As I pen this article the country is abuzz with excitement as we prepare to cheer on Team Canada at the IIHF 2021 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship as they take on one of their arch rivals, Team USA, in the gold medal game. To say that we all need something to cheer about given the events of 2020 would be an understatement.
With junior hockey excitement in the air, I thought this would be a great opportunity to recognize some of our regional players from previous World Junior hockey championships, as well as take a look back at historic moments in our region’s early junior hockey history, one of which took place almost a century ago.
As my staff helped prepare a list of players from northwestern Ontario who have donned the maple leaf at previous IIHF World Junior championships it quickly became apparent that when there was one of our homegrown players on the ice, Canada more often than not brought home the gold. Included in that list of World Junior Hockey champions is Greg Johnson (1991), Chris Pronger (1993), Curtis Bowen (1994), Trevor Letowski (1997), Cameron Mann (1997), Mike Richards (2005; silver in 2004), Tom Pyatt (2006 & 2007), Ryan Parent (2006 & 2007) and Marc Staal (2006 & 2007). Other players who participated in the world juniors were David Latta (1987), Alex Auld (2001- bronze), Jason Jaspers (2001- bronze) and Mackenzie Blackwood (2016). In addition to players, we have also had local coaches be a part of some golden moments for Canada including our very own NWO Sports Hall of Fame President and Hall of Fame inductee Dave Siciliano who was on the coaching staff of the 1993 squad.
We have to go back almost 100 years to reflect upon our first Canadian junior hockey title. The year was 1922, the team the Fort William Great War Vets, a group of eight players who shocked the junior hockey world with their win. That year the Vets first faced off against Kenora in the district final, winning the series in overtime. Given the time period and the cost of travel, it was decided that instead of the Vets travelling to Regina for the western final, the eastern champions, the Toronto Aura Lee, would stop in Fort William en route to the final which was to take place in Winnipeg.
It was here that the one of the biggest upsets in Memorial Cup history took place. Before a packed crowd at the Prince of Wales Arena the Vets took early control of the game netting the first three goals. By the end of the match-up the Vets had done the unthinkable, defeating the highly favoured Aura Lee by a score of 5-3.
In Winnipeg, the Vets faced off against the Regina Patricias in a two-game total goal series. Taking an early lead in the first game they held off the Pats to earn a 5-4 victory. The second and deciding game ended in a 3-3 tie, which resulted in the Vets wining the total-point series 8-7 to clinch the Memorial Cup title. The returning victors were welcomed home by thousands of adoring fans, feted with many functions and presented gold watches by the City of Fort William.
The members of this record-setting team included Walter Adams, John Bates, Gerald Bourke, Ted D’Arcy, John Enwright, Alex Phillips, Fred Thornes and Clark Whyte. The coach was Stan Bliss, the trainer Jack Silver, the assistant trainer was Walter Jessop and the Secretary-Treasurer of the team was Fred Edwards.
Twenty-six years later the Memorial Cup was again brought home to the head of the lakes, this time by a team from Port Arthur. In order to claim this national honour there was some strategy used off the ice that produced great results on the ice. The plan was to bring together the best junior-aged players from Port Arthur and Fort William, with some of them returning home from out of town, to challenge for the top junior prize in Canada. Backed by local businessman Bill Tomlinson, and coached by Ed Lauzon, the 1947-48 Port Arthur West End Bruins were a force to be reckoned with.
First up was the winning of the City championship against the Fort William Columbus Club. Next it was the Winnipeg Monarchs who they downed four games to two in the district finals. The next match-up enroute to the Memorial Cup was against the Lethbridge Native Sons in the Western final. This best-of-seven series went down to the final game with the Bruins proving their superior talent, trouncing the Sons 11-1. This victory gained the Bruins entry into the Memorial Cup final against the Barrie Flyers which was held in Maple Leaf Gardens with the legendary Foster Hewitt providing the play-by-play for the CBC.
The series was a hard-fought one, full of lots of goals and controversy. The Bruins took the first three games by scores of 10-8, 8-1 and 5-4, setting up a fourth game that would prove to be the most dramatic of the series. With the Bruins up 3-1 at the end of the first, the Flyers came back to tie it up 4-4 and added three more in the third heading for what seemed their first victory. The Port Arthur squad, however, did not give up, netting three goals with less than six minutes to go, forcing the game into overtime.
As one reporter noted, that ten minute overtime period was a lifetime for the fans huddled around the radio back home at the Lakehead. Dave Creighton opened the scoring for Port Arthur at the 2:53 mark. A couple of minutes later mayhem erupted when a Barrie player, frustrated by a penalty call, dropped his gloves and took off after referee Vic Lindquist, who happened to be a former player from Kenora.
The Barrie coach left the bench in protest and his players refused to continue until he returned. He eventually did return, just prior to the referees about to end the game and forfeit the win to the Bruins. When play finally resumed it was Barrie that notched the next goal. With a minute and a half left on the clock, Danny Lewicki, aided by Rudy Migay and Pete Durham, scored the goal that proved to be the series winner, with the Bruins claiming the 1947-48 Memorial Cup in a 9-8 final.
Reading the description of the welcome home that was given the team makes me wish I was around during that time. Reports of up to 25,000 people lining the streets as the motorcade made its way up from the train station, and 9,000 more on hand at the Port Arthur Arena for the official welcome, was an indication of just how proud the community was of this team’s accomplishments.
The members of this memorable team included Fred Baccari, Barton Bradley, Lorne Chabot Jr, Alf Childs Jr., Dave Creighton, Lloyd 'Pete' Durham, Bob Fero, Bert Fonso, Allan 'Buck' Forslund, Art Harris, Bill Johansen, Danny Lewicki, Rudy Migay, Norvel ‘Red’ Olsen, Joe Ripku, Benny Woit, Robert Wrightsell, Jerry Zager, Ed Lauzon (Coach), Ted Whalen (Manager), Ossie Reid (Trainer), H ‘Junior’ Hygaard (Assistant Trainer), E.G. ‘Cyc’ Hedge (Secretary), Bill Tomlinson (President).
Our rich tradition of success in junior hockey was carried on by the Thunder Bay Flyers who claimed the 1989 and 1992 Centennial Cup as Canadian Junior 'A' hockey champions and, just like their predecessors, produced a number of outstanding hockey players who went on to represent us with distinction in the professional and amateur ranks.
Until next time, keep that sports history pride alive.
1921-22 Fort William Great War Vets
1947-48 Port Arthur West End Bruins won the Memorial Cup
Greg Johnson 1991 Canadian Junior team
(updated from a Jan 3/2013 CJ Column)