Each time I reach a career milestone or anniversary — they seem to come much quicker the older you are — I fear readers will get tired of reading about them.
Yet, for some time now, I was planning to focus this week’s column on the fact it was 65 years ago this week that my lifetime in newspapers began in New Glasgow. I used to wonder if I’d live for 65 years. Now I’ve been writing that long.
I scrapped that subject when I learned the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame’s 30th anniversary ceremonies in Westville on Oct. 19 will honour one of the finest persons I ever got to know in the local sports community.
I’ve known Pictou’s Mark Babineau, now 91 years young, for something like 70 years. Though hockey was his game — the sport in which he excelled — I think of even more important qualities when I think of him.
I realized long ago that he’s someone who is always easy to admire, easy to respect. In hockey, in community matters, in life itself, he’s an example of an exemplary human being.
I don’t think I ever approached him, in a hockey dressing room or anywhere else, without getting a friendly smile and warm handshake in return.
When I first paid attention to hockey in Pictou County in the late 1940s, he was among the first stars I enjoyed seeing.
When I was still in high school and writing sports for The Evening News, I was assigned to cover the Pictou County Pontiacs in 1955-56. Mark was one of their leading performers, scoring 24 goals in 12 games.
Almost half a century later, when I began writing sports columns for the Advocate in 2004, the very first person I interviewed was, yes, Mark Babineau. We had a grand afternoon discussing his hockey days and reminiscing about our long-time association.
You couldn’t sit down with Mark — then or any other time — without the conversation turning to hockey. He loved the game. He loved it a great deal.
There was no minor hockey program in Pictou when he was a kid during the Second World War years. But that sure didn’t prevent him from developing on his own.
And get this — he played in the old Pictou Arena from the time it opened in 1939 until it was torn down.
Before he became a teenager, he was dreaming of becoming, not an NHL player, but a member of the senior Pictou Maripacs. He achieved his goal when he was 17, playing alongside fellows as much as 20 years older than himself.
Almost immediately he became one of the best goal producers in the APC Senior League, where he played until that circuit folded.
A smart scorer? Darn right he was.
In 1949-50, just 21 at the time, he had 57 goals in just 32 games. In 1952-53, when the Maripacs won the league championship, he produced 30 goals in 16 outings, then added 16 more in nine playoff contests.
How did he become that good without minor hockey?
This was his explanation: “I learned by just going to the rink and watching the senior team practise, players like Tic Williams, Irving MacGibbon and Les Topshee. I’d go there and watch them and then I would go to a pond or out on the harbour and try and duplicate one of those guys.”
He learned well.
Though senior teams had only 35 or 40 games a season, Babineau scored over 350 goals in APC action.
Babineau and the great Tic Williams, who arrived in Pictou in 1942 and never left, were not only linemates for close to a decade, they were dear friends.
That relationship came to a tragic end much too soon.
In 1954-55, Mark and Tic were playing a game in Halifax when Williams suffered a heart attack on the bench. He was only 39.
In 1959-60, the two were enjoying a skating session in the Shiretown when Williams collapsed into Babineau’s arms and died. He was 44.
Babineau said of Williams: “He was like watching Gordie Howe or Jean Beliveau or any of those NHLers. This guy had it all. He was quite a man to get to know. If he knew you were trying or putting out 100 per cent, he’d really try to help you.”
Mark and Tic were good for each other.
With Williams gone, with the APC league gone too, Babineau turned to the old Rural Hockey League. In two years, he won two scoring titles.
Then Mark began coaching.
He helped with Pictou’s junior B club for a few years, then was head coach of the town’s entry in a new Highland Midget League. The Babineau-led entry won the Nova Scotia championship.
“I was pretty thrilled with that kind of stuff,” he told me.
Coaching the club worried him so much, he sometimes went home with the weight of the whole team on his shoulders. That winning season was his only one with the franchise.
“When we won the Nova Scotia championship, when I was walking out of the rink, I knew I wouldn’t be coaching again. I dropped my skates in the garbage bin.”
His contributions to county sports didn’t stop there.
In 1990, he was among the original inductees into the new hall of fame. He didn’t just accept the honour and leave. He was a key member of the board of directors for years and, currently, he’s the honorary chairman.
His induction, he said, “was about the climax of my life playing hockey. Being inducted with the great celebrities that are in there, I’m really proud of that.”
Now the hall will honour him again.
It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy and, without hesitation, I join Pictonians in congratulating him.
Through all these years, I’ve been proud to call him a friend.