Pictou Advocate sports

Junior hockey loop reaches 50th year


It was a long time ago.

So long ago that, yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs were the Stanley Cup champions and the National Hockey League was just getting ready to expand from its Original Six status.

So long ago that Don Cherry was still playing defence in minor pro hockey, still years away from coaching Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins, still many moons away from being a controversial mouthpiece on Hockey Night in Canada.

So long ago that, closer to home in Pictou County, it was only two and a half years since Fleming Mackell and the New Glasgow Rangers had been crowned Maritime senior champions. So long ago that future Stanley Cup winners Colin White and Jon Sim wouldn’t even be born for another 10 years.

It was 1967. A small group of hockey personalities got together and formed the Metro Valley Junior Hockey League to operate at the junior B level. No, Pictou County was not involved in that initial season. Club members were the Halifax Colonels, Dartmouth Hoyts Arrows, Windsor Royals, East Hants Penguins, Kentville Riteway Rangers and Berwick Shell Junior Bruins. In the years to follow, teams came and teams left. It was like a revolving door. But the Metro Valley never lost a beat, never lost a season.

In 1972, the New Glasgow Bombers and Pictou Maripacs joined. A year after that, the Stellarton Spitfires climbed aboard. The county had the makings of some very interesting rivalries.That didn’t happen, but one significant thing did – a very fine New Glasgow team went out and immediately won the title.

It’s still worth remembering.

That’s the club that was coached by Fraser MacLean, the club that dominated the ice from opening night until the title was achieved.

That’s the club that featured the likes of goalie Harry Aikens, Brad Rutledge, Kevin Campbell, Lawrence (Boo) Borden, Rocky MacNeil, Billy MacMillan, Keith Murdock, Cecil Duff, Kyle Patterson, Ronnie Paris, Phil Reid, Vince Mayich, Bobby Mitchell, Allan Cameron, Bart Bourguignon, Mert Arbuckle and John MacLeod. That’s the club, to be precise, that couldn’t be beaten. By anybody.

In the playoffs, they knocked off the East Hants Penguins and Truro Bearcats to win the division crown, ousted the Halifax Blazers for league honours, walloped the Antigonish Bulldogs for the provincial championship and topped the Charlottetown Colonels for the Maritime prize.

Those Bombers had gone 20-5 in post-season play, bringing their overall season record to 51-11-3. They outscored playoff opponents 144-62, finishing a campaign in which they embarrassed the opposition by a 415-180 margin.

That’s what I call domination.

At home during the playoffs, New Glasgow put 3,000-plus fans into the 2,500-seat Stadium several times. Several other games had crowds in the 2,000 range.
Junior hockey demonstrated that it had a very bright future in New Glasgow and Pictou County. Or so we imagined at the time.

It wasn’t to be. Before the 1975-76 campaign, Stellarton and Pictou bowed out. The very next year, New Glasgow, too, was gone, just four years after that marvellous championship run.

Again the county was on the outside. But the league continued, teams coming, teams going. And other major changes were taking place. The league graduated from B to the A level in 1977. Even more noticeable, the Metro Valley nameplate disappeared as the circuit was re-baptized the Maritime Junior A Hockey League.

The hockey was getting better and better. Rivalries were becoming established. Teams like the Cole Harbour Scotia Colts, Halifax Lions, Halifax Oland Exports and Dartmouth Fuel Kids were being successful. No Pictou County.

Finally, in 2004 – a long 28 years after New Glasgow had left the league – junior hockey was back, this time with a franchise that had stability, talent and a sound operation. The Halifax franchise, just two years removed from a league championship, moved to New Glasgow and became the Pictou County Weeks Crushers.

The rest is well known.

The Crushers quickly developed into one of the best hockey organizations ever to operate in the county. Twelve years later, they’re still a premier franchise.
As the league prepares to stage its 50th anniversary season, the Crushers are a part of a 12-team operation.

During the shuffling of franchises, the biggest advancement was adding teams in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, making it a true Maritime entity. There is little similarity between the charter members of 1967 and the lineup now operating in this province alone – the Crushers, Truro Bearcats, Amherst Ramblers, Valley Wildcats, South Shore Lumberjacks and Yarmouth Mariners. And there is the other division with five teams in New Brunswick and one in P.E.I.

What impresses me the most of all with this league is that it has strong leadership under its president and the ability of league and team executives to work together to keep the circuit at a high level, year after year after year.

That’s unique around here. I used to think the old APC League had a great history, surviving in the Antigonish-Pictou-Colchester region from 1922 to 1957.

That 35-year mark for a senior league seemed almost unbeatable in a sport where not just teams, but leagues, came and left with frequency. Sometimes there were no replacements and communities were often left without hockey.

With fond memories of those years, I’ve always remembered the uncertainties that surrounded franchises from season to season. You never knew until almost the last moment what teams would operate, or if the league would operate at all.

That’s why I’m delighted to see that this junior league – with all its alterations – has been able to exist for half a century.

With the league’s 50th season at hand, you can be sure there will be special events, special celebrations, throughout the season.

And birthday cakes big enough to support 50 candles.

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