My dad would often drive to the small towns, in fact, I was the driver, as he was still recuperating from a massive heart attack near the beginning of the year, 1954. We loved the time we spend together, hearing Dad’s adventures in Bukavina before “escaping” the forced enlistment into the Austrian army in 1917. We “bonded” with such warmth and love. During one trip to the Lake Simcoe area, we were taken out for lunch by a man, whose name has left my brain. I just remember he was big on hockey, and he talked and talked about the wonderful boys who played. We were so sad to hear of the tornado. I wish I could remember his name!!!!
    Keep writing the wonderful stories.

  3. Wonderful. That picture is framed and in a special place in my condo. All the years we were at the cottage I knew nothing about that hockey history. I just remember at the end of the summer going to Garner Sports to buy you guys hockey equipment for the coming season. Thanks for great memories.

  4. What does that say that you are now part of the hockey history that you write about?
    Nice that you were part of giving Bob Garner an unexpected moment to bask in the sunshine of long ago.

    1. Not sure what it says … but I was saying to Kevin Shea that this one was fun because, given what I usually like to write about, I don’t often get a chance to talk to the people in my stories!

  5. Thanks Eric. Another well researched , interesting, and fun story….
    You found some wonderful pictures to bring it all to life!

  6. Just got around to reading this fascinating article. Love the picture of you and your brothers with your dad!!! I marvel at your research! Happy 2022!

    1. Eric
      Great story and I am sure there are many more in the archives. I have a picture of the Hawkestone Hawks Team on my wall. I am a bit bias though as my dad and uncles and their cousins are all in it. What some may not know is that my grandfather James Leigh was the coach. I would love to find out the colour of any of the jerseys. My cousins and I would like to get some made in honor of that team.
      Thanks for you hard work on this article great read.

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