Remembering those Thorburn moments

Sports

If you were a total stranger to this part of the world, you might be asking, where and what is Thorburn?

Wikipedia, the much-used online information site that bills itself as “the free encyclopedia,” gives us a brief undated explanation of the Pictou County community.

“The small rural Nova Scotia town,” it says, “has a hair salon, sports arena, a school, a few churches and a fire hall. It is home to several farms and is also the hometown of Mike Smith who plays the character Bubbles on the Canadian television series Trailer Park Boys.”

Okay, I won’t debate Wikipedia’s limitations.

From a personal perspective, however, the one-time coal mining centre, a hop-step-and-jump outside New Glasgow, has been much more than that.

I’ll stick to its sports background for now.

My reason for addressing “the Vale” on this occasion is two-fold: retired National Hockey League player Lowell MacDonald, and the 1963-64-65 Thorburn Junior Mohawks who ruled junior softball in the Maritimes for three consecutive summers.

Why am I combining Lowell, the county’s best hockey player ever, with the juniors, arguably the best sports franchise in the region’s history?

It’s simple. A half century after both the player and the softball team distinguished themselves, a long-overdue project is bringing them together.

I refer to an idea that arose in November 2018 when the Junior Mohawks were in Halifax to attend the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, and to meet Bruce Rainnie, the president and CEO of the hall.

While in the city, team members began discussing the suggestion that Thorburn’s special hockey player should be honoured in a special way. They had noticed a photo of Lowell on display which said he was from New Glasgow.

Well, these guys weren’t going to let that go unnoticed. Though Lowell was born in New Glasgow’s old Aberdeen Hospital, the matter sparked a heated conversation among team members that the former NHLer spent his growing-up years in one place. Yes, in Thorburn.

Two years later, the discussion and subsequent proposal is culminating with the erection of a “Welcome to Thorburn” sign at the roadside as you cross the “overhead train bridge” entering the community.

A marvellous idea by a dozen and a half men who became hall of famers, too, joining Lowell, a 1982 inductee, in the provincial hall in 2001.

The official unveiling of the sign, displaying Lowell in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform, had to be altered, like most sports activities, because of COVID-19. As a consequence, there won’t be a large gathering of people.

That doesn’t lessen the significance of the event.

I love the Thorburn idea.

Though I left Pictou County soon after the Mohawks achieved their three-time reign and towards the end of Lowell’s 13-year NHL career, I have grand memories of both.

Lowell and I grew up at the same time, entered our different roles in the sports universe and have been close friends for 60-plus years.

Ah, the memories.

I think of our first get-togethers as teenagers on lazy summer afternoons in Thorburn, talking sports, trading hockey and baseball cards, hanging around his father’s store, or just watching the pretty girls going by.

I think of the grammar school game I covered for the Evening News on a Saturday morning at New Glasgow Stadium when Lowell’s team scored 14 times — and the kid from the Vale got all 14 goals.

I think of the 1958-59 East Pictou Rural High School team, with Lowell and many other MacDonalds becoming Nova Scotia champions. That evening there were so many fans in the rink that many hung from rafters to see the action.

I think of Lowell playing major junior hockey in Hamilton, climaxed by a Memorial Cup winner in 1961-62. Many times that winter his dad, John (Governor) MacDonald, and I met up at CKEC to check the scores coming in from Lowell’s games.

I think of the day I walked into the Detroit Red Wings training camp in the Motor City and Lowell, spotting me, skated over and, being in a salary dispute, said he was going back to Nova Scotia with me. We drove for 25 consecutive hours, stopping only for gas and junk food.

I think of the many great get-togethers we had chatting about things like when he played on a line with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

I think of 1973, when Lowell won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for exemplifying perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey — qualities that followed him wherever he went.

And, how could I forget the talented teenagers who played for the Junior Mohawks?

I spent those three storybook seasons at the end of their bench, filling my scorebook with their feats, discovering what a great bunch of young men they were, now in their mid-70s.

There were 19 of them: Donnie Bowden, Phillip Cameron, Art Forsyth, Mason Johnston, Ernie MacDonald, Hillard MacDonald, Leslie (Buddy) MacDonald, Steve MacDonald, Sam MacDougall, Robert MacEachern, Gordon McKay, Bill MacKinnon, Gordie MacKinnon, Graham MacLean, Allan MacLaughlin, Cyril MacLeod, Bill Munro, Melvin Smith and John Vance.

Two names I must add. Tommy Forsyth, the head coach, was an influential leader whose personality played a major role in the victories. His assistant was Bobby MacDougall, the postmaster at the Thorburn post office. Yes, Wikipedia, there was a post office in the community.

No surprise that the Thorburn-Lowell sign committee has five members from the long-ago roster: Bowden, Hillard MacDonald, Gordie MacKinnon, MacLaughlin and Smith. Also being a big contributor is the region’s municipal councillor, Randy Palmer.

Just three minutes from where I live, there’s an eye-catching sign alongside the road, “Welcome to Cole Harbour, Home of Sidney Crosby.” It’s been a very popular addition.

I’m sure the reaction will be similar out in the Vale, a fitting tribute to a true “Thorburn native” who turns 79 years of age in less than six weeks.

My warmest congratulations, old friend.


The Thorburn-Lowell Sign. The committee is standing behind the sign. They are, from the left: Gordie MacKinnon, Donnie Bowden, Allan MacLaughlin, Melvin Smith and Randy Palmer, area councillor. Missing is Hillard MacDonald. (Submitted photo)