Skating Through Time | JIM FURLONG

They are the ghosts of another generation. I hear the sounds of their play sometimes. It is the sound of skates on new ice and the sound of pucks rattling off wooden boards in old rinks. These are the sounds hockey players now gone to dust who were hired to jobs in Newfoundland that allowed them to make a living with their hockey skills long after their dreams of the NHL ended.

Before the St. John’s Maple Leafs ever stepped on the ice at the old Memorial Stadium a kind of semi-pro hockey was played in this province. The names of the players are a litany of very skilled hockey men, many of whom were just one or two skills short of making it to The Show. Perhaps they were kept from it by something so cruel as bad luck. That litany of names would include names like “Danky” Dorrington, Mort Verbiski, Jacques Allard, ‘Toy Toy’ Gallant, Clobie Collins and many more. They plied their trade in places like Buchans, Bell Island, Grand Falls, Gander and Harbour Grace, and a bunch of other hockey towns across the island of Newfoundland. These towns were able to compete in Newfoundland senior hockey by virtue of offering money and opportunity to players from afar to play for the town.

Teams from small centres could not match the skill gene pool of large centres like St. John’s so in the 1950s those smaller towns started to bring in players from the mainland and paid them money or found them work where they could make money while playing hockey. Not a whole team was imported but select “star” strengthening players were. They worked in mines or mills, and they played hockey and became part of the communities in which they skated.

George Faulkner writes about how he came back to Newfoundland from pro hockey to run a hockey program in Harbour Grace and play for the much-loved Conception Bay CeeBees. He did it because he could make more money from that than from the minor leagues of the Montreal Canadiens organization. George and brother Alex, who went to the NHL and a stint with the Detroit Red Wings, became the stuff of legends in senior hockey. They were part of hockey legend in Harbour Grace.

It was not just for cash in senior hockey. Sometimes it was employment. If you could play hockey you might work at the Buchans mine or the iron ore mine on Bell Island, and never spend a day underground. I cannot name names for the paper mills at Grand Falls or Corner Brook, but I am told there were situations where handling a puck or being able to stop one might be a key skill in finding employment. To me, from St. John’s, these players were villains. They were foreigners who had an unfair advantage against us “townies”. That was not true, but it is what we thought at Memorial Stadium. The imports were evil incarnate.

Those early hockey mercenaries are but memories now but pleasant ones. I spent many a night at the old Memorial Stadium cheering on the Capitals against the mercenaries from afar. Perhaps I am just a romantic but I swear that if you stand under the old Memorial Stadium clock and scoreboard, which now part of a supermarket hard by the shores of Quidi Vidi, you can hear the echoes of skates on ice in a building that once was home to senior hockey.

You can contact Jim Furlong at [email protected]