How very appropriate!
As the hockey world paid tribute to one of its most beloved players, goaltender Johnny Bower, Pictou County lost one of its own favourites from the same 1950s and ’60s era with the passing of Billy Billick.
In his playing days, Billick’s name was usually associated with adjectives such as short, slender or diminutive. I did it to him often. In athletic terms, he was under-sized.
But when he put on a uniform, laced up his skates and grabbed a stick, he was as impressive and productive as most players out there, regardless of physical measurements. His abilities, courage and a love for the game made up for any lack of size.
He was the type of guy you liked to applaud.
Those were the first things that came to mind when I learned that Billy had died at the Aberdeen Hospital during the Christmas holidays. He was in his mid-80s.
Billy was not unlike many young Pictou County boys growing up in the 1940s, learning the sport on neighbourhood ponds.
Then, at the age of 12, when the Stellarton Memorial Rink opened, he joined the outstanding minor hockey program that was established at nearby Lourdes. He went out with Father Charlie MacDonald’s midget team that included kids like Bertie Dalling, Lugs Rae and Frank (Danky) Dorrington.
That group of youngsters remained together, long enough to win Maritime midget and juvenile championships.
Billick once gave me this explanation why they did so well: “We had good teams. We all seemed to jell so well together.”
It led to bigger things.
In 1951-52 the Northside Franklins of the Cape Breton Junior Hockey League was recruiting players to challenge the dynastic Halifax St. Mary’s.
Billick joined the Franklins, along with Pictou County players Ducky MacLean, Dalling, Bobby Day and Ron Cheek.
It was a big transition for Billy.
“All I knew when I went there was where Sydney was. We had played at the Sydney Forum for two years in minor hockey playoffs (but) I didn’t know where North Sydney was.”
He learned quickly.
Billick, MacLean and Dalling became an all-Pictou County line that led the way as the Franklins won the Cape Breton league.
“(Our) line scored most of the goals and the fans expected us to beat Halifax (but) way in the back of our minds we were doubtful. Saint Mary’s just had a powerhouse. They simply overpowered us. With tough guys like John Brophy, they more or less chased us out of the rink.”
When 1952-53 arrived, MacLean had left to play for the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in intercollegiate ranks and Day was also among the missing. Among newcomers was Dorrington.
So what happened?
A new all-Pictonian unit was comprised of Billick, Dalling and Dorrington – and what a line it was! It was considered the most explosive junior combination in the Maritimes.
“We scored all the goals,” Billy told me. “We must have scored 99 per cent of the goals. I’m not bragging or anything. That’s just the way it was.”
Statistics supported his claim. The threesome had 82 goals among 155 points. Billick was the big lamplighter with 30 markers, Dorrington had 28 and Dalling added 24.
Another Billick gem: “It felt pretty good getting all those points. I think we showed off a little bit. But everyone expected us to carry the team, and we had to prove ourselves.”
North Sydney won the Cape Breton crown again and – no surprise – had to face Halifax once more. St. Mary’s were seeking their eighth consecutive Maritime championship.
What a series it was!
The best-of-seven affair actually took eight games to declare a winner, one overtime contest ending as a tie because of a midnight curfew.
Game eight was shifted to neutral ice at the Sydney Forum. Over 4,300 fans – 800 over capacity – packed into the building. That was the Forum’s biggest attendance ever.
The Franklins did it, winning 4-1. And, yes, all four North Sydney goals were scored by Pictonians. The winning goal? By the defenceman, Cheek, who notched his first marker in the playoffs.
Billick’s memory of the win?
“I don’t know how to put it. Honest to God, I don’t know how to put it. It was a real good feeling. Other than that, I don’t know what to say. We were happy for the people of North Sydney, too. They backed us so much.”
When I sat down with Billy to get his recollections of the thrill of his life, it was in March of 2004 – a full 51 years since the triumph.
Though the Cape Breton club lost to Timmins Porcupine Combines in a Memorial Cup playoff in North Sydney, there was no loss of words on Billy’s part.
“Beating Halifax,” he said without hesitation, “that’s what we really wanted to do. And we did it.”
It would prove to be the highlight of his hockey life, a career that was good enough to see him inducted into the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame in 1995.
Of course his playing days didn’t end with North Sydney. He moved on to senior hockey for 10 seasons, most of them with the New Glasgow Rangers under coaches like Leo Fahey, Leo Amadio and Bob Serviss.
He was among the most efficient scorers most years in the APC and Nova Scotia leagues, but he was gone by the time New Glasgow won the Maritime title under Fleming Mackell in 1964-65.
That didn’t bother him a bit. He was just happy to see his old club win all the marbles under the former NHL star.
No, Billy Billick wasn’t a big man physically. But he sure made up for that by giving 100 per cent every time he was on the ice, for every team he played with.
No wonder fans liked him.