Prior to the National Hockey League doubling from six to 12 franchises in 1967, professional organizations gobbled up young prospects in an archaic fashion that existed since young men first began wearing ice skates and carrying wooden sticks to frozen neighbourhood rivers and ponds.
Scouts and bird-dog watchers prowled hockey rinks wherever the sport was being played. When deserving recipients were discovered, official contact was allowed when players reached their 18th birthdays. That’s when they could be offered all kinds of goodies.
With expansion, however, the universal draft — now recognized across the hockey landscape — became the new way of obtaining future stars.
I served under the earlier method when I was regional scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s. I was hired by then Leafs head scout Bob Davidson, and reported to him.
In one busy period in that time, I was fortunate to sign five players who performed for teams in Pictou County.
Three were 18-year-olds — goalie Lyle Carter of Brookfield, who I watched playing with the junior Trenton Scotias; and forwards Hal Dobson and Fred Malcolm, teammates on both the Maritime midget champion News Glasgow Seven-Ups and the New Glasgow High School team.
Later, I signed 21-year-old Bob Judge and 20-year-old Jules Gagne, imports who came to the county to play for the New Glasgow Rangers in the Nova Scotia Senior Hockey League.
The five had a couple things very much in common — a deep love for the game of hockey and a dream to continue performing in the sport.
I was thinking of those five during the holiday period when I learned that Dobson had passed away in New Glasgow at the age of 76.
Hal attended a Leafs camp and could have spent the year playing junior in Ontario. Instead, he returned to New Glasgow because he couldn’t play in Ontario and attend high school.
He wanted his education and, after graduating from NGHS and studying at Saint Mary’s University, he had a highly successful career as an insurance agent.
Putting his studies ahead of pucks, I remember telling him it was an important, sensible and mature decision to make — especially when he was still in his teens, especially in those years of only six NHL clubs.
Years later, Hal and I got together and talked about the life he was enjoying.
“Hockey was certainly a good experience,” he told me then. “I certainly wouldn’t trade it for anything. It would have been nice if I had played it as a career for a while, just to be able to say I did it, but really, I have no regrets.”
Of course I hoped he’d join the Leafs, but how could I dispute his choice?
He married a hometown girl, the former Noreen Curley, they raised a son, and were valuable residents in the county throughout their marriage.
And, of course, he had his hockey memories.
“Every once in a while I came across an old picture or something, and it brings back memories. You can second-guess yourself, sure, and I have many times.
“There were only six teams, 120 players in all, in the NHL then, so you really had to be good, no question about it. I think I’d only be kidding myself to think that, had I stayed there, I would have made the National Hockey League.”
When I signed Hal, it wasn’t the first tryout contract he got.
The previous year, he attended a Boston Bruins camp and was the last player cut by the junior Niagara Falls Flyers. When he made his decision to go to Toronto’s camp in ‘62, the Bruins were trying to get him to return.
He had at least three teams after him. Montreal’s legendary general manager Sam Pollock came to New Glasgow, met with Hal, then still 17, and offered him a chance with the Canadiens.
He explained a key point.
“It was an education thing with Dad. He insisted they educate me. The Leafs didn’t have big bucks. Here I was a kid. I probably got $30 a week. But I was there six weeks. They couldn’t swing the school thing with me, so home I came and went back to school.”
Not all was lost.
It was in the 1961-62 season when Dobson, Malcolm and their mates won the Maritime midget crown.
As soon as he reached his 18th birthday, Hal and I got together and he signed the necessary C form with the Leafs.
He was in demand.
“When I got the official invitation from Toronto, I went to (the Leafs) camp along with Freddie. Lyle Carter was also there.”
Everything Davidson told me about Dobson was positive.
When Hal finally made a decision to return to New Glasgow, he had survived several player cuts and played a few exhibition games.
“I don’t think disappointment was the word to describe it,” he said. “I don’t think I was ever disappointed because I gave it my best shot.”
He had his fourth year with the high school club coached by John (Brother) MacDonald. He also was invited to join the senior Rangers by coach Leo Amadio.
Amadio “wanted Vernon Beck and myself and Stew Young for a kid line. But I was in school and you had to go away three times a week, so it would just be too hard. I said no thank you.”
With high school completed, Hal went to university for two years, worked in the cable television business, then got into the insurance business.
Even though I was the scout who signed him to the Toronto opportunity, I always felt he made the better choice by coming home to complete his education.
Anytime I saw him after his 1962 experience, he seemed happy about how everything had turned out.
To the Dobson family, my belated condolences. You’ve lost a very fine man.