Tag Archives: New England Whalers

Three Orillia Guys

Getting pinned at an Orillia tournament.

Teammate John French was our best player and went on to play junior with the Toronto Marlies, was drafted by Montreal, and skated with the AHL Montreal Voyageurs where his goalie was Ken Dryden.

After moving to the Baltimore Clippers for one season, John signed with the New England Whalers of the brand new World Hockey Association and became teammates with his old friend from Orillia, Rick Ley. He also played for The San Diego Mariners and Indianapolis Racers of the WHA, and ended his career with the AHL Springfield Indians.

In the late 1970s my first wife and I bought an old desk in a second-hand store in Ottawa, and in the drawer was a John French WHA hockey card.

Ron Clarke, on the left, got smashed so hard into the boards one night in Collingwood they had to remove a kidney. Ron’s one of my oldest friend, we grew up in the same neighbourhood, and we still keep in touch. It’s always a good day when I get to see Ron, who now lives in Kitchener.

Rick Earned His 6th Shutout

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Rick Ley may have grown up to become a hardrock defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New England Whalers, and Hartford Whalers, but he started out as a goalie, as you can see in the bottom paragraph on the left side, when he earned his sixth shutout as the first place Raiders turned back the struggling Argos in Squirt action..

Rick Ley was successful as a minor hockey goalie because he would lay across the ice when we got close and we couldn’t raise the puck over him. That’s why he had six shutouts in nine games.

If you go to the top of the right column, you’ll see that a smallish yet shifty right winger scored a big one as the Bulldozers edged the Smoke Rings 2-1.

And who is Gerald Stones, who tallied 4 goals for the Beehives? No idea. But he got four goals, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Maybe he’ll see this and say hello!

Below, Rick battling with Bobby Orr, and below that, Rick and Bruce Gamble try to stop Bobby Hull, along with Rick and Gordie Howe on a Whalers poster.

A good old Orillia boy.

Rick Ley

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Rick In Retirement

Terrific piece in the Orillia Packet and Times about Rick Ley, a kid from my old neighbourhood, a guy who once borrowed my hockey gloves to go to junior camp, and who also accidentally knocked out my front tooth with a baseball. Of course he also enjoyed a stellar career in the NHL and WHA, which isn’t as important as the hockey glove and tooth knocked out, but should be mentioned anyway.

This link, sent to me from my buddy Ron Green in Orillia, is an interview in the Wednesday edition of the Packet, and it seems retirement is agreeing with Rick, which is great. It also mentions another guy I’ve talked about often, John French, along with Wayne Piper, who was my coach for a couple of years when I was a smallish-yet-shifty right winger for Byers Bulldozers.

Have a look. It’s a good read about a good Orillian. Ley’s Credentials Second to None

 

Cover Boy

Several times I’ve talked about John French, who was an old hockey and baseball teammate of mine while growing up in Orillia, our little town also known as Mariposa from Stephen Leacock’s “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town,” and seeing the fellow on a program cover recently finds me going on about him again.

John and his family moved to Toronto when he was in his mid-teens, and I remember when he came back with his new big city team for an important tournament in Orillia. In a sensational moment in time, the slick forward scored five goals in the championship game and was voted tourney MVP.

He had come through in a huge way in his first appearance back in his home town, and myself and his other old teammates sitting in the stands were truly impressed.

French was an excellent hockey player, much better than the rest of us, and he would eventually play Junior A for the Toronto Marlies before being picked by the Habs 52nd overall in the 1970 draft. John would play for the Montreal Voyageurs of the AHL, with Ken Dryden and Wayne Thomas as his goalies, and not long after it was onward to the World Hockey Association.

Years ago I bought a used desk at an Ottawa second-hand shop, opened the drawer, and found a John French hockey card inside. And recently I noticed an old New England Whalers program, and there he was on the cover.

 

All Together Now! “Couchiching, Couchiching, By Lake Couchiching”

From my 1959 Orillia and area phone book (which includes Bobby Orr’s family in Parry Sound), you can see the Lightfoot family on Harvey. Above that, as an added bonus, is Norman Ley, father of Rick Ley, former defenseman with the Leafs and the WHA New England Whalers, and coach in Hartford, Toronto and Vancouver. My mother went to school with Norman.

Not only that, as another extra bonus, there’s the Liberty Cafe, which was a restaurant on Orillia’s main drag where my dad would buy a bag full of hamburgers on special occasions, bring them home, and we’d sit and watch old war and gangster movies.

Okay, sing along – “Couchiching, Couchiching, by Lake Couchiching.”

Dastardly Arch Rivals

This is one of the earliest pictures I’ve seen of Orillia kids on one of the house league teams that my team would play against. Notice how dastardly they look.

From teams such as this were plucked a few players to play on the all-star team and travel around to Huntsville and Midland and Collingwood and Barrie, all the while dreaming of someday making the NHL.

The guy in the middle, with the C on his sweater, is John French, an old teammate of mine when he was a centreman on some of those all-star teams, and I was his smallish-yet-shifty right winger. John would become Montreal Canadiens property when he got older, although he never played for the big club before bolting to the WHA where he enjoyed some fine seasons with the New England Whalers and others.

This is a previous story I’d written about John. And yes, he was a Damn Fine Hockey Player.

Glove-wise, Is It Too Late?

 

Lazy? You want lazy? I’ll show you lazy. I’ll just put this back up.

Or is it persistence? Steadfastness? Whatever, it’s back. Because my whining didn’t work before. And I’m the guy who ended the Cold War for gawd’s sakes.

So once again, more than three years later, I’m sending the letter back out to Rick Ley.

Dear Rick: I’m still waiting for my gloves. Remember? You borrowed them when you were going away to the Niagara Falls Flyers training camp. They fit you like a glove. If you would have borrowed big Gerry Gibson’s gloves from up around the corner, you might have done poorly because they were too big and would have been hard to handle the puck with. But no, you borrowed mine, made the team, and the rest, as they say, is history.

You showed the coach you could play well, probably because my gloves were feeling good. So he kept you, and within a couple of years you were playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. You even had a small part in a movie. You made way more money than me, and it all started with my gloves. Is that ironic or what?

If you had decided to go with big Gerry Gibson’s gloves, which of course would have been too loose, you might still be a rink rat back home, or worked at Otaco, and would have never jumped over to the New England Whalers where you were a star. And when they raised your jersey to the rafters in Hartford, next to Gordie Howe’s, did you and your wife even think of me, and silently thank me during the emotional ceremony?

In 1974, when the World Hockey Association all-stars played the Russians and you were on the team, did you ever think you’d be playing for your country, all because you borrowed my gloves, gloves that helped you make the Niagara Falls Flyers and eventually end up with the Leafs, Whalers and even Team Canada?

And when you mugged Russian star Valeri Kharlamov on the ice, did you know that Russian President Leonid Brezhnev, a big hockey fan, was following the series, and when Kharlamov was never the same again after your mugging and it affected the team, it led to a tremendously dispirited Brezhnev, who, maybe because he felt bad, eventually passed away, which led to a succession of leaders, and eventually Mikhail Gorbachev came in, and to make a long story short, was the beginning of the fall of communism? So when you look at it closely, I guess you could say me and my hockey gloves were responsible for the end of the Cold War.

You coached the Whalers and Canucks, and became the long-serving assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, did a good job, and I feel it’s time you should return my gloves. You owe me, and it’s not even the end of it. You prepared the teams, worked with them in practices and games, and made them better players. They wouldn’t have learned as much if you weren’t there, and you wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t made the Niagara Falls Flyers shortly after you borrowed my gloves those many decades ago. So I guess that means that all those Canucks and Leafs you coached should thank me. I hope they didn’t learn bad habits from you about not returning things, though.

I know you’re a busy man, and it was a long time ago, and have just forgotten completely about the borrowing. I’m just reminding you, that’s all, and I know that you will find the time to put the gloves in a box and send them to me.

Thanks a lot.

Your pal from the neighbourhood,

Dennis

Damn Fine Hockey Player

That’s me at the very top, resting my weary head on my hand and stick. But more importantly, over on the left with black toque with pointed end is John French, who was the best player in our age group in Orillia and in the top three in central Ontario. John MacWilliams in Huntsville and Steve Sly in Collingwood were the only ones who would give him a run for his money.

John went on to play junior with the Toronto Marlies and found himself drafted by Montreal. But after a year with the Canadiens’ AHL farm team Montreal Voyageurs (with Ken Dryden as a teammate), and then the Baltimore Clippers, he  bolted to the World Hockey Association (WHA)  and enjoyed a fine career with the New England Whalers, San Diego Mariners, and Indianapolis Racers before ending back in the AHL with the Springfield Indians.

In the late 1970’s my first wife and I bought an old desk in a second-hand store in Ottawa, and in the drawer was a John French hockey card.

You can see John’s very respectable pro career stats right here

The Tooth

The story begins on a summer day at a field, when I put on a silly mask that only covered my eyes, and I crouched behind the plate to catch a fastball thrown by a neighbourhood kid named Ricky Ley, who would eventually grow up to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and New England Whalers.

I had the ball lined up and the batter swung, but he only ticked it, and the ball changed direction and flew into my mouth. And into my hand came my front tooth, root and all.

It hurt like hell and I scrambled home and I don’t know whether Ricky and the guys kept playing or not, but I’m hoping they felt so bad they just couldn’t carry on. Somehow, though, I feel they carried on. They did for the Gipper.

I learned to live with a plastic upper plate with one tooth on it, and I was able to do a tremendous trick with it. My tongue could make the thing move in and out of my mouth easily, and so I entertained people for years with my talent. I would make dinging sounds as I poked my eyes, then my nose, then I’d twist my ear and snap the plate out of my mouth. It was like a cash register. In fact, I called it my cash register trick. People laughed. I was proud. Babies liked it too.

I’m not so sure I impressed the gals at parties, though.

The tooth would come out so easily I grew paranoid when I was at high places, thinking that it was going to fall out, so it only made sense that when I rode the rollercoaster at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto a couple of years later, I would keep it in my hand during the ride. We went up and down and over and looped around, and when I got off the thing, I saw that I had crushed my plate into a bunch of little pieces. 

But the dentist glued it all back together and the cash register trick carried on.

On one dark, fuzzy night several years later, my friends and I were down in the bushes drinking cheap Four Aces sherry with the hobos at their little camp, and I got sick. Four Aces would do that sometimes. Shortly after, we all staggered out, and at some point, I realized I’d lost my tooth while losing my lunch, so I staggered back into the bushes in pitch-black darkness with an almost impossible chance of finding the thing. But at some point, in the middle of nowhere, I reached down and put my hand right on the damn thing.

I feel somebody up there wanted me to keep entertaining with the cash register trick. I think it was what I was born to do.

Nowadays I’ve got this fancy permanent tooth in my mouth and it’s nice and all that. But it’s not “the tooth.”

I guess I have Ricky Ley and the batter who fouled it off to thank for the warm memories.

Huntsville’s John MacWilliams Could’ve Been A Star

I originally wrote this a year ago and I’m delighted that MacWilliams’ son emailed me and let me know about his dad. Here’s the original story and the email I received a couple of days ago.

He wasn’t big, this John MacWilliams of Huntsville’s Squirt, then Peewee, and later, Bantam teams, all of which played Orillia on a regular basis in the early 1960’s. In fact, he was small. But regardless of his size. he looked like a hockey player. And did he ever play like one.

We were constantly told by our coaches to watch this MacWilliams, be careful with him, don’t let him get wound up because he’d be almost impossible to stop.

And he was. He was the most fantastic young hockey player I’d ever seen. Even on my own own team, my regular centreman John French went on to play for the Toronto Marlboros, was chosen by the Montreal Canadiens and played in the minors with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, and eventually ended up in the World Hockey Association with New England and Indianapolis.

But there was no one like John MacWilliams. He reminded me of Ralph Backstrom and Dave Keon, the way he skated and danced around the ice. He dazzled, and made the rest of us look quite ordinary.

And then, just like that, he was never seen again by any of us in Orillia.

This was a guy headed to the bigs with a bullet. We were all sure of that. But it never happened.

A few years ago I emailed national newspaper writer and acclaimed author Roy MacGregor, who’s roughly my age, and comes from Huntsville. I figured he might know about John MacWilliams.

MacGregor replied back, saying that yes indeed, he remembers John MacWilliams, and that the young fellow was probably the best he’d seen to. And then he told me what happened to him.

This young guy, with all the talent in the world, who skated and scored the way I wanted to, the way all of us wanted to, simply quit hockey completely and took up figure skating.

Email:

Hi Dennis, I’ve had the privilege of reading your blog and the article about my father. He has read it as well. He is the guy who has been teaching hockey skating on the east coast for the last 30+ years. We did it together. We lived in Saint John NB and the Dartmouth NS and next to Howie Meeker, nobody revolutionized the hockey school like my Dad. He was elite in both sports back in the 60’s and I think the decision to pursue the figure skating route was made because of his size.  He still runs hockey Schools in Ontario and the Maritimes and has taught several huge name NHL players, one just scored a pretty big goal in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. He has two Granddaughters and loves to spend time with them and golf. He currently resides in Guelph, Ontario. If you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.  Thx Jon MacWilliams