Category Archives: Personal

My Henderson Moment

It was 50 years ago today, on September 28, 1972, that Paul Henderson scored to win for Team Canada. As I indicated in the story I posted three weeks ago, I know that goal — that series — is a big reason why I became the sports fan I remain to this day. I played plenty of sports, too, over the years, and I also know — perhaps like most of us who don’t become professional athletes — that my greatest moments came when I was still a kid.

I suppose my greatest personal accomplishment was winning the Grade 9 scoring title in the Zion Heights intramural football league early in the 1977-78 school year. In a five-game season, I scored nine touchdowns and three two-point converts for a total of 60 points. I was a tight end. We didn’t throw the ball much, and I scored most of those points running the “end around” play. Good as I was that year, our team lost the championship game, and as Richard Jacobson would constantly remind me over the years, I couldn’t block him.

Truth was, I couldn’t block anyone! I didn’t like blocking. I didn’t like getting hit either. I just wanted to run and catch. I’m sure my friend Jody Munro will remember the Zion game when I was taken down hard (pretty close to a tree along the sidelines, as I recall). I rolled over and moaned, “Now I KNOW I’m dead!”

My best hockey team. Andrew Morrison Real Estate. I missed the picture at Mitchell Field, so that’s me in the inset. The captain is Carey MacIntyre, standing in front of his dad and our coach, Andy. Ross Takahuchi is holding the white helmet. Andrew Spitzer is our goalie. My defense partner Blake is next to him with the yellow helmet.

Not surprisingly, it was touch football where I really excelled.

The team championships I won came in hockey a few years earlier. When I started playing house league hockey in grade four, I was pretty terrible. My brother David, who is two years younger, also started playing that year and wasn’t very good either. But that summer, we went to the Roger Crozier Hockey School in Barrie, Ontario, near our cottage on Lake Simcoe. It was only for a week, but we learned from some NHL players (Dale Rolfe of the Rangers and Andy Bathgate, who was retired at that point) among other instructors. Both of us improved greatly!

I’m lower middle, next to the goalie. John Romain is behind me
to the right. Richard Weait is in my row on the far right. Mostly thanks
to Facebook, I’m still in touch with them to this day!

That coming winter, I played for John Elliott Real Estate in my second year as an atom in the Willowdale Boys Club. I was now an indispensable offensive defenseman. (I remember one day, when a forward got hurt, and I volunteered to play the wing in his place, our coach said, “you play good enough offense from defense.”) I won the trophy for Most Improved Player that year, and helped my team win the league title.

The next year, I began my minor peewee season with Jerrett’s Funeral Home. (Honestly!) We started strong, but this was still house league. They liked to keep the teams well-balanced, and after a few weeks the league often made trades to keep things even. I remember getting a call from the convenor of the league saying the coach from Andrew Morrison Real Estate wanted me. It was my choice, and I agonized over it. (I think, after that year, they no longer gave kids the choice when they made trades.) I didn’t want to go, but I remember my father saying, “The coach wants you. He thinks you can help his team.”

So, I said yes.

It was a great call!

David wears the A, standing in the middle. Beside him is family friend Joel Waldman. The goalie is our cousin, Bob Freedman. (Bobby back in those days.)

Maybe the team would have improved anyway, but I helped them win the championship that year. This was a pretty strong team, led on offense by the coach’s son, Carey MacIntyre, and Ross Takahuchi. I played defense with Blake Jacobs. He was the Charlie Huddy to my Paul Coffey. (In those days, I’d have thought of myself more as Bobby Orr — although I knew I wasn’t that good!) Our goalie was Andrew Spitzer; the best in the league.

During that season with Andrew Morrison (1974-75), I had what I consider to be my own personal Team Canada story. (Andrew, if you read this, I’d love to know if you remember!)

At some point during the winter, we played an exhibition game against a team from Keswick, Ontario. Keswick was (and still is) a very small town about an hour north of Toronto. I guess we were snooty, big city kids (even though we all lived in the northern suburbs). We thought, “no way these country bumpkins are going to beat us!”

Youngest brother Jonathan was a goalie. Family friend Howard Hamat
to his left. Paul Fillman to the right. (Except for the little guy standing
at the top left, I can actually remember the names of everyone here!)

I think we played on a Sunday morning at Mitchell Field, which was an outdoor arena where our teams often practiced. The Keswick kids killed us! I think it was 7-1. I remember being outclassed and exhausted — which must have been how Team Canada felt after that stunning first game loss to the Soviets.

Some time later, we went up to Keswick for a return game. This one was played in what I remember as a pretty large indoor arena, after which we all had dinner together in a banquet room attached to the rink. I don’t remember the score of this one (it may have been 4-3), but we played so much better and we beat them by a single goal.

My personal highlight came late in the game, as we were hanging on to our one-goal lead. A Keswick player was on a breakaway. I closed in on him, and then launched myself along the ice to attempt a diving hook check. It was a play I’d pulled off before, having first seen it demonstrated in an instructional film at Roger Crozier’s.

As I reached my stick between this guy’s skates, he started to teeter off balance. I managed to hook the puck away, but I definitely remember thinking, “If he goes down, they’re going to call a penalty shot.” He didn’t — he probably should have! — and I pulled it off. The crisis was averted, and we won the game.

I didn’t score the winning goal, but I still remember that play as my Paul Henderson moment.

And those games as my own Canada-Russia series.

Memories of Team Canada

It was September of 1972. I was only eight years old — wouldn’t turn nine until late October — and in grade four at Snowcrest Public School. (That’s fourth grade, for those of you who speak American.) I started playing hockey that year too, although I wasn’t very good yet.

There’s actually quite a lot I still remember about that school year.

But nothing was bigger than the Canada-Russia series!

You can pretty much draw a straight line — well, maybe not all that straight, really — from that series in 1972 (it wasn’t called the Summit Series until some time later) to today, and what I do for a living 50 years later, and have been doing for more than 30 years. So, how could I not write about it?

That being said, I really don’t have anything new to contribute to the collective memory. Even my one bit of original insight is discussed (a little bit) in Ken Dryden’s new book, The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now.

I came to know Ken when he was president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (He has helped me, from time to time over the years, with answers to questions for some of my own projects.) We at Dan Diamond & Associates did a lot of work with the Leafs when they were moving from Maple Leafs Gardens to the Air Canada Centre (now the Scotiabank Arena) and Ken and Dan became good friends. He came to a few of our office Christmas parties and curling bonspiels.

At one of those events, I’d mentioned to Ken that I’d recently watched the entire ’72 series, which had come out on DVD around that time, and how exciting it still was! This was probably in 2002. At that point, Ken had never seen the games since having played in them 30 years before. I asked him how come he and the others who had played with the Canadian national team (the Nats) before going pro hadn’t been able to impart to their Team Canada teammates just how good the Russians really were. He basically told me, “I thought the NHL players were that much better.”

A Ken Dryden hockey card from the time period… and Ken and my brother
Jonathan at a Dan Diamond bonspiel attempting to replicate
Dryden’s famous goalie stick pose with curling brooms.

Dryden had seen the Soviet team in action for the first time when he joined the Nats for the 1969 World Championships in Sweden in March. He would face them for the first time on December 20, 1969. Dryden writes that the game was in Victoria, but it was actually in Vancouver. The Nats beat the Soviets the next night in Victoria 5-1 with Wayne Stephenson in goal, but in Vancouver on the 20th, they’d beaten Dryden and the Canadians 9-3.

“Rod Seiling,” says Dryden of his Team Canada teammate in his new book, “had played against the Russians with the national team, Red Berenson [another new teammate] with the Belleville McFarlands, and a few others against touring Russian teams as juniors. And when I said the Russians were good, I knew they were — I’d lost, 9-3, in Victoria! Some of the others might have known too. [Brian Glennie, who was with Team Canada, had played at the 1968 Olympics.] But the Russians had only been good against the national team and junior teams, few of whose players ever played a minute in the NHL. This was Team Canada. These were NHL stars, the best in the world. So, I knew, but really, I only kind of knew.”

As for me, at the age of eight … I knew nothing!

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as international hockey. Had no idea of the string of Soviet successes. I’m not 100 percent certain I actually remember the announcement that was made in April of 1972 that the series would happen, or the unveiling of the roster in June. But I certainly do remember the fuss about Bobby Hull being ineligible for the team because he’d left the NHL to sign with the World Hockey Association. And I remember all the talk of how Canada would beat the Russians in all eight games.

Dryden with the Nats facing the Russians in Vancouver,
from the Vancouver Sun, December 22, 1969.

I believed it

Why wouldn’t I?

Like I said, I knew nothing about international hockey. I’d watched the Apollo moon landings, but I really knew nothing of the Space Race either. The Russians might as well have been men from the moon as far as I knew. We played hockey in Canada. No one else did! There were plenty of American teams in the NHL … but all the players were Canadians.

Of course we’d win all eight games!

Game one was played on September 2, (a Saturday night) in Montreal. We watched in Toronto at my Zweig grandparents’ apartment. My grandfather had died at the end of August. This was still a night of sitting shiva, the weeklong mourning period in Judaism. I was at the apartment with my mother and father and my two brothers. I remember my father’s Uncle Abe being there too. I think Uncle Saul as well. (They were my grandmother’s brothers.) I’d been to my grandfather’s funeral just five days before … but the memories are completely separate.

What I remember from that night is the excitement of Canada’s two quick opening goals; Phil Esposito after just 30 seconds, and Paul Henderson’s goal six minutes later. I don’t remember when it dawned on us that the Soviets were starting to take over. I do remember it was 4-2 for them after two periods, and that the heat in Montreal was making our guys look slow, sweaty, and tired. (Did I realize how much it was the Russians making us look slow, sweaty, and tired? I don’t remember.) I do remember Bobby Clarke scoring in the third period to cut the lead to 4-3, and that it was all downhill after that until the 7-3 final.

Was I stunned?

I can’t really say that I was.

When you’re eight years old, I think you take the world as it comes.

I don’t remember anything hockey from the Sunday off day, but Monday was Labour Day so Tuesday was a school day. For that reason, I was only allowed to watch the first period of game two from Toronto on Monday night. I may have listened to more on the radio after going to bed, but I’m sure I didn’t know the final score (Canada won, 4-1) until I woke up on Tuesday morning. I don’t remember talking about it at school … although we must have! I do remember talking to my friend, Alan Rusonik, later in the week about the Soviet national anthem. We all liked that!

On September 6, I likely watched only the first period of game three from Winnipeg as well. That one ended in a 4-4 tie. What I actually do remember about that game came the next day, when a young woman who was going to Seneca College arrived at our house. She would be living in a bedroom in our basement that school year, and helping to look after my brothers and me. The first thing I remember Cheryl saying to us was, “Don’t you think they should be playing overtime in a series like this?”

I knew I was going to like her!

But, of course, that tie game would later help in the dramatic finish.

A recent real estate picture of the house at
44 Beardmore, where my cousins used to live.

Game four, in Vancouver, was played 50 years ago tonight, on September 8, which was a Friday in 1972. We watched that one at our cousin’s, the Freedman’s, house. As it wasn’t a school night, I guess we were allowed to stay up and watch it all, but I can’t say I remember too much of this one either.

I do remember the booing.

Especially when Frank Mahovlich fell on top of Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak … and took way too long to get up off him.

I must have seen Phil Esposito’s speech after the game, where he basically took Canadian fans and media to task for the boos and bad press. I’ve seen the clip many times in recent years, so it’s hard to be sure what I know and what I remember. It’s possible that I mainly remember it from pictures in the book Twenty-Seven Days in September, which came out in 1973, and which I’m sure I studied more closely than any school book I ever read.

After the Vancouver game, the series took a two-week break before it resumed in Moscow. The Canadian players had a few days off, and then travelled to Sweden for a pair of exhibition games with the Swedish national team. There was no coverage of those games here in Canada, but I do remember the bad press and the Swedes accusing the Canadians of being thugs.

Game five, the first game in Moscow, was played on September 22. Another Friday. I watched the opening ceremonies, with the exchange of gifts and flowers, while I was home for lunch. Definitely saw Espo slip and fall, then bow to the crowd. And then it was back to school.

At some point that afternoon, probably after recess, I remember just walking out of my classroom. Mr. McMinn’s class was up the hall. His kids were what we called “the slow learners.” They had a TV in their room. I suppose they used it to watch Sesame Street, or other educational programs on TVO. This afternoon, they were watching the hockey game!

I sat in the hallway, outside the door, and listened.

I can still sort of see myself, sitting there.

I don’t really remember what I heard, but I know that Canada blew a 4-1 lead in that game and lost 5-4. Still, the noisy gang of 3,000 Canadian fans in the stands cheered the team off the ice. Team Canada trailed the series 3-1-1 … but the tide was about to turn.

I don’t remember if, back in Canada, we knew what was going on in Moscow at the time. Over the years, we’ve heard about the phones ringing all night. The food (and beer) disappearing. (I feel like I knew about that at the time.) I also don’t remember any discussion of Bobby Clarke’s slash to the ankle of Valeri Kharlamov in game six. In fact, for some reason, I don’t remember much of game six at all. It was played on a Sunday afternoon, Toronto time. I remember hearing some of it in the car while running errands with my father.

I have no idea why I wasn’t at home watching.

Around the back of Snowcrest, my public school. That’s the gym on the left,
and what we called the “open area” on the right. The upper windows
at the back were my classroom in grades five and six.
I was pacing this pavement anxiously at recess during game eight.

Radio would play a big part in my following game seven on Tuesday afternoon. Once again, I watched the early part of the game on TV at lunchtime, but this time I brought a transistor radio to school with me. I remember listening to it while walking in the school yard. Might still have been lunch time, but definitely at recess later.

It was 2-2 after two periods … and Canada needed to win this game to have a chance to win the series in game eight. Back at my desk in our classroom, I turned the radio down, but I didn’t turn it off. Our teacher, Ms. Tadman (the first Ms. I ever knew) didn’t seem like a hockey fan (I remember her as a terrible skater), but she said something to me along the lines of, “if you’ve got a radio, turn it up so we can all hear.” Which I did … and we listened to Canada score a 4-3 victory. The series was tied 3-3-1.

Two days later, for the eighth and final game, Ms. Tadman brought a TV into our classroom!

Again, I don’t really know what I remember because I saw it that afternoon or what I remember because I know it happened. There were all the bad penalty calls early in the game. There was J.P. Parise nearly swinging his stick at the referee. Later, there was the goal judge failing to turn on the light to signal a Canadian goal, and the players skating across the ice to rescue Alan Eagleson from the Soviet police after he’d protested.

As for the score, it was 2-2 after one period, but it was 5-3 Russia after two.

One of the things I remember for certain was that, when it was time for recess, the school made us go out and play. Normally, recess was my favourite part of the day, but that day, I wanted to stay inside and watch the game! I guess because we’d have the TV in our classroom, I hadn’t brought my radio this time so it was 15 minutes of pacing outside and waiting to get back in!

Prudential Insurance Great Moments painting of the Paul Henderson
goal along with Henderson’s Team Canada hockey card.

I don’t know for sure, but I think I saw the early third-period goal by Phil Esposito that cut the lead to 5-4, and I’m certain I saw the later goal from Yvan Cournoyer that tied it 5-5. But another thing I remember for sure is that when our school day ended at 3:10, the game wasn’t over yet.

Ms. Tadman didn’t make us leave this time … but I know that plenty of kids left anyway!

Were they crazy!?!

Of course, I stayed. And I saw Paul Henderson’s goal with 34 seconds left.

I watched Canada hold on for the 6-5 victory.

I remember throwing things into the air.

I can’t honestly say if that was after the goal, or after the game ended.

Maybe it was both times.

But it doesn’t matter.

Clearly, after 50 years, I can’t remember it all … but I’ll still never forget it!

Childhood Sports Heroes…

Joe Theismann hobbled towards me on crutches, his right ankle encased in a cast to protect a broken bone. I, too, was in a cast. Mine went from the tips of the fingers on my right hand all the way up to my shoulder. I’d broken both bones in my wrist around the same time Theismann had broken his ankle. My dad and I had made our way down to the sidelines as the players came onto the field. I was too shy, but my dad called out, “Joe, would you sign my son’s cast?”

As he made his way over to me, Theismann said, “Signing casts isn’t exactly my bag.” But he was smiling when he said it. And he signed it for me. He didn’t ask me to sign his.

I know what some of you are thinking. Who in their right mind would ask Joe Theismann to sign his cast so soon after that injury?

But this wasn’t the gruesome, career-ending broken ankle of Monday Night Football fame from November 18, 1985. What Theismann said to me is a pretty good clue that we were in an earlier era. This all happened shortly after Joe’s Toronto Argonauts season-altering broken ankle of August 3, 1972.

He signed my cast before the next Argos home game on August 16 — 50 years ago tonight.

Before the Blue Jays, the Zweigs were a football family. David and I were really into it. Jonathan, not so much. (He was the all-time hupper!) The picture on the right is the three of us at Centennial Park in Barrie. Later that night, I fell out of the top bunk in our bedroom at the cottage and broke my wrist. Not sure of the exact date.

I kept that cast for the better part of 20 years, until it all but crumbled to dust.

I always say baseball is my favourite sport. And hockey is the sport that has been the main part of my professional life for almost 30 years. But football was my first sports love, and Joe Theismann was my first sports hero. He led Toronto to a 10-4 record and the East Division championship as a rookie in 1971 — before a crushing defeat by the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup. I’d seen my first Argos game in person earlier that season, and was hooked on football!

Not the best picture of me, but there I am wearing my Joe Theismann Argos jersey with David and Jonathan and our cousin Bob (Bobby back then).

It’s just a coincidence about the 50 years, but I’ve been thinking about that night a lot lately. Last month, on the same night we had the local launch party for my new hockey book, Engraved in History: The Story of the Stanley Cup Champion Kenora Thistles, I spent almost the entire day prior to that (7:35 am to 4:55 pm) doing 17 different phone and zoom interviews for my other current book, It’s a Numbers Game! Football, published by National Geographic Kids. (I did an 18th interview the following week.)

There are some football books in my “canon.”

I’ve never done that much promotion for anything before. It was fun … but it was exhausting. I’d written about me and Joe Theismann in a brief biography the NGK publicity people put together for the day … and practically everyone I spoke to asked me about it! If you care to watch, you can see me telling the story in the first few minutes of my interview on The Douglas Coleman Show, a syndicated talk and music show/podcast.

These two books, by my first sports heroes, were like my bible!

Theismann spent just three years in Toronto through 1973 before signing with Washington and jumping to the NFL. Interestingly, 1973 was the same year that Borje Salming signed with the Maple Leafs and entered the NHL from Sweden. I suppose it’s because Theismann spent only those three seasons with the Argos (when I was seven-to-10-years-old) that I associate his time in Toronto with my childhood. Salming was with the Leafs for 16 seasons until 1989 (when I was 25) and has, really, been associated with the city ever since.

You may have heard the announcement last week that Salming has been diagnosed with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Though there are better treatments now, there is still no cure for ALS. It’s a horrible disease … and it’s horrible news.

Sports cards from the early 1970s.

I have no personal connection to Salming, other than having watched and admired him for years. Before he came to Toronto, goalie Jacques Plante was my first favourite Leaf. (He was with the team from 1970 to 1973.) After that, I could never settle on just one. I was a big fan of Darryl Sittler, Mike Palmateer, and many of those mid-to-late ’70s Leafs. Still, Salming — with his unique brand of toughness in an era of goons — was always something special.

I recently asked my brother David what his first memory of Salming was.

It was exactly the same as mine.

My brother David, and his friend Melina, with Borje Salming back in 2016.

We were at our family cottage late in the summer of 1973. (It was just a year after my broken arm. We were seven and nine years old.) David was looking at a newspaper story with the Maple Leafs roster, probably for training camp. There were names he recognized from the past season, and new players he hadn’t heard of yet. Two of the new names were strange, and he read them out loud to me: Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom.

Our family was a Toronto Star family, and I figured it would be easy to track down the article in an online search. It must have been August, or the Labour Day weekend at the very latest.

But I couldn’t find it.

Strange.

Good luck to Borje and his family. It’ll be a tough battle. But few people are tougher than he is.

Hockey In July

If you’re a regular follower of my posts, I hope that I’ve convinced you by now that there’s something fun and fascinating in the old-time history of hockey. I know it’s probably still not for everyone, but I’m very proud of my new book Engraved in History: The Story of the Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles. I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done.

As I’ve said in previous posts, the book won’t go into wide release until the fall (in time for the new hockey season), but it’s available now at outlets in Kenora and to people anywhere online. (More on that in a minute.) It’s also for sale in my hometown of Owen Sound, and we’re having a local launch party here for the book next week, on Thursday, July 28 at 7 pm at The Ginger Press Bookstore and Cafe. If you’re in town — or can get here — we’d love to see you!

Otherwise, you can purchase copies at: ratportagepress.com. Click on the book cover when you get there and then follow the prompts. If you prefer to support an independent bookseller, Elizabeth Campbell Books/Darlington Gallery in Kenora has copies for sale too. Go to the Contact page on Elizabeth’s darlinggal web site, where you’ll find a phone number you can call, or a comments section you can fill out.

In Kenora, publisher Rick Brignall has copies for sale, along with issues of his Lake of the Woods Cottage Guide magazine, at Matiowski Farmers’ Market all summer long. Books are also available at the Lake of the Woods Museum and at a few other sites in Kenora.

Click on the image to enlarge.

We haven’t really sent out review copies yet, but my friend Stan Fischler has already jumped aboard with some kind words in a couple of his recent online columns for The Hockey News.

Click on the image to enlarge.

I’ve also taped some interviews to promote the local launch. The Smitty and Middy Show is hosted by Noah Smith and Tyler Middleton. It appears on various radio and cable television stations in southwestern Ontario, and also as an online podcast. If you’d like to listen, their interview with me is here. They introduce me at the 8:10 mark and I’m on from 8:30 to 34:50. (It’s pretty long, so you’re excused if you don’t listen to it all!)

Engraved in History on the wall of the Smitty and Middy set.

My other recent interview is with Fred Wallace of CFOS Radio in Owen Sound. It’s only five minutes long, so give this one a try if the other is too long for you.

And, does anyone remember the story I posted a few years back about the man who kicked a 65-yard field goal in 1882? Well, that story didn’t actually make the final cut, but the football book I did for National Geographic Kids is finally about to come out. You can order this one from Amazon right now … but if you’re at the book launch at The Ginger Press next week, we’ll have a few copies on hand as well.

And, no. I didn’t get to meet Patrick Mahomes. But he wrote a really great foreword.

Buck’s Battle Has Me Feeling Blue…

The announcement on Sunday that Buck Martinez will be stepping away from Blue Jays broadcasts for a while to seek treatment for cancer has me feeling sad and nostalgic. Nostalgic is certainly not a new feeling for me. I like history; I write about history; and I’m lucky to have had a very happy childhood to recall. Yes, I like to look back … even to the sad things that have happened in my life.

My grandfather (my father’s father) died 50 years ago this summer. For my brothers and me, now all in our mid 50s, that is almost an entire lifetime ago. Even I, as the oldest, have very few memories of him … and the things I do remember, I don’t really know if I actually remember, or just know the stories from years of re-telling them.

From what I heard from my father in later years, his parents weren’t great parents. I think they were much more in love with each other than with the idea of raising children. My father, and his sister (my Aunt Monica) certainly weren’t neglected, or abused, or anything awful. I just think they weren’t surrounded by the same obvious love my brothers and I (and I hope my cousins) were. I remember my father telling me once that the only time his father had said he was proud of him was when I was born. I’m not sure that was much of an accomplishment on my father’s part! But like many men of an older generations who weren’t great fathers, my grandfather was a very good grandfather.

Me in my days on the Blue Jays ground crew during Buck’s time playing in Toronto.

In the few short years he had with us, Poppa Moe spent lots of time with us. I remember going to a movie with him. (The Gnome-mobile. I was probably only four years old. I don’t remember anything about the plot, but I can still hear parts of the song in my head.) I know he took David and Jonathan to Toronto Marlies hockey games. (Don’t remember why I didn’t go.) And I remember the delight he took when we were riding in his car and Jonathan, who was probably only about three or four years old, would see a sign for an Esso gas station and spell out the letters forwards and backwards.

“E-S-S-O.”

“O-S-S-E!”

I certainly remember meals with Poppa Moe and Nanny Betty at Smitty’s Pancake House in Yorkdale Mall. Poppa Moe used to say to us, “I can’t say pancakes. I can only say pwancakes.”

And we’d always shriek back, “You just said it!”

He’d say, “No. I didn’t say pancakes. I can only say pwancakes.”

“You just said it!” we’d shriek again.

I’m pretty sure the last time I saw him — at least the last memory I have of seeing him — was at Smitty’s. It would have been 50 years ago next month, probably in mid-to-late May of 1972.

David and Poppa Moe had made a bet on the 1972 Stanley Cup Final. David picked the Boston Bruins over the New York Rangers. I seem to have a memory of watching one of the games in that series at my grandparents’ house on Glen Cedar Road near Bathurst and Eglinton … though that might be incorrect, because they were certainly living in an apartment on Walmer Road (near St. Clair and Spadina) by that summer.

Anyway, the Bruins won the Cup and David won the bet.

The prize?

One dollar!

Over dinner at Smitty’s after the series (which ended on May 11, a Thursday, so perhaps as soon as that coming weekend though maybe not until later in the month), I remember Poppa Moe asking David how he’d like to be paid. Did he want a dollar bill, or four quarters … or a bag of pennies that might have more than 100 pennies in it? David chose the bag of pennies, and Poppa Moe handed it over.

I’m sure we counted it, though perhaps not until we got home.

I don’t remember how many pennies were actually in it.

And that was, I’m pretty sure, the last time I saw him.

Soon after that, Poppa Moe was diagnosed with cancer. I used to think it was liver cancer, but it may have been lung cancer. (He was certainly a smoker.) Whichever it was, he’d probably been sick for a while already. He didn’t last long; dying on August 26, 1972. I guess, as young kids, we were spared the sight of seeing him sick.

Four generations of Zweig men circa 1964. (That’s me, The Little Prince, sitting on the table.) On the right side, the little guy in the cap is my father, seated beside my grandfather and his sister, my Aunt Monica. The guy standing at the back is family friend Louis Rosenberg. (This picture may have been taken at Maple Leaf Stadium.)

During that summer, I remember my father taking me to dinner at my grandparents’ new apartment. Nanny broiled steaks … which my father would later say was one of the few things she ever actually cooked. As I remember it, we were on our way to a Toronto Argonauts football game. (Having just checked the schedule online, I see that the Argos played their first two home games that summer on August 3 and August 16, so I’d guess August 3 … though perhaps it was in July and not actually before a football game.) I remember Nanny serving the steaks to us at the small kitchen table. Poppa Moe wasn’t there. He was in the bed room. Resting. (Dying.)

I wasn’t taken in to see him. Or if I was, I don’t remember it. My last memory of him is from the payoff dinner at Smitty’s … but maybe I just choose to remember that because it’s a nicer story.

My grandfather was a big sports fan. And that trait was certainly passed down to my father, and then to me and my brothers. (There are plenty of sports fans on my mother’s side too, so we come by it honestly!) Poppa Moe and my dad went to Argos games, and then my dad took us. Football, and the Argos, were my favourite, until the Blue Jays and baseball took over. I was on the Blue Jays ground crew from 1981 through 1985. Those were my last two years of high school and three years of university, and the “worst-to-first” years in Blue Jays history.

Buck Martinez was traded to Toronto on May 10, 1981, and got into his first game the following night. Once Bobby Cox arrived as manager in 1982, Buck became a big part of his platoon plans at catcher with Ernie Whitt and the Blue Jays finally got good!

Though Dan Diamond and Associates was mostly a hockey publisher, working on the Blue Jays 25th anniversary book was definitely my favourite project! This picture of Buck Martinez calling out Bill Caudill is one I particularly like.

Buck had two great moments during the first pennant-winning season of 1985. The first came on June 6 against the Detroit Tigers. Ernie Whitt actually caught most of that game, as Jimmy Key took a perfect game into the sixth inning, and a no-hitter into the ninth. Key wound up going 10 shutouts innings of two-hit ball. Buck came on in the 11th inning after Manny Lee ran for Whitt. He caught Gary Lavelle in the top of the 11th and Jim Acker in the 12th. In the bottom of the 12th, Buck got his first at-bat of the game with one out and George Bell on first base. He was hitting just .134 at the time, and fell behind 1-and-2 in the count before taking Aurelio Lopez (Señor Smoke) deep for a two-run homer that won the game 2-0. It was a huge, confidence-boosting victory over the 1984 World Series champs!

Five weeks later, on July 9, 1985, in Seattle, Buck was involved in one of the most remarkable defensive plays in Blue Jays history. With one out in the bottom of the third, he tagged out Phil Bradley at the plate after a Jesse Barfield throw despite the fact that the collision with Bradley tore the tendons in his right ankle and broke his leg. Dazed, Buck threw the ball away trying to make a play at third base, but was still alert enough to take a return throw and tag out Gorman Thomas at the plate to complete the first and only 9-2-7-2 double play in Blue Jays history. (If you’ve never seen it, click here!)

Buck missed the rest of the season after that injury, but managed to return for a final year in 1986 before retiring to the broadcast booth. I like to think I had a small part in his post-playing career, as I read lines with him once after a game while he was preparing to tape a radio commercial with Blue Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek. (Buck doesn’t remember it. I asked him about it once, a few years ago, at a Blue Jays season ticket holder event.)

It’s going to be an even tougher battle this time, but here’s wishing Buck Martinez all the best for another remarkable comeback.

The Leafs in Owen Sound

Well, Hockey Day in Canada was supposed to be broadcast from Owen Sound 10 days from today on Saturday, January 29. Events were scheduled all around town from Tuesday to Friday leading up to it. Unfortunately, word came down two weeks ago that amid new provincial restrictions and a worsening surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations, it’s all been postponed until 2023. The day-long marathon broadcast will continue, but not from here.

I had provided research for the Owen Sound broadcast, about the city of Owen Sound and its hockey history for Hockey Day. I prepared notes on players from Owen Sound and its teams specific to the games to be broadcast, as well as general notes about events from the past, and local historians who might be able to speak to them.

There are several stories I would have loved to post on my web site, but I didn’t want to jump the gun on anything Rogers might choose to broadcast. Many will hold over until next year. Still, I’m posting this one now because, although it may well be something Rogers will still cover, there’s no way they’ll go into the quirky personal connection I have with this story.

When Rogers finally comes to Owen Sound for Hockey Day in Canada, it will probably be the biggest hockey circus to hit town since the fall of 1944 when the Toronto Maple Leafs held training camp here at the Civic Auditorium-Arena. (The Leafs would train in Owen Sound again in 1945.) I have long wondered how much the fact that Hap Day was from Owen Sound played a part in that decision. Day had been the Leafs’ captain from 1927 to 1937, and the coach since 1940. His Owen Sound roots couldn’t have hurt, but it was the mayor of the city who’d done the leg work to bring the Leafs here.

Talk of Toronto holding training camp in Owen Sound in 1944 had been rumoured around town since that spring, when Day and Leafs assistant general manager Frank Selke were the headline speakers at the local arena for a banquet held by the Owen Sound Hockey League on May 31, 1944. Mayor W. Garfield Case presided over the banquet, and after it was announced at a committee meeting of the City Council on September 8 that the Maple Leafs were coming to town, the Sun-Times newspaper reported the following day that Case “has been conducting negotiations with Maple Leafs management for some time regarding the team coming here to practice.”

These pictures of Hap Day and his “Kid Line” teammates hung on our walls in the Webster-Case House. Now I wonder if Hap Day might have really been there!

That’s where my connection to the story comes in.

When we moved to Owen Sound in the fall of 2006, we moved into the Webster-Case House, previously owned by former Owen Sound mayors William Webster and Garfield Case.

Wilfrid Garfield Case was mayor of Owen Sound from 1942 to 1944. In 1945, he defeated Canada’s Defense Minister, General Andrew McNaughton, in a bye-election called specifically to give McNaughton a seat in the House of Commons. McNaughton had been parachuted in by the Liberals, but was opposed by Case of the Progressive Conservatives, who campaigned on the slogan “Send a Grey North man to Ottawa, not an Ottawa man to Grey North” and whose pro-Conscription position carried the day over the Liberals and Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily Conscription” view. Campaign meetings were held in Case’s home. Our home.

Case was born on September 23, 1898, and enlisted in the Canadian army during World War I. He later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, but was discharged after being seriously wounded. He served Grey North as its Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1949, and was defeated again in the election of 1953.

Later, in July of 1959, Garfield Case was admitted to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto for psychiatric treatment. I remember someone telling us that Case had killed himself in a store in downtown Owen Sound. Turns out, that’s not true. He was actually found dead on September 22, 1959, in the chapel at Sunnybrook Hospital … though he had killed himself.

A neighbour told us that Case haunted our house, but that he was a friendly spirit.

A couple of people even told us they had seen the ghost.

We never had any spooky experiences!

But getting back to the Maple Leafs… when the announcement of their coming to Owen Sound was made at the City Council meeting, Alderman Jean Honsinger had suggested that “perhaps it will bring them a change of luck.” After all, the Maple Leafs had experienced two straight first-round playoff defeats since last winning the Stanley Cup … all the way back in 1942!

Most of the team arrived in Owen Sound by train from Toronto on the afternoon of October 10, 1944. Others would trickle in over the next few days. The players were put up in a couple of hotels around town, had access to a local gym, held practice in the Arena, and played golf on a local course. Coach Day, trainer Tim Daly, star player Babe Pratt and a few others took part in a radio broadcast on CFOS on Friday night, October 20 from the Paterson House hotel, where most of the team was staying. During their two weeks in Owen Sound, the presence of Toronto’s NHL stars gave the Sun-Times something else to report on other than the War news that filled almost every other page.

The Leafs played just one preseason game in Owen Sound on October 23, 1944. It was an inter-squad game featuring a Blue team against White. The Blues won the game before an overflow crowd while a storm raged outside. “From the windows could be seen flashes of brilliant lightning,” the Sun-Times reported the following day, “and during lulls in the cheering could be heard peals of thunder and the sound of [heavy rain] pouring on the roof.”

The Leaf packed up on October 24, moving to St. Catharines, where they played another Blue and White game that night before kicking off the season against the New York Rangers at Maple Leaf Gardens on October 28. “Well, the Maple Leaf hockeyists are gone,” wrote Joe O’Neill in a Casual Comment on Sport column in the Sun-Times on October 25, “and the fans in particular feel just a bit lonesome.”

During the time the Leafs had been in Owen Sound, “all of them from the coach to the least rookie, whenever one met them, proved themselves gentlemen of the highest type. They made for themselves a warm spot in the estimation of the people of this city and they will always be welcome…. Fans will follow their battles in the hockey wars with greater interest now that they have come into contact with them and know them.”

The biggest stories out of the Owen Sound camp were the appearance of the three Chin brothers from a Chinese family in nearby Lucknow, and the emergence of goalie Frank McCool. (With Turk Broda in the Army, the Leafs had stuggled to get decent goaltending the previous season.) McCool had played hockey with the Currie Army team in his hometown of Calgary in 1942-43 until ulcers forced his discharge from the Forces, and had sat out the 1943–44 season when the Rangers were scared off by his stomach troubles. He made his NHL debut with Toronto in the season opener in 1944 one day after his 26th birthday. McCool went on to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1944–45 and, guzzling buttermilk to calm his ulcers during the Stanley Cup Final, led the Maple Leafs to that long-awaited NHL championship.

Photo courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.

“If I were to single any one for individual praise I would have to say that of all the team, McCool has come farthest since Owen Sound,” said Hap Day after the Leafs’ seventh-game victory over the Red Wings on April 22, 1945. “At Detroit last night when it was all over McCool came up to me and said, ‘Thanks, coach, for sticking with me.’ I think of all the boys, he got the greatest kick out of achieving Stanley Cup eminence in his rookie year.”

For Frank McCool, the end of the 1945 Stanley Cup Final was the end of his Cinderella story. He was slow to come to terms the next season (holding out for a $5,000 contract) and lost his Leafs job when Turk Broda returned from the army late in the schedule. McCool’s name would pop up in rumours for the next few years, but he never played hockey again. He returned to Calgary, where he would work for the Albertan newspaper and serve on many city boards for the rest of his life. McCool was only 54 years old when he passed away on May 20, 1973. His stomach cancer was said to have been related to his lifelong battle with ulcers.

Renfrew’s Thousandaires

I’ll admit that I was pleased with myself when I found that Merry Christmas/Happy New Year clipping I used in my year-end Holiday story three weeks ago. I’d found similar (ish) clippings to use for holiday stories in 2017 and 2019, but this one was fun because of the personal connections…

Similar to what I said in a story I posted about Lester Patrick last summer, any chance to poke around in the history of the Renfrew Millionaires is always fun for me because they were the team featured in my first book, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada. Really, so much of whatever I have accomplished/become in my “career” since that book came out in 1992 is attributable to the Millionaires. Probably no one since Bill O’Brien some 80 to 100 years ago has owed as much as I do to that legendary Renfrew team. (No idea who Bill O’Brien is? Check out the note and the end of this story.)

And, really, how can you ever go wrong with Sprague and Odie Cleghorn?

A mug from my brother Jonathan on the publication of my first book. He also cropped my early 1990s head onto the image of a 1909-10 Newsy Lalonde hockey card. (It’s not his fault no one on an old hockey card would have smiled like that!)

I’m sure I’d have hated them as hockey players. I’ve never been a big fan of the violence in the game, and they — especially Sprague — may have been the dirtiest players ever. Still, their names are just so much fun to say! My cat, Odie, was even named after the younger of the two Cleghorn brothers.

As it happens, I have a story about Sprague and Odie Cleghorn in the 2021 Hockey Research Journal of the Society for International Research which recently became available to members online. It’s about their season playing hockey in New York City during the winter of 1909-10. The brothers were from Montreal, but even Canada’s largest city was no match for The Big Apple, and the Cleghorns lived large once they got to Broadway! By season’s end, New York newspapers would accuse them of having too much fun to bother with practice and — although Odie led the league in scoring — blamed their lack of conditioning for their fondness for on-ice mayhem.

For his part, Sprague wasn’t impressed by the calibre of hockey played in America’s largest city, and, a year later, the brothers had no plans to play there again. So they had been receptive when George Martel of the Millionaires came to Montreal to woo them for the 1910-11 season.

From the first installment of his four-part Maclean’s feature; November 15, 1934.

“There couldn’t have been a bigger contrast in a world cruise than New York the winter before and Renfrew that winter,” Sprague would say in Maclean’s magazine on December 1, 1934, in the second of a four-part series on his life, “but once we settled down we liked the place.”

That had not been his first impression!

After signing their contracts in late December of 1910, Odie reported directly to Renfrew. Sprague “wanted a final whirl at Broadway, and … took the few dimes I had saved during the summer and spent them strutting my stuff among my New York friends.

“It was a bitter cold night … when I dropped off the train at Renfrew. I was wearing a light overcoat. Odie met me, peeking out over the top of a bale of sweaters…. I shivered and looked around. There was nothing to see but darkness.

“‘Good gosh!’ I said. ‘What is this?’

“My brother has a mean sense of humour. ‘This,’ he told me, ‘is Renfrew.’

“We walked out of the station to the cutter which Odie had borrowed…. I couldn’t see a house in sight, and I had just left Broadway and my ears were beginning to nip.

“‘I don’t think we’re going to like it here,’ I said.

“For twelve hundred dollars, we gotta like it,’ my brother told me.”

Hockey cards from the winter of 1910-11. (I have replicas of this set.)

Sprague makes it clear that he and Odie were paid $1,200 apiece for the three months that constituted the 1910-11 hockey season. At a time when a working man might only earn half that amount for an entire year, this was a lot of money. It was a lot for a hockey player that season too, given that, after team owners had spent so freely the previous winter, the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) had imposed a salary cap of $5,000 per team (!!!) for 1910–11.

For comparison’s sake, it has long been said that the Renfrew Millionaires had spent $5,000 or more just to lure Cyclone Taylor to town from the Stanley Cup champion Ottawa Senators for the 1909–10 season. Sprague Cleghorn certainly though it was true. The thing that he liked most about Renfrew, he said, was that, “the men behind the club believed that money was for spending – and they spent it.”

“The story,” wrote Sprague, “is that M.J. O’Brien [no relation to Bill O’Brien], paid $5,000 for Cyclone Taylor’s jump from Ottawa. I never saw the documents, but if Renfrew wanted Taylor and Taylor wanted $5,000, that is what was paid.” In his own MacLean’s profile a few years earlier in 1931, Bill O’Brien had also stated that Taylor signed in Renfrew for $5,000.

But had he?

It seems to be well-recorded in hockey history that Renfrew paid Lester Patrick $3,000 for the 1909-10 season. It was more money, he would write, than he thought possible for playing hockey. Though some stories would say that his brother Frank received $3,000 as well, Lester wrote that his younger sibling received only $2,000.

I bought these two original 1909-10 hockey cards back in 1992 because of
their connection to my first book, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.

Interestingly, the Renfrew Mercury of March 25, 1910, quotes an Ottawa story dated March 19 about how “all the members of the millionaire septet were paid off” before the team made a postseason trip to New York. Claiming the total salaries paid came to $18,000, the paper noted: “Lester Patrick was the highest paid player of the team, he drawing $2,700 and expenses… Frank Patrick and Fred Taylor got $2,000 apiece.”

So what had Taylor actually been paid?

Renfrew’s negotiations for Cyclone Taylor (and many other players) made news in papers all across Canada in December of 1909. It wasn’t very different from the stories about free agents in sports we see today. In its December 4 issue, the Montreal Gazette reported that Taylor had been offered the captaincy in Renfrew (which would go to Lester Patrick, who signed with the team and reported to town sooner than Taylor) and a contract for $2,000 plus an off-ice job valued at $1,200.

Two weeks later, on December 18, the Montreal Star joked that, “At the rate of $3,000 per [player], Renfrew must be glad that there are only seven men on a hockey team.” Yet the reports that day that Taylor had agreed to terms would prove false. When he finally did sign with Renfrew, it rated front-page news in Ottawa on December 29, 1909, in both the Citizen and the Journal. But neither paper reported on the value of the contract. Strangely, the Edmonton Journal of December 30 (with a story datelined from Ottawa the previous day), did.

“After several weeks of persistent dickering with Taylor, the Renfrew promotors landed him. Taylor left last night for Renfrew, where he will play this season. His salary is said to be even better than the famous Lester Patrick. Taylor will receive $3,000 for his hockey salary and a steady position at $1,200 per year.”

Front-page stories from the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal
surround the newsier report from the Edmonton Journal the following day.

If that was true, then were does the talk of $5,000 come from?

The earliest reference I have found is in the Winnipeg Tribune from April 16, 1913. Taylor had just spent the 1912-13 season playing in Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association (which they had formed in 1911–12) as a member of Frank’s Vancouver Millionaires. In a story (once again datelined from Ottawa the previous day) reporting that Taylor had decided to stay in Vancouver, it was noted that after winning the Stanley Cup in Ottawa in 1909, the Cyclone “was carried off by Renfrew” the following season “at a record breaking salary” said to be “$5,000 for two years service as a member of the Renfrew team.”

That would be only $2,500 per year … but a story on December 15, 1913, in the Brantford Expositor of all places, tells things very differently. A column headlined SPORTING COMMENT and written by someone identified as DOPESTER, reads:

“It is said that Cyclone Taylor got … $11,000 from the Renfrew hockey club during the two seasons he remained with them. A hockey fan who was on the inside in those days tells how Cyc worked the trick…. [He] was offered a contract for $3,000 by the creamery town and accepted; that is ancient history. For the next season the Ottawas were after him hot foot and the Renfrew bunch had to add a job, guaranteed to bring the Cyclone $5,000 a year. Taylor had the money deposited to his credit in a certain bank with the stipulation that he get it if the job was not forthcoming. Certain members of the Ottawa hockey club got busy and blocked the job part of the contract and the Cyclone, although he had a hard time, managed to collect his $5,000 from the bank. This is the way the story goes. Whether it is true or not only the Renfrew executive, Fred Taylor, and a couple of the Ottawa executive men know, and they probably wouldn’t tell.”

So, which story is true? Did Taylor make $2,500 a year for two years in Renfrew to reach the $5,000? Did he have a one-year contract for $3,000 plus a job paying him $1,200 for a total of only $4,200? Or did he actually make $3,000 per year for his two years in Renfrew, plus another $5,000 for the job he didn’t get?

It’s pretty much impossible to tell!

And what of the stories I haven’t even mentioned yet? That Taylor actually earned $5,250 during his first season in Renfrew in 1909–10? Where do those stories come from?

It appears those stories began in columns by Eric Whitehead in the Vancouver Province in the mid 1950s. Whitehead knew Taylor, and would write Cyclone Taylor: a Hockey Legend with him in 1977. In that biography/autobiography, Whitehead writes of the $3,000 contract offers “plus a soft job at $1,200 a year,” but states emphatically that Taylor signed for the sum of $5,250 which was deposited directly into his bank account before the start of play. Taylor told Whitehead that a friend, Jack McGinnis, did his negotiating and came up with the number, “although I don’t recall how he arrived at that particular figure.” Taylor also says that, “if I’d held out, I could have got a lot more money. They would have paid almost anything to get me, and they said so.”

Back in 1959, on a visit to his hometown of Tara, Ontario, not far from Owen Sound, Taylor spoke about his $5,250 contract for the 1909-10 season. Pictures of him appear on the front page of The Owen Sound Sun-Times on February 24, 1959, and in a story on page three, Taylor “ruefully admits his salary for succeeding seasons dropped considerably.”

The earliest reference to Cyclone Taylor being paid $5,250 that I could find for this story came from Eric Whitehead’s column in the Vancouver Province on April 23, 1953.

It has seemed to me over the years that Taylor (or maybe Eric Whitehead) didn’t always get his stories right … but that much, at least, is true! Taylor never got that kind of money for playing hockey ever again.

When talk of the new salary cap dominated Canadian sports pages in November and December of 1910, much was made of what Renfrew would do. Having spent those $18,000 for an exciting team that had still finished behind Ottawa and the Montreal Wanderers in the race for the Stanley Cup, what kind of team would they have now for just $5,000? Neither Frank nor Lester Patrick would return, nor would other future Hall of Famers Newsy Lalonde and Fred Whitcroft. Taylor, it was said then, was still under contract from the previous season that called for him to be paid $1,800 this year.

Where does that number come from?

I’m not sure!

Still, assuming that Cyclone Taylor was paid $1,800 by Renfrew for the 1910-11 season, and that Sprague and Odie Cleghorn earned $1,200 a piece, that’s $4,200 of the $5,000 salary cap for just three players. In this era of 60-minute men, Renfrew really only needed seven regular players, but they employed 13 in all that season.

Did they pay 10 other men just $800 in total?

Probably not.

There are plenty of stories from the 1911-12 season saying that while the salary cap was still on the books, teams would likely ignore it as they had done in 1910-11. So Renfrew might have spent more. But there were also plenty of stories back in the fall of 1910 saying that a few of the Renfrew veterans (Larry Gilmour, Bobby Rowe, Herb Jordan and Bert Lindsay – the father of Ted Lindsay) were willing to stick around again for other considerations … which were likely offers of better off-ice employment in town.

Sort of puts a different twist on the “hometown discount” we hear about in sports these days, doesn’t it…

And as for Bill O’Brien, mentioned at the beginning of this story … he was a longtime sports trainer who worked for years with the Montreal Maroons and Montreal Canadiens in hockey, the Montreal Royals in baseball, and even a season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, between 1924 and his death at the age of 58 in 1944. Born in Papineauville, Quebec, in 1886, he arrived in Renfrew with his railway contractor father in the early 1900s. Around 1904 (although he says it was when he was 16 years old, so maybe 1902 if his birth year is correct), he became the trainer of the Renfrew team in the Ottawa Valley league. After spending the 1909-10 and 1910-11 seasons working with the Millionaires, he then worked for teams in Ottawa and around the Ottawa Valley for a couple of years before winding up in Montreal during World War I. He trained hockey and soccer teams for the companies he worked with until joining the Maroons when they entered the NHL in 1924. But, like me, it all started for O’Brien with Renfrew.

(P.S. Bill O’Brien was also the father of sportswriter Andy O’Brien, who was born in Renfrew.)

Happy (Hockey) Holidays!

Late in December, the Cleghorn brothers did sign with Renfrew for the 1910-11 season of the National Hockey Association. Reportedly (according to Sprague Cleghorn in 1934), for $1,200 apiece. So, if it wasn’t a Merry Christmas, it was a Happy New Year.

Despite everything that’s going on again (still?), I hope you get/got everything you really need this holiday season. All the best to everyone in 2022, and thanks for reading these posts again this year.

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.

…it Happens

Though I’ve mostly enjoyed it (and managed to do pretty well for myself), writing books can be a very strange way to try and make a living. Remember how I was supposed to have two new books coming out this fall? (I’ve mentioned it here a time or two, I believe!) Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories and Engraved in History about the 1907 Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles. Remember those? Well, both books have now been postponed.

As Forrest Gump said while he was running across America (supposedly inspiring a somewhat ruder version on a bumper sticker), “…it Happens.”

The Kenora book was actually a tactical decision, and it’ll be just a short delay. With so many other hockey books due out this fall (as always), including new books about the Dawson City Stanley Cup challenge of 1905, and the history of pro hockey in Victoria from 1911 to 1926, publisher Rick Brignall thought it best to try and avoid this book getting lost in the crowd.

Obviously, this book is something of a niche interest, and the people in Kenora and Winnipeg and the scattering of really old-time hockey fans elsewhere who’ll (hopefully!) want to buy it will buy it whenever it comes out. So, it’s being pushed into late January of 2022, which will coincide with the 115th anniversary of Kenora’s Stanley Cup victory. But hey, if you were counting on Engraved in History as a present for the holidays, it is hoped it will be available for pre-order in November.

I’ll keep you posted.

As for True Stories … with the job shortages and interruption in the “chain of production” we keep hearing about in this not-quite-yet-post-COVID world, even though we met all of the deadlines on a very tight timeline, once the manuscript was sent to the printers, they told Firefly Books there was no way they could have it ready for November of 2021, and likely not until at least late January of 2022. Since this book was very much conceived as a gift book for your father/brother/uncle/grandpa at Christmas or Hanukkah, Firefly decided to hold it back until the fall of 2022.

It’s hardly the life-and-death issue so many other people have faced around the world for the past 18 months, so for someone who’s basically felt like he’s breezed through most of this Pandemic, it’s pretty hard to complain.

Besides, what can you do?

Even without COVID, publishing can be a strange industry. Remember, two years ago, when I wrote about J.T. Haxall kicking a 65-yard field goal back in 1882? At the time, I mentioned that I’d come across the story while working on a football book for National Geographic Kids. That book (It’s a Numbers Game! Football) was originally supposed to be published in the fall of 2020. Well, long before that — and completely unrelated to COVID — I was told that due to corporate restructuring at National Geographic, it was being bumped all the way to the spring of 2022!

So, over the past two years, this book has come back to me twice for updates from the 2019 and 2020 football seasons. Just yesterday it was returned to me one final time for my last notes and comments. (Sadly, the spring publishing date means there won’t be time for a final update after the current NFL season, which won’t end until about six weeks before this book should finally come out, but at least we’ll be able to add the record-breaking 66-yard field goal from this weekend.)

Again, what can you do?

At least I’ve been paid for the work on all three books (though I am still waiting for the final checks from Firefly) … and I do still have one new book that’s due in stores any day now. Hockey Hall of Fame Heroes: Scorers, Goalies and Defensemen is also from Firefly, and is the second edition (with updates and new players) of a book that was first published by them five years ago. If you’ve got a hockey fans around the ages of 9 to 12 years old, this would be a good one for them.

Speaking of younger hockey fans, right now I’m working on the fifth book in the Hockey Trivia For Kids series for Scholastic Canada. This one will also come out in the fall of 2022 but is due at the publisher this November 1 … a full 30 days earlier than any of the four previous books (which didn’t have to be delivered until mid December when I wrote the first one back in 2005). This time, COVID is the culprit again, with Scholastic worried about the chain-of-production delays brought about by the Pandemic.

What else can I say except, “… it Happens.”