THE LEGACY OF MARCEL DIONNE

THE LEGACY OF MARCEL DIONNE

On Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in St. Catharines the London Knights edged the Niagara Ice Dogs 1-0 to sweep their best of seven OHL championship final series 4-0.  It was the third OHL championship for Dale Hunter’s Knights in the past five years.

Now living in Strathroy, Ontario, I listened to the game on the radio.  The next day I saw a picture of Knight’s co-captain and Toronto Maple Leaf prospect Mitch Marner celebrating on the ice in St. Catharines with his teammates and the J. Ross Robertson Cup.

That photo conjured images for me of 45 years earlier on another Wednesday evening.

The year was 1971.  It was my mother’s birthday, April 28th.  I had made the trip down the QEW from my hometown of St. Catharines to Toronto to cheer on the Black Hawks as they took on the Marlboros in the OHA finals.  The Hawks did not disappoint, skating away with a 5-3 victory, sweeping a similar best of seven championship final series 4 games to 0.

My most prized possession is a photo taken from the St. Catharines Standard the following day.  It depicted Black Hawk captain Marcel Dionne skating around Maple Leaf Garden’s ice with the same J. Ross Robertson Cup, albeit the base was considerably smaller than the one coveted by the Knights 45 years later.

Marcel was kind enough to autograph the clipping for me.  In a promotional venture fans could meet the Hawk star at Swick’s Electronics Service Centre on Lake Street.  I went to high school with the owner’s son, Greg.  We attended St. Catharines Collegiate, the same high school that Marcel and the rest of his Hawk teammates attended, likely due to its close proximity to the arena.

Oddly, when I went in to meet him, I was the only fan there.  We had a brief chat.  I was totally star struck.  Marcel was kind, personable, welcoming and gentle, almost embarrassed at his blossoming fame.  Most importantly, he was incredibly humble.  His humility struck me the most.  Although destined to become one of the greatest players of all time, this young man’s character easily set him apart from the many arrogant junior hockey players I have come to know and work with in the future.

Our paths did not cross again until about 1980.  Marcel was now a superstar with the L.A. Kings.  He dropped into a McDonald’s in Niagara Falls on Thorold Stone Road with some friends that I was managing at the time.  We spoke briefly.  He hadn’t changed a bit – polite, gracious, and most importantly, remarkably humble, far from the image and persona of many of today’s so-called superstars.

The first time I saw Marcel play was at a Black Hawks’ Red vs. White inter-squad game.  You couldn’t take your eyes off of him.  He was easily the best player on the ice.  He was dynamic.  His stick handling, speed, creativity and vision on the ice were greater than any player I had ever seen.

I have never seen a player who enjoyed scoring a goal more than him.  Every goal was absolute euphoria and delight.  You felt like you were scoring the goal with him, celebrating the splendor and joy.  It left all of his fans with a warm, glowing feeling inside.

He spent three memorable years in St. Catharines.  I never missed a game.  To this day he is the finest player I ever saw to play the game.  I recall with time dwindling down in the second period at a match in Garden City Arena, the Black Hawks needed a goal badly.  Despite having season’s tickets, I preferred to stand.  I was in Section A with my friends.  We stood in the end zone.  We always got there incredibly early to secure our favourite spots.  Marcel swooped in behind the Black Hawk net in front of us in full flight to pick up the puck.  I looked up at the clock.  Six seconds remained in the period.  I thought, “Can he do it?  Can he skate the length of the ice and score in six seconds?”  Marcel flew down the left wing, dodging and weaving.  He blurred past the opposing defensemen and cut in front of the opposition goal beating the goaltender with a shot just before the final buzzer.  After a brief moment of utter shock from the jaw-dropping fans, the rink erupted into hysteria.  It was the greatest individual effort I had ever seen in a goal – although Peter Maholvich’s shorthanded marker in game two of the Summit Series in Toronto is a close second.

Would Marcel remember that goal from so many years ago in St. Catharines that is etched so clearly into my mind, like it was scored yesterday?   Likely not.  Why?  He scored hundreds just like them over his storied career, most of them in extreme obscurity on the west coast with the Los Angeles Kings, long before TSN brought you the highlights of the night.

Many a night I fell to sleep listening to a Kings’ broadcast on my transistor radio.  Rarely did the Kings ever play in Toronto, so you could actually see Marcel play.

Little did Marcel know that following that memorable match on Maple Leaf Gardens ice on April 28, 1971 that he was going to be front and centre in two of hockey’s most controversial and historical series in the next 15 months.

There was to be no Memorial Cup in 1971.  The Western Hockey League was using ineligible overage players and was not allowed to compete for the national junior championship.  The protocol was the Ontario champion and the Quebec champion would play a best of seven series for the Richardson Cup, symbolic of the Eastern Canadian championship.  Under normal conditions that winner would play the Western champ for the Memorial Cup – but not this year – or so it was thought.

Instead the Ontario league champion Black Hawks, would only play the Quebec league champs, the Quebec Remparts for the Eastern Canadian Championship Richardson Cup.  The series pitted two future Hall of Fame players, Marcel Dionne leading his Black Hawks against Guy Lafleur, who had scored 130 goals and 209 points in 62 games that season for his Remparts.  Marcel had led the OHA in scoring with 62 goals and 143 points in just 46 games shattering the OHA career scoring record.  Both players averaged over 3 points a game during the regular season.

Adding even more intrigue to the series was the fact that the NHL Montreal Canadiens held the first overall pick in the upcoming 1971 NHL Amateur Draft.  Dionne and Lafleur were easily the top two picks, but who would they take?

It was a difficult time for Canada in 1971.  Tensions between Anglophones and Francophones were reaching a fever pitch.  The FLQ (Front de Liberation du Quebec), a separatist paramilitary group that supported the Quebec sovereignty movement, were terrorizing Canada.  Just seven months earlier the FLQ had kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, with Laporte being killed.  Throughout the FLQ’s reign of terror they were responsible for 160 violent incidents which resulted in eight deaths.

Dropped into this fire keg was a pair of junior hockey teams.  Similar to the Summit Series with Russia just a few months later, there was much more at stake than the result of a simple hockey series.

Coaching the Remparts was Maurice Filion.  Filion was Marcel’s coach in Drummondville the previous year.  Many Quebecers were upset that Marcel had left the province to play in Ontario where the level of play was considered superior to that in Quebec. This was just the second season of play for the fledgling new Quebec Junior A league.  Filion had vowed revenge against Marcel for deserting his province.

The first two games of the series were played in St. Catharines.  Thanks to some remarkable goaltending the Remparts took game one by a 4-2 score despite being heavily outplayed.  After the win coach Filion complained about the biased officiating stating that it was anti-Francophone.

Following the game I rushed home, picked up a lawn chair and returned to Garden City Arena with my friends.  We spent the night parked in front of the arena doors so we would be first in line the next day for tickets.  It was my first all-nighter of my life.  We spent the night talking about the game, being interviewed by local radio stations and watching the line of fans continue to grow behind us.  By daybreak, the line of fans wrapped themselves around the rink.  It was the one and only time I was ever late for school.  We were minor celebrities for a day at school, but it was so difficult to stay awake.  Marcel and his Hawk teammates did not disappoint us in game two.  They blasted the Remparts 8-3 with Marcel netting four goals.  It was without a doubt the most noise I have ever heard in an arena.

Games three and four were played in front of overflow crowds at the Colisee in Quebec City.  The Remparts won both games by scores of 3-1 and 6-1 to take a 3-1 series lead.  In game two the Hawks drew 77 of the 102 penalty minutes assessed in the game.  Game four ended in chaos amidst riots as angry mobs circled the Black Hawks bus and motel.  The Hawks required police protection to escape the arena, crawling on their hands and knees.  NHL scouts were pondering about drafting the Remparts’ organist whose electrifying play, even while the game was in progress, had the crowd whipped into a wild frenzy.

I witnessed the violence first hand.  My friends and I made the trip on a fan bus to show our support.  Sadly, it has been my one and only visit to one of Canada’s greatest and most historic cities.

Due to the national media attention the series was drawing, it was decided to move game five from Garden City Arena in St. Catharines to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.  The Black Hawks doubled up the Remparts 6-3 in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a Junior A hockey game at that time.

With game six set for Quebec City, the Black Hawk players’ parents refused to allow their sons to return.  The Hawks had asked for the game to be moved to any other rink in the province of Quebec other than the Colisee.  The Remparts refused.  Amid threats against the Black Hawk players from the FLQ, the Hawks stood firm and refused to return.  The Hawks defaulted the game and CAHA president Dawson awarded the series to Quebec.

With the favoured Black Hawks eliminated, a hastily arranged best 2 of 3 series was set with the Edmonton Oil Kings, which the Remparts easily won, and Quebec City won its first Memorial Cup – a cup that was never supposed to be awarded.

And thus a youthful Marcel Dionne witnessed his fractured country pulling apart and the biggest black mark ever against Junior hockey in Canada.

For political reasons the Canadiens had little choice but to select Lafleur in the draft.  Marcel was taken second by the Detroit Red Wings.  Dionne easily outdistanced Lafleur in his NHL career playing on much weaker teams.  One can only guess what more he may have accomplished had he landed in Montreal.  Oddly, in a strange twist of fate, Marcel would end his illustrious career playing alongside Lafleur with the New York Rangers.

With the nation splintering, a series was set in September of 1972 to pit Canada’s best professionals against the U.S.S.R’s best “amateurs”.  It was of course not Canada’s finest.  Many of Canada’s greatest stars were playing in the rival WHA (World Hockey Association), including the dynamic Bobby Hull, Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson and J.C, Tremblay.  “To Russia With Hull” was a popular slogan throughout Canada as many lobbied to have Hull and the others added to the team, including Prime Minister Trudeau.  I had sent away to radio station 1050 CHUM in Toronto for my “To Russia With Hull” button. Unfortunately, only NHL players were allowed to participate.

Like every hockey fan in St. Catharines, we were thrilled to hear that Marcel, fresh off of his rookie campaign in Detroit, would be part of the team.  We couldn’t help but notice that Lafleur was not invited.  Team Canada pride may have been stronger in the Niagara region than in any other area of Canada.  No less than six former Teepees or Black Hawks were named to the team including Pat Stapleton, Stan Mikita, Vic Hadfield, Dennis Hull, Phil Esposito and Marcel.  Just seven miles down the road three former Niagara Falls Flyers were part of Team Canada as well.

With St. Catharines Standard sports editor Jack Gatecliff at the helm, any former Teepee or Black Hawk was always given superlative coverage wherever they were in the hockey world after graduating from the Junior A ranks in St. Catharines.  The 72 Summit Series was certainly no exception, especially with so many graduates on the roster.  In the near future I had the honour and privilege to work alongside Mr. Gatecliff as the Black Hawks’ team statistician and press box attendant.  He was one of the nicest and grandest men that I have ever known – a true professional.

I watched game one in Montreal at a friend’s home.  The rest of my hockey buddies were all in Toronto attending a Moody Blues concert.  Team Canada got off to great start with an early 2-0 lead.  My friend and I were cautiously optimistic, but something didn’t seem quite right.  By the time the game was over, the nightmare had begun, and for 27 days in September, the nightmare continued.  There was a black cloud hanging over everything you did or thought about, an eerie feeling of impending doom.  I wasn’t sure if life would be worth living had we lost to the Russians.

The next day we had difficulty explaining to our friends what they had missed.  They brushed it off.  “A fluke game.”  “It could never happen again.”  “We will easily take the other seven games.”  No convincing would work.  We played like we were the powerless humans against the Martian’s heat ray in “War of the Worlds.”  The Russians were like an impenetrable, precision-like machine, and for the first time in my life I doubted our global hockey supremacy.

After the game two Team Canada win in Toronto, my friends were even more convinced that game one was just some fluke.  They weren’t feeling that way after Winnipeg and Vancouver.

By now the series had taken on a much larger role.  It was no longer about which country had the superior hockey team.  It became a series of ideologies.  Which country had the better way of life, democracy or communism?

With the game five loss in Moscow the Canadians were really in a deep hole.

I was attending Brock University at the time.  It was my first year.  The only time I missed a lecture while attending Brock was to watch game seven.  The University had televisions set up in the hallways for the students to watch the game.  I have never felt so much tension in one place with a group of people at one time.

Game eight I watched at home in the basement apartment my father had built for me in our home on Norwood Street on a small black and white portable TV.  While the game was on my mother was at work at Shaver Hospital on top of the escarpment across the road from Brock.  My dad was retired and watched the game with me.  We were stunned beyond belief by the end of the game, and the shocking and unexpected end of the series.  My dad would pass away two years later.  Game eight was the last hockey game that we watched together.  I can still feel him sitting next to me on the chesterfield as our eyes were locked on the TV screen.  My dad kept repeating over and over, “I don’t believe it.  I just, don’t believe it.”

Certainly, hockey was never the same again.

I have often thought back on my personal hockey hero, Marcel Dionne.  As everyone else in St. Catharines, we were overwhelmed with joy that Marcel was a member of the team.  He didn’t dress for game one, or two, or three.  As the series evolved it became more and more evident that he may never get a chance to play.  Even explosive Gilbert Perreault saw action in just two games.

As well as many others, Marcel never did play.

I’m sure the intention was that this series would be a cakewalk for the Canadians.  They would overpower the Russians in every game of this “Friendship Series”.  Once they had a sizable lead, they would work some of the younger players into the lineup.  That of course, never happened. We were playing for our hockey lives, and on a much deeper level, for our way of life and everything that we valued.

I have often wondered how some of these players felt who never got an opportunity to play.  I would see Marcel at Team Canada functions and gatherings.  He was a member of Canada’s Team of the Century without playing a game.  Did he feel awkward attending these events?  Did he feel like he didn’t belong?  Did he feel like he shouldn’t be there?  Why was he there when he never played?

My concerns quickly evaporated when I heard Pat Stapleton discuss what he felt was the difference in the series on Sportsnet 590 The Fan with Bob McCown.  With a 35-man roster and only 18 skaters and two goaltenders dressed for each game, a lot of players were seeing very little or no ice time at all in the series.  A dedicated group of players sitting on the sidelines played a vital role.

Pat commented, “The one thing that happened on the way to the end was the young guys raised the level of competition in practice.  They wanted in the lineup so the practices got more intense and I think that made the difference.”

So Marcel and all of the other players who didn’t get a chance to play much, or at all, played a very important role.  Their level of competition raised the bar at practice.  The Canadians went into the series not in top physical form.  The veterans had to work diligently just to keep their spot on the roster.  The passing, the speed, the tempo, the timing, and most importantly, the teamwork all started to come together at a phenomenal pace thanks in large part to group of players who never got to play in the series.

I firmly believe that if they would have played another eight games, the Canadians would have never lost another game.

So in a short span of just 15 months Marcel traveled from the lowest depths of a fractured country with the unfortunate events in Quebec City to the pinnacle of a nation once again unified by something as profoundly simple and Canadian as a hockey team.  Many historians consider the Summit Series the third biggest historical event in Canadian history.

So now we all have the tremendous opportunity to meet some of these remarkable athletes as they travel across Canada, to interact with them, to hear their stories first hand, to ask questions and participate in this innovative open forum.

The 72 Summit Series Tour will begin on September 2 in Montreal.  They will travel to Winnipeg on September 6 and Vancouver on September 8 before returning to Toronto on September 10.

Adversity introduces a man to himself.  Marcel had a lifetime of adversity in just a few short months, a lot to put on the shoulders of any young man.  People and countries respond to adversity in many different ways.  In some it builds great character, in others it tears them apart.  Just like our great nation and the brave settlers who founded it, it took simple people, from humble beginnings, both French and English to restore our national pride.  We have never looked back.

David Honsberger has University degrees in Psychology and Child Studies at Brock University. He is a former developmental therapist and child care worker at the Niagara Child Development Centre working with learning disabled, emotionally disturbed children. David was the former team statistician for the OHA St. Catharines Black Hawks and Niagara Falls Flyers under the legendary “Hap” Emms. He is a former journalist and columnist for the Strathroy Age Dispatch. A winner of the Stuart Bolton Memorial Award for the Strathroy Rockets Volunteer of the Year in 1996, David served for seven years as the club’s president. He was honoured in 2015 when he was inducted into the Strathroy Rockets/Blades Wall of Fame in the builder category. A 20-year volunteer with the Rockets, David has provided colourful honest commentary for the Strathroy Rockets radio broadcasts on 105.7 my FM. He resides in Strathroy with his mother and his two cherished Savannah cats, Scout and Hey, Boo. He is the owner and operator of one of the longest running independent video stores in North America, Entertainment Tonight.

David Honsberger

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