Pictou Advocate sports

Leafs once again turn to Antigonish


I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that I live the words of the late Prince Edward Island singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan in his hit Turn Back the Pages of Time.

Maybe the interpretation does fit.

I certainly believe the old saying that, the older you get, the more your mind turns back the calendar.

I do it often.

When Paul MacLean was added to the Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff two weeks ago, I was immediately thinking of his playing career — as well as his record as a coach — for different reasons.

Though Pictou County has remained in my heart through 50-plus years in absentia, I’ve also maintained a warm spot for neighbouring Antigonish.

The cathedral town had my childhood attention in the 1940s and ’50s, when I used to see the Antigonish Bulldogs — and sometimes the St. Francis Xavier X-Men — playing against New Glasgow, Stellarton and Pictou teams in the old APC Senior Hockey League.

The St. FX attachment was magnified in 1951-52 when the club won the Maritime intercollegiate and senior championships, then played the first round of the Allan Cup playoffs at New Glasgow Stadium. I was a pretty excited 13-year-old attending every game.

In my university time in Antigonish, I found off-campus time at the Wagon Wheel, owned by Buddy Sweet, one of the first hockey players I ever met when he played for the New Glasgow Bombers at the old Arena in New Glasgow. Not to mention my math professor, Shorty MacDougall, was the goaltender with those Bombers.

Early in my working career, I served on the Twilight Senior Baseball League executive, and later as president of the Stellarton Keiths, when Antigonish — another bunch of Bulldogs — was a competitive franchise. They had some great personalities on their roster.

There’s more.

When the Halifax St. Mary’s were a seven-year dynasty as Maritime junior hockey champs, that club had my attention because Antigonish’s John Brophy was a prominent member of the team.

I could go on, but I’m liable to forget that this column was inspired by MacLean’s joining the Leafs — and, as I may have written a few times, I’ve been a Toronto fanatic for 73 years.

Paul was born in France when his father was serving with the Canadian forces, but he was just a toddler when the family arrived in Antigonish. That’s where he grew up, where he started hockey, where he developed into one of Nova Scotia’s finest.

He was the top scorer with the Dalhousie Tigers when they were Atlantic Conference champions, then played for the St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and Detroit Red Wings. In 1980, he played for Canada at the Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

I never have to look up how many goals Paul scored in the NHL — where he flashed the red light an impressive 324 times.

Why do I remember the number?

Because when I first became a hockey fan, Nels Stewart held the NHL record with, yes, 324 markers. As a youngster, I recall listening to the game on the radio when Stewart’s mark was broken by Maurice (Rocket) Richard in 1952.

Confirming how scoring has changed in the NHL, the last time I checked, Paul MacLean’s 324 tallies stood 175th on the all-time scoring list. He maybe doesn’t know that himself, but I’ve forever loved the statistical side of sports.

Anyway, I was happy when I heard the Leafs added MacLean to Sheldon Keefe’s staff. It could bring the Antigonish product his biggest coaching triumph. The blue and white are becoming a real contender with all their young stars and, you never know, the MacLean name may still get on the Stanley Cup.

Paul is 62, certainly young enough to be around if the Leafs can end a title drought that has reached uppermost proportions. Okay, I’ll be more precise by adding that my beloved club hasn’t won the silverware for 53 years.

Earlier there was Brophy.

Most fans in Antigonish can remember his time as head coach in Toronto. He was there for two and a half years (193 games) — hired in July of 1986, fired six days before Christmas in 1988.

People of my age can recall his playing days, too. I can remember him in various stages of his career.

You could easily pick him out when his minor hockey teams came to Pictou County. He was already showing an aggressive style of play back then.

His hockey took him out of Antigonish early.

He was just 16 when he was an asset with the great Halifax St. Mary’s clubs. He spent three seasons on the Halifax blueline. Teammates included Pictou County’s Courtney Malcolm and Bobby (Lugs) Rae.

What do I recall most about Brophy? I’d say it was his huge passion for the game, as well as his intensity every time he was on the ice.

When I got to know him well personally, he was coaching the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. A couple times I was his guest for lunch and that’s when I truly realized what a love for hockey the guy had. As Vees coach, he passed his passion on to his players, many of whom became NHLers.

The last time I spoke with him, he and the Voyageurs were leaving Halifax. Our trails never met again. But I was delighted, 18 months later, when he became head coach of the Leafs.

I believed Brophy was a very decent coach. His problem was trying to succeed under the demanding, controversial owner, Harold Ballard. Who else would have fired his coach a week before Christmas?

Now Paul changes his colours to blue and white.

He did a commendable job as bench boss with the Ottawa Senators despite another problematic owner — and did a job good enough to be named NHL coach of the year.

Hopefully, the Leafs position will be a rewarding one.