It’s often been said that luck and fate are the same thing.
For two young hockey players who grew up in New Glasgow’s south end — a quarter of a century apart — it was clearly fate that intervened in their lives and dreams.
In both cases, it ended their chances of having professional careers, perhaps even playing in the NHL.
In 1952, it happened to Courtney Malcolm when a fluke injury at the New York Rangers training camp in Guelph, Ont., ended his opportunity. A small piece of a hockey stick, or maybe a penny frozen in the ice, was blamed.
Years later, Courtney summed up that depressing moment to me in just five words: “Game over; that was it.”
Twenty-five hockey seasons later, in 1977, it was Kevin Campbell, knocking on the door to becoming a Toronto Maple Leaf, He suffered an ankle injury that was first handled as a simple sprain. Too many months later, it was determined the injury had been misdiagnosed. It was a fracture.
Like Courtney years before, Kevin needed just five words to explain it to me: “That was pretty much it.”
Just like that, fate had ended both of their dreams.
What was notable about Courtney and Kevin is how their hockey days started in humble ways in the same part of town.
Growing up on MacDonald Street in the Hungry Thirties, in what Courtney and his buddies called the Devil’s Half Acre, his hockey began “in rough times back then.”
He learned the game on the East River, a frog pond and, much of the time, out on the unpaved streets. There was little organized hockey until he was 12.
Following in his father Syd’s footsteps, he improved so quickly that he was playing senior hockey with players twice his age when he was 16. There was no holding him back.
He was on a line with the great Boots Baird and scored his first senior goal for New Glasgow against Frankie Prozenor.
He was with a team in Saint John when a New York scout found him and, in 1949-50, he wound up in the Quebec junior league with Trois Rivieres. There he played against the likes of Boom Boom Geoffrion, Dickie Moore and Jean Beliveau. Reporters talked about him and Moore in the same way they compared Rocket Richard to Ted Lindsay.
Then, at 21, he was at the New York training camp in 1952. Working out with the Rangers, it appeared he’d be signed to play somewhere in the organization.
Then came that fateful day.
“I was breaking for the net when I fell on something, went down and slid right across and hit the far post with my right leg.”
He was taken away on a stretcher.
“The worst part of the deal, I was concerned about the back of my head, all the blood from the back of my head. I hit my head when I went down. There were no helmets then, or face masks, no nothing. It sure was some experience, I’ll tell you.”
He was in hospital for two months.
“I said, hell, I’m going home. I’m not going to lay here. I can go home and lay in the hospital. So I came home and, geez, I was a kind of bitter guy at that particular time. It was going through my mind, why me? What did I do wrong? I knew, even then, that my career was over.”
My interviews with Kevin were similar.
How as a youngster he lived near New Glasgow Stadium. How on wintry mornings before dawn, he’d walk alone to the rink, his gear over his shoulder. He’d be waiting out in the cold at six o’clock for the rink attendant to open up, then played for hours. It was house league hockey initially. He’d referee, too, just to get extra ice time.
“I’d be out there hour after hour. I loved the game so much.”
By his last year of high school, he was playing for Fraser MacLean’s New Glasgow Junior Bombers who won the Maritime championship.
For Kevin, though, education was a priority. He got a degree from St. Lawrence University in New York State, while playing hockey against schools like Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Yale.
Then came 1977 and the Toronto training camp. He played 10 exhibition games with the Leafs and, as camp ended, it was either him or Trevor Johansen for the last defence job. Kevin was told by Johnny Bower that front office people wanted him, but King Clancy convinced Harold Ballard to keep Johansen.
It was that close.
He kept being told he’d be brought back. Then, like Courtney before him, fate interrupted.
The next fall, he was still being told it had been just a sprained ankle. By the time the fracture was finally determined, it was too late.
“They asked me if I wanted to have surgery in Toronto or Halifax. Obviously I opted for Halifax.”
Kevin told me later: “Had I not had the injury, I’m very confident I would have made the NHL. I was so close I think that would have happened. But there are no regrets, none whatsoever.”
Like Courtney 25 years earlier, the curtain had fallen.
Two guys, both victims of fate, never held a grudge because of what ended their dreams. Each made it abundantly clear to me in conversations we had those years later.
Courtney’s comment: “I just wonder what it would have been like. It would have been nice.”
Kevin’s summation: “I look back and I say I’ve had an experience that a very select few had. I’m grateful for that.”
In the aftermath, their futures brought them back to their New Glasgow roots where it all started.
In both cases, they made long and valuable contributions to their community.
Nobody could ask more of them than that.