Pictou Advocate sports

When Charlottetown had our attention


It seems like a generation ago. Perhaps more like two generations, in fact.

Ever think of those times?

There were no cell phones, no smart phones, no email or Facebook. There were no Tim Hortons or McDonalds on every street corner, no box stores as unbearably huge as Costco and IKEA. There weren’t dozens of sports channels to choose from on our television screens. Heck, there was no TV.

In Pictou County? We didn’t even have a radio station.

That’s what’s prompting my column this week — the 1950s when we had a much closer relationship to Prince Edward Island, more specifically to Charlottetown.

Those were the pre-CKEC days, when Pictonians shared more than the Northumberland Strait with the friendly folks across the water.

We listened to CFCY.

We glued our dials to “the friendly voice of the Maritimes” where we fell in love with Don Messer and the Islanders, where we heard the news from announcers like Loman McAulay.

We had reasons to go to the island — swimming and sunbathing on beautiful beaches, lobster meals just about everywhere, and watching Anne of Green Gables summer after summer.

There was no causeway, just ferry service out of Caribou that more often than not created long waiting periods to get the next boat.

Of course, in the county we had the Lighthouse Beach, Melmerby and Chance Harbour, but vacations were meant to be elsewhere — and Canada’s birthplace had lots to offer.

But winters, thanks to CFCY, offered something else for sports fans — a hockey team called the Charlottetown Islanders.

Yes, we had APC hockey at home, exciting action from teams like the New Glasgow Bombers, Stellarton Royals and Pictou Maripacs. But a switch of the dial to 630 got us play-by-play broadcasts of a higher level of senior hockey. That’s how Charlottetown caught our sporting hearts.

They played in what was known as the Maritime Big Four League, a calibre of the sport where a trophy called the Alexander Cup was the national objective.

The league initially had the Halifax St. Mary’s, Saint John Beavers and Moncton Hawks welcoming Charlottetown back into the fold after a long absence. By the next year, the Big Four grew into the Big Six, welcoming the Sydney Millionaires and Glace Bay Miners.

It was a league that had a lot of excellent Maritime players, but even more high-level imports brought in from other parts of Canada. There were no Russians, Finns or Swedes coming to this part of the hockey world. Almost all players in the NHL and down to circuits like the Maritime loop were Canadians.

Salaries were big in terms of 1950 dollars, so teams played long schedules despite travel restricted to cars and buses.

In those early 1950s, the Maritime clubs played three home games and three road games every week — even though there was no Sunday hockey. That meant many miles of travel.

That’s how Pictou County fans benefited after the 1951 opening of New Glasgow Stadium. To ease hectic travel schedules, the Islanders hosted opponents like the Millionaires in New Glasgow.

More and more, we became familiar with the Charlottetown players, along with the two former NHL stars who coached the island, Murph Chamberlain and Leo Lamoureux.

The darling of the Islanders, though, was the great Roy (Buck) Whitlock, who made the habit of winning league scoring championships. Along with Pictou’s adopted Tic Williams and Amherst’s Shermie White, Whitlock was at the top of the Maritime talent pool.

Whitlock, along with such stars as Bucko Trainor, Phil Vitale, Bob Gray, Johnny and Danny Horeck, Frank Bathgate and goalie Hal Gordon, became almost as popular in Pictou County as the guys on the APC teams.

Thanks to CFCY, we followed Charlottetown through their exciting return to the Big Four playoffs. The Islanders reached the finals by beating Moncton. In a dramatic championship final between the Islanders and Sydney, it took eight games to complete a best-of-seven round.

The last Charlottetown-Sydney contest was at the neutral Halifax Forum. Almost 9,000 spectators showed up. Though Sydney won, Charlottetown had quite a following on both sides of the strait.

Maritime hockey fans still recall the seasons that followed, when the renamed Halifax Atlantics assembled one of the strongest lineups ever in amateur hockey as they took back-to-back Alexander titles. That level of hockey was costly. As a result, the league collapsed after the two Halifax wins.

Whether it’s one generation or two that have passed, I still love to think about those Charlottetown teams.

Our allegiance to CFCY soon began to fade. In 1953, New Glasgow finally got a radio station of its own.

Thanks to the late Jim Cameron, CKEC went on the air, operating from his old Eastern Chronicle building on George Street. New radio personalities entered our lives, including our high school athletic director, John (Brother) MacDonald, who became the station’s sports voice.

Sports-loving Pictonians were able to turn away from CFCY and, three times a day for decades, listened to the man who kept telling us that “we can’t all be good athletes, but we can all be good sports.”

I often thought of CFCY, especially when my family and I visited Charlottetown for winter hockey games and summer vacations.

Now, like an old aunt coming home, the Charlottetown Islanders have made a resurgence.

This time they’re in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, playing against teams like the Halifax Mooseheads, Cape Breton Eagles and Saint John Sea Dogs.

And oh how they’re making an impact, standing tall in the Maritime division.

What will transpire in coming months is more uncertain than at any time in history. The Islanders, like sports teams everywhere, face what we all face — the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, after seven decades, that Charlottetown Islanders nameplate still ignites thoughts of a radio station and a hockey club that provided memorable entertainment from across the Northumberland Strait.