Sarnia Celebrates 65th Season Of Junior Hockey – by C. Scott Holland
Few franchises can boast about being a supreme hockey entity for nearly 60 seasons. But one of the very few that can is the Sarnia Legionnaires organization. Through triumph and turmoil they have etched a historic legacy full of memories, records, personalities and championships.
They began in post World War II as a fledging new franchise which made its home at the now famous “Brock St. Barn.” Known originally as the Sailors, Sarnia’s first foray into Jr. B action was one which future teams would use as a model. That first 1950/51 Jr. B entry finished with an unblemished record of 16-0 and matched onward to capture the Sutherland Cup 4-1 over the Weston Dukes.
Financial problems plagued the team in 1953/54 and they nearly dropped out. Ice rental fees were owed to the city and if the Sarnia Legion hadn’t stepped in to aid the team with financial support the franchise may not have existed.
Beginning with the 1954/55 season they were christened the Legionnaires. They would vie for the Sutherland Cup again in 1955/56 topping the Dixie Beehives. It was the start of a golden era of junior hockey in Sarnia as they grabbed back-to back All-Ontario titles in 1957/58 and ’58/59. Future NHLer Pat “Whitey” Stapleton, who played on 10 championship teams during his career, moved on to win a Memorial Cup with the St. Catharines Tee Pees, was a star defenseman on those teams and would soon become a Chicago Blackhawk and Team Canada legend.
Despite being near the top of the standings every season, the Legionnaires did not repeat that success until 1965/66 when they downed Toronto Westclair 4-2 to reel in their fifth Sutherland Cup trophy in 15 years.
Two years later with snipers Steve Stefanko and Cavan Simpson were part of the most prolific offensive team of all Sarnia Jr. B lineups notching 345 goals and steamrolling to yet another Sutherland Cup. Stefanko was the Western Jr. B scoring champ with 117 points and league leader with 77 assists. Simpson tallied 52 goals.
But the powerhouse suddenly ran into a few hurdles. Management decided the next season to join several other Jr. B teams as they formed an Outlaw league which tried to mimic a rather young forerunner of the modern OHL.
However after a season of that experiment and a change in ownership, the franchise returned to the Western Jr. B loop as the Sarnia Bees.
It didn’t take long for the new team to draw fans and another Cup. In their second season a young lad and future NHLer named Bill Lochead set the West’s record for most goals in one single season as he drilled 72 markers. It would be nearly two decades before that mark would even be contested but never matched or beaten.
They would start the 1980s by being runner-up for the Cup in the 1981/82 finals falling 4-2 to St. Michael’s College Buzzers.
By the 1990s the corporate name “Ranson” had been added to the Bees and they had several highly successful seasons but failed to gain a playoff title.
The aftermath was another change.
They abandoned the Sarnia Arena and played out of the Clearwater rink from 1995/96 until 1999/2000 when they began playing on the new larger ice surface at Lambton College, the new home of the OHL Sarnia Sting, then known as the Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre. During that spell they were known as the Sarnia Steeplejack Bees.
Prior to the 2001/02 season management announced a new name and logo. They became the Sarnia Blast and returned to the fabled, downtown Brock St. Barn.
Yet another era was dawning. They would provide some excitement as they knocked off some playoff favourites, won the title and the Sutherland Cup by taking the Elmira Sugar Kings in a hard-fought seven game series solidly coached by Len Press.
A few years later legendary NHL alumnus Pat Verbeek took over the helm and began assembling the foundation for more success. In 2008/09 current GM Bob Williamson was part of a new management and ownership team which reverted the name back to the original Legionnaires moniker. Since then they have had a roller coaster ride but have stayed highly competitive.
Six Sarnia Jr. B players have won the West’s scoring title, the last being Jason Teschke who turned the trick in 2013/14. Several of their goalies have garnered the lowest goals against average, too. Names like Bob Croot, Charlie Thus and Steve Maxwell come to mind as well as top goalies like Steve Bryce, Scott Talbot and Sean Parker. There have been the standouts like defenseman Josh Corneilissen who played the third highest number of games all-time of defenseman in the West, not to mention sniper Jesse Drydak who is 6th in all-time scoring with 120 career goals.
The highlight reels would not be complete without shining a light on Don Cain and Nathan Mater who co-hold records for scoring the fastest goals (4 sec.) at the start of periods – second and first respectively. Or Jeff Smith’s incredible night of 10 pts. against the Tillsonburg Titans on Dec. 30, 1988 and throw in Paul Crawley’s 8-goal splurge versus the Tillsonburg Mavericks on Feb. 28, 1960.
There’s been plenty of great action to witness at Sarnia home games including future Summit Series hero Phil Eposito’s remarkable playoff game vs Goderich Sailors (March 4, 1960) when he notched 5 g. and added 7 a. for a record 12 points.
Or how about one of the Legionnaires’ first games when they hosted the Seaforth Baldwins (Nov. 30, 1954). Late in the contest a brawl erupted which developed into both benches emptying and non-stop fights breaking out. After 10 minutes the police were called, But Sarnia Observer editor Freddie Wheeler began playing “God Save The Queen” and suddenly everything stopped and all participants stood at attention! Incredible that a bystander’s quick thinking prevented a total disaster from happening. Plus there was the only goal ever scored by a Western Jr. B goaltender. John Faulkner pumped that goal in a contest vs the St. Thomas Stars on Dec. 17, 2006.
Through good times and bad Sarnia has survived and among its may grads are the likes of NHL and WHA greats Norm “Red” Armstrong, Phil Esposito, Ian McKegney, Kirk Bowman and Pete Mara as well as Red Wings’ coach Ted Garvin.
Having a great fan base and 65 years of nearly non-stop Jr. hockey is a testament to the City of Sarnia, its management, its fans and the many players who have contributed along the way.
Happy 65th birthday Sarnia and may many more enjoyable seasons come your way!
(photo credit – Blackburn News)
C. Scott Holland is an accomplished author, a former Western Jr. B Hockey League statistician and is recognized as the West Conference’s and GOJHL’s historian. A lifelong resident of Leamington Scott was a journalist for the now defunct Leamington Post for 26 years and currently writes for the Southpoint Sun. Among the books he has authored are: 75 Years: A History of the Leamington and Erie Shores Golf Course; A Century In The Making – History of Heinz Canada 1909-2009; Leamington Flyers 1992/93-2011/12 Platinum Anniversary Special Program; the Western Jr. B Record Book 2003/04 and 2005/05 editions; as well as updates of both the West Conference and GOJHL Record Books. He was been a member of he Leamington Jr. Flyers hockey club for the last 27 years and served many years as a board member, statistician, press box announcer, and scorekeeper among other duties. He has been named the West Conference Volunteer of Year and a Windsor-Essex Sportsperson of Year award.