Tag Archives: World Hockey Association

Rocket And Nordiques On View

Very interesting documentary titled “Just Another Job”, showing the WHA’s Quebec Nordiques leading up to and during their first-ever game of the 1972-73 campaign, which was also the league’s first season of play.

Maurice Richard is coaching (he would last just two games before stepping down) and J.C. Tremblay is on defence, so sit back and enjoy this 27 minute feature.

Gilles Does It His Way

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Ex-WHA and NHL goalie Gilles Gratton in a mock arm wrestling pose with Bobby Hull.

They did it as a joke because Gilles has always been a slight fellow and Hull is Hull.

I work with Gilles and he’s a great guy who seems to enjoy talking with me about games the night before and ones coming up. The feeling is mutual. I like hearing his thoughts on things.

Gilles was considered one of the best backstoppers in the WHA and was a backup during the WHA 1974 Canada-Russia series. He didn’t play and didn’t mind at all.

Gilles gained a reputation of being somewhat of a flake when he played, sometimes making noises at opposing players, rambling on about reincarnation to teammates and coaches, and he once refused to suit up with his Toronto Toros because the moon was in the wrong part of the sky and not lined up with Jupiter, which was his way of disagreeing with his coach being fired.

Ken Dryden says in his book “The Game” that Gilles once streaked during a practice with whatever team he was on at the time, and I asked him about it. He said that was wrong. It was during a ball hockey game and the coach promised him five new sticks if he did it.

He told us this story recently. When he first arrived in St. Louis to play for the Blues, he was in an elevator and a man riding up with him asked him if he was happy to be joining his new team.

Gilles answered, “I don’t give a f*&%k about the St. Louis Blues”.

When the elevator stopped, they got out and were met by others. It turned out the man in the elevator was his new coach Gary Young.

Gilles lasted 6 games in St. Louis before he walked out. The next year he was with the New York Rangers, then a season in the minors, and that was that.

After he retired he worked as a wire service photographer at a couple of World Championships in Europe, and eventually ended up in India for several years where he learned to meditate.

Gilles’ a Montreal boy, and I once asked him if ever would have liked to play for the Canadiens.

He said he didn’t know, he’d never thought about it.

1974 Team Cyrillic

The picture below was sent to me from a friend in Leningrad in the mid-1980s.

Team Canada 1974, stars from the rival WHA, taking on Kharlamov, Mikhailov, and Tretiak two years after the big one. (results at the bottom).

Rick Ley, second in the top row, was a boyhood friend growing up in Orillia, who knocked my front tooth out by accident when throwing a baseball. And he borrowed my hockey gloves and never gave them back.

Five players suited up at one time or another with the Habs – JC Tremblay, Rejean Houle, Ralph Backstrom, Marc Tardif, and Frank Mahovlich.

Three players on this Team Canada ’74 squad also played in the historic 1972 Summit Series before bolting to the WHA  – Paul Henderson, Mahovlich, and Pat Stapleton.

1974

Down the left side are coaches Billy Harris, Bobby Hull, and Pat Stapleton.

Top row left to right – Don McLeod, Rick Ley, J.C. Tremblay, Mike Walton, Rejean Houle

2nd row – Brad Selwood, Andre Lacroix, Tom Webster, Gordie Howe, Marty Howe

3rd row – Mark Howe, Ralph Backstrom, Tom Harrison, Rick Smith, Paul Shmyr

4th row – Paul Henderson, Serge Bernier, Bruce MacGregor, Marc Tardiff, John McKenzie

5th row – Al Hamilton, Frank Mahovlich, Gerry Cheevers

USSR Wins Series 4-1-3

The Little Team That Did

I’m extremely proud to say I was a smallish-yet-reliable 12-year old second baseman and shortstop (I’m bottom row, third from right) for this Orillia peewee all-star team.

We took on all comers, including big-city Toronto teams, and we whupped them all. According to the year-end banquet program, we won 38 games and lost four. We won five championships during the season, including the Prince Edward Trophy, The Lions Trophy, District E Championship, Provincial Legion Championship, and Police Association Trophy. We were also Ontario Baseball Association finalists, losing to Windsor in a stressful and tight game.

Our small-town gang defeated several all-star teams from Toronto, Hamilton, St. Catherines, and many others. I remember Hall of Fame goalie Gerry Cheevers umpiring one of our games in St. Catherines.

On three occasions we played and won three games in one day and on four occasions, two games. We travelled approximately 3500 miles in the season, and in the O.B.A. series, we defeated Owen Sound 36-10 in three games, Newmarket 17-1 in two games, and Cobourg 33-2 in two games. In the finals against Windsor we lost in the third game after three extra innings.

After one championship a fire truck met us on the outskirts of Orillia and brought us into town with sirens blaring. We also had a parade with two to a convertible, and were brought to the Mayor’s chambers where she presented us with individual pen sets, mine of which is long gone.

Several of the guys are dead now, at least one is a multi-millionaire, one lost a leg in a construction accident, one is in Whitehorse, and one, John French (catcher) would go on to become property of the Montreal Canadiens before bolting to the W.H.A.

Cliff Yeo, our stern, no-nonsense manager, was a chain smoker with yellow hands and teeth, but he knew his baseball and we won because of him. After a game in Windsor he caught several of us, including me, smoking cigars at the back of the bus, but he said nothing. Maybe because he was such a lover of tobacco himself.

I Don’t Want To Brag Or Anything, But…….

I don’t want to brag or anything, but there was a time when I was as proficient with a spoon as with a baseball bat. Yes indeed. It says so right here.

And I don’t want to brag or anything, but my grade 8 girlfriend was one of the top two or three hottest chicks in my class. That’s us dancing in the church basement.

I would walk Lynn Sinclair home and we’d make out on the sidewak outside her house, and her chest would rub against me, causing my hormones to do the mambo and give me pains below my belly button for hours afterward.

And I certainly don’t want to brag about the time my peewee baseball rode on a fire truck in a parade, celebrating the fact that we won a bunch of tournaments, with me being as proficient with a bat as I was with a spoon.

And I also don’t want to brag about playing in the NHL. Okay, it was called the Little NHL, and it was a pile of teams from Ontario going at it. But anyway.

John French would one day become property of the Habs, and enjoyed a fine career in the WHA. Ron Clarke became a successful heavy equipment salesman and I hear from him every so often. Myself, I never ever made it to third base with Lynn Sinclair.

 

 

 

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

From Russia With Hockey Love

You may have noticed the picture over on the sidebar on the lower right, the one with Jacques Plante’s mask etc., and I just wanted to mention that I was a smallish-yet-shifty right winger for Byer’s Bulldozers Orillia Midget All-Star team and not Jacques Plante.

This Hall of Fame photo, altered only slightly, was sent to me by Denis Brel in St. Petersburg, Russia, who is also my son-in-law.

Denis and his dad Anatoli have created their own website specializing in the days of Canada Cups, the WHA, and the great Super Series ’76 – the games that gave us the wonderful Montreal-Red Army New Year’s Eve thriller, and the debacle in Philadelphia when Red Army skated off the ice to protest the Broad St. Bullies’ thuggery.

The pair have only just recently gotten their site off the ground, I’ve chipped in with a little English help here and there, and if you have the time, please have a look.

Anatoli Brel is one of Russia’s foremost experts in past Canada-Russia hockey, and I’m willing to bet knows more about the NHL and the WHA than just about anybody, which is surprising considering he doesn’t speak English. He once won a nation-wide contest in Russia that ran for weeks in which obsure NHL questions were asked, he answered them all correctly, and was interviewed on state television. And he’s been keeping a personal and detailed compilation of NHL statistics, penned manually over a period of many years, that just keeps on growing.

This is a serious student of the game.   

The website shows Anatoli’s staggering international hockey video collection and examples of his book, released last year, about the ’76 Super Series, plus various other things you might not be able to read because much of it is in Russian. But not all.

It’s still in the building stages but growing fast, and can be seen at Brel’s Hockey From Russia.

And thanks once again, Denis Brel, for the great picture.
  

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