55 Years Of Hockey In St. Thomas – by C Scott HoIland
The 2016/17 GOJHL season will be the 55th year of hockey in St. Thomas and along with it there will most likely be some notable celebrations.
The town may be more famous as the place where famed elephant Jumbo died (in 1885) than for its hockey team.
But junior hockey in St. Thomas goes back much farther than its modern birth in 1961. The town had a junior B franchise called the Kinsmen who played 14 games in the 1949/50 OHA Jr. B loop which consisted of Chatham, London, Wallaceburg and Sarnia. That squad compiled a record of 5-9 and ended up fourth.
A St. Thomas Jr. B franchise, the Barons, was granted for the 1961/62 Southwestern Jr. B grouping and ever since that time the town has had a team entered in a hockey league either junior or higher.
Under coach Keith Kewley the inaugural campaign was a huge success. The Barons captured first-place with a record of 26-9-1 and went on to win the playoff title and vie for the Sutherland Cup against the Waterloo Siskins. The Siskins won the series 4-1.
But the Barons weren’t finished showing their poise and power. For six consecutive years they played for the playoff crown within the Southwestern Jr. B. They would win the coveted playoff crown again in 1966/67 as well as finishing in first-place during the regular season, a feat they also did in 1961/62 and 1963/64.
In 1968/69 the Barons joined a number of other disenchanted Western Jr. B teams and left to become part of the Southwestern Jr. A Hockey League – an Outlaw League – which wasn’t sanctioned by the OHA. They changed their name to the Elgins.
The Elgins under coach Kewley would achieve the championship of that league in 1968/69 and would play the Flin Flon Bombers led by future NHL star Bobby Clarke for the National Championship. That series would become one of the most storied and famous ones in existence. The best-of-seven game set began in St. Thomas with the Bombers winning game one 6-2 and the Elgins roaring back to down the Bombers 6-3 in game two.
The series then headed to Flin Flon where the Bombers whitewashed the Elgins 5-0 in game three. Game four was as lopsided as the previous one with the Bombers holding 4-0 lead at 9:50 of the second period. The second brawl of the contest erupted at that juncture and Kewley and the Elgins walked off the ice and refused to return and finish the game. It cost the team as the championship was automatically awarded to Flin Flom.
By 1972 the Junior A franchise folded and was replaced by a Central Jr. C entity called the Colonels.
When the OHA formulated new Jr. B groupngs for the 1978/79 campaign, St. Thomas was re-entered into the Western Jr. B Hockey League and they have remained a part of it since that time.
Initially they were known as the Colonels and by 1980/81 were re-named the Pests, a moniker that not only sounded horrible but struggled as much as the Colonels did. For the 1984/85 campaign they were christened the Stars and that name has remained.
The Stars would capture consecutive playoff titles in 1985/86 and 1986/87 then repeat the feat nearly a decade later when they turned the trick in 1994/95 and 1995/96.
In 1991/92 they became a part of the newly re-aligned Western Jr. B which had an East and West Division as it expanded to 10 teams. The Stars would win first-place in regular season East Division three times (1994/95, 1997/98 and 1998/99) out of the eight seasons of the split league.
After all the teams in West became one division, the Stars had a high turnover of players and finished dead last in 2001/02. But that did not deter them. They hired Dan Rose who helped rebuild the team into a highly competitive one and after a couple of years of ups and downs and an ownership change, the team began its climb towards the top again. Under the leadership of owners Joe Daniels and Ron Horvat and with Horvat as the club’s longest serving coach (2008/09-2014/15, a total of 7 seasons), the Stars would reach that lofty pinnacle they had dreamed about for so long. In the 2010/11 season the club finished fourth in regular season but won the Weir Cup (playoff title) just a year after finishing seventh and losing the playoff title to the fifth-place LaSalle Vipers.
Among the NHLers who have made their journey via the St. Thomas Jr. B franchise are: Greg Campbell, Dan Cloutier, Logan Couture, John Cullen, Rick Foley, Bo Horvat, Ken Murray, Danny Schock, Brad Selwood, Joe Thornton, and Brian Willsie.
Whether it’s the Barons, Elgins, Colonels, Pests or Stars, St. Thomas junior hockey has had its stars and a slew of popular players during the last 55 seasons. Many hold records while others had achievements via awards. Yet during all the years they have been at the Jr. B level, they have won seven playoff crowns and appeared in four Sutherland Cup finals. While they had one Southwestern Jr. A crown the elusive Sutherland Cup has only been gained once in those four trips. In 1986/87 they won the Cup 4-0 over the Niagara Falls Canucks. They lost their first appearance to Waterloo (1961/62), were defeated 4-0 by the Stratford Cullitons in 1994/95 and lost 4-2 to Niagara Falls in 1995/96.
During that past 55 years fans, players and the community have benefitted greatly from the Stars organization where it’s been hockey at the St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Arena or the new Timkin Community Centre facility.
This franchise has churned out well-rounded young men who have prospered and become leaders. That is a tradition which shall continue and the GOJHL and West Conference teams all wish the organization an extremely joyful 55th anniversary!
Stars black commemorative (50th) anniversary sweater
From the C. Scott Holland collection