Saturday, April 28, 2007
Triple overtime last night at the old barn on Elgin Street.
Sudbury Wolves defeat Belleville in six to move on to the OHL final.
Sudbury is a fair sized city that has changed since my childhood. Once a hardrock mining town known for its moonscape (the vegetation burned by the sulphur coming from the mills), the city has reinvented itself. The mines are still there but the economy is based more on education (a new medical school just opened), service and tourism. Hard to believe. The black rock has been replaced by thousands of trees planted to reclaim the land. My hometown has come a long way.
Like so many Canadian cities and towns, the game of hockey is part of the community's blood and bones. And like many Canadian families the game runs through mine.
My father was a terrific hockey player as were his brothers. Growing up in Franz, a railway stop for the ACR north of Wawa, they spent their winters in the mythological Canadian fashion, playing hockey day and night on the frozen lake. Dad was a fan of Max Bentley and even when he was traded to the Leafs, his allegiance stuck with the Blackhawks. When he was a teenager, he was told scouts were coming to check he and his brother Gerald out - he was disappointed to learn that they were from Detroit, not Chicago.
My own childhood memories include watching Hockey Night in Canada with Dad, every Saturday night. Our neighbourhood, like every neighbourhood in the city, had a rink and a clubhouse. This was referred to as the playground. This is where we spent our evenings and weekends as boys. It was also the basis for hockey in the city. There was the "city" league, which played indoors only and was equivalent to AA hockey nowadays. Everyone else played on their neighbourhood teams, from whenever you started playing (my first year was as a five year old, when I was 17 I helped with a team that included a 3 year old) until juvenile (17/18 iirc) if you could scrape together a team at that age. Most of the games were outside, no matter the weather. Parents scraped the ice before the game and between periods if necessary. They stood on the snowbanks surrounding the rink, cheering us on while we huddled in our benches.
And no global warming back then. This was the seventies and early eighties. 30 below was a typical night in Sudbury from December until March 1. That's before the windchill, mind you.
Games were not cancelled due to weather. We did have a warm winter in '73 or so and as a result it was a rather abbreviated season. No ice.
Parents flooded the rink and kept it up. They manned the snack bar and barbeques during the weekend "carnivals". Every playground had one every winter. It included a mini tournament with three invited teams from around the city (usually a couple of patsies and then a rival to end up with at least a result in the final). And there was body contact too, by the way, all the way up the ladder.
And there were the Wolves. Sudbury won a Memorial Cup back in the 30s but did not join the OHL until 1972. They quickly put together a powerhouse team that in 75/76 went to the OHL finals. They fell short of a Memorial Cup berth, falling to the Toronto Marlies in Game 7 in OT on a goal by John Anderson. That Wolves team included Jim Bedard in goal, a D that included Randy Carlyle and Dave Farrish as well as local hero John Baby (the Wolves have always had local boys on their club) and a forwards corps that included Ron Duguay (another local boy), a sniper by the name of Rod Schutt who would play a few years with the Pens, a hardworking winger from Timmins, Hector Marini, who would win a Cup with the Islanders, play for the Devils in the Mickey Mouse years (he actually repped them at the All Star Game one year) and then lose an eye playing in the minors in 1985 and another local boy, rookie Mike Foligno. Finally there was a little centre from Toronto who scored 51 goals and was, along with Duguay and Schutt, one of the trio who drove the offence. For years I couldn't remember his name and then found him on their website last night - Bob Russell - he's the young man pictured up in the top left. Russell was drafted by the Kings but never played in the NHL. He was also drafted by, guess who, the Oilers, in the WHA draft. He played two years with them. LT, do you remember him? I can't recall a thing except when I was 8, he was the biggest star, bigger then Lafleur or Mikita (my favourite NHL player growing up) or Sittler. Growing up was about going to see the Wolves play or listening to Joe Bowen call their games on the radio.
That was the high water mark for the Wolves. Foligno became a star with them and he and Don Beaupre led a decent team in the late 70s. I remember when the Memorial Cup came to Sudbury (79 iirc) going to the games with Dad, a Christmas present. This was before the setup now where the local team gets a bye. The Wolves didn't even come close. Anyhow, Darryl Sittler was at a game, sitting in the stands (imagine that); I got his autograph but even then the bigger excitement was that Foligno and three of his teammates sat behind us. I got their autographs of course - Foligno was on his way to bigger and better things.
In the early 90s the Wolves had a nice run but never got over the hump. One year they had eight guys with over a point a game and two others just below it. They had a Dman with 121 points. Teams that had a ton of offensive talent but never won a thing. A lot of guys who were drafted but ended up in Europe (some of them still are). A lot of busts. Brandon Convery. Adam Bennett. Jamie Matthews. Zednek Nedved.Some guys who have pieced together careers in the NHL - Derek Armstrong being one. Steve Staios being another. A lot of Oiler connections besides Staios. Moreau was picked up for a playoff run for a kid Dman named Jay McKee. (Moreau was an offensive god in junior). Mike Peca was traded to Ottawa for a goalie for another failed run. Less happily for the Oilers both Jason Bonsignore and Barrie Moore were Wolves.
Going into Sudbury used to be intimidating. Tough crowd. More then once a ref has needed a police escort to get out of town. The most famous of these involved one of those early 90s teams. In a game seven in OT Sudbury scored but it was waved off. By every objective account it was a completely blown call, followed almost immediately by the Wolves losing on a goal that was blatantly illegal (again this is from people whose objectivity I trust). The ref barely escaped.
I have seen grown sober men, the calmest men I know outside the rink, throw popcorn and pop and garbage onto the ice in a rage. I have seen Howler, a stuffed wolf, come hurtling across the top of the rink after the Wolves score. (Howler went missing for a while, wolfnapped I believe). I remember being at a game against the Generals during the Lindros years and seeing Rick Cornaccia the Generals' coach, who had helmed a loaded WJC team to disaster that Christmas. My friend's son, thirteen at the time, said "Nice job over in Germany, Rick." or some such thing. I swear Cornaccia looked like he was going to cry and mumbled something about "jerk kids".
Yep, they start 'em young.
Even when I was in school I'd get back for a game or two when I was home, running out between periods for a beer at the dive bar across the street.
And now, all of these years later, they are back. The city is going wild. They've had a decent team in recent years and have done alright, winning a few playoff series. But this year looked to be a disappointment, finishing under 500 and facing a Mississauga team loaded for bear in the first round. Wolves took them in five, only to have to face arch rival Barrie, who finished 30 point up on them.
And now Belleville gone in six.
Mike Foligno is the coach and GM and his son Nick is one of the stars. Marc Staal captains the squad and the youngest Staal, the rookie Jared, won a game with an OT goal. There are a few local boys as there always are and most of the kids on this team will never make the NHL. Some won't get drafted and some will and most of those who will will end up in Europe or the minors or will just retire once they've figured they have to take a different path.
But last night they became part of history in a city that loves hockey, for better for worse, a city that exemplifies the best and yes the worst about hockey, just as every Canadian city and town does. Like Bob Russell and Hector Marini, guys like Matt Dias (who scored the winner) and the Danish goalie Sebastian Dahm and 20 year old undrafted sniper Kevin Baker (hello Switzerland!) will be remembered.
They now face the Plymouth Whalers, another tough mountain to climb, for a berth in the Memorial Cup.
Go Wolves Go!
Posted by Black Dog at 9:24 AM