The little town that could
Just over a quarter-century ago, an unlikely collection of hockey players brought a national title to Port aux Basques
Back in 2008, when Port aux Basques was in the running for the Kraft Hockeyville prize, there was a big celebration in town to rally the residents, and one of the invitees was an old friend from Quebec, a former hockey player by the name of Mario Roberge.
“Oh boy, did we have a great time,” said Ossie Coffin, who knew Roberge from years ago, back in the town’s provincial senior hockey days. “We were down at the Port Club, and Mario had his (Stanley Cup) ring on. He took it off and passed it around to everyone in the club.
“Geez, it must have been gone about an hour, making the rounds, and I finally said, ‘Mario, b’y, I don’t know…’
“He said, ‘Ossie, don’t worry about it. It’s all good.’ It finally came back to Mario about two hours later.”
Hence the love affair between Mario Roberge, the hockey story of hockey stories, and the folks of a small, southwestern Newfoundland ferry town.
This tale starts with Roberge (Stanley Cup winner, Les Canadiens de Montreal, circa 1993) because, well, it was this French Canadian hockey player who is a centrepiece of our tale.
It was the fall of 1987, and the Port aux Basques Mariners — from the little hockey town that could — were planning a return to the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League.
The Mariners initially joined the old provincial senior circuit in 1983-84, sparked perhaps by the play of local boy — well not exactly local, but being from Isle aux Morts, close enough — named, of all things, Juan.
Juan Strickland was starring for the Stephenville Jets — he was the league’s rookie of the year as a Jet — and convoys of hockey fans from Port aux Basques would make their way up to Stephenville weekly to watch Newfoundland senior hockey.
So a bunch of guys in Port aux Basques got together and lobbied the NAHA for a senior team. They were granted one, and in the fall of 1983, the Mariners were born.
Port aux Basques had its moments through two seasons, winning a combined 23 hockey games, but the big highlight was Strickland, coming home to play for the Mariners and winning back-to-back scoring titles.
But success on the ice was hard to come by. By 1985-86, the writing was on the wall — the Mariners pulled out in January as attendance dropped after the team won just two of 22 games.
“We were ready to go to Corner Brook, had two new guys in,” recalls Coffin, a Mariners executive member. “The president walked in and said, ‘B’ys, it’s over.’”
The Mariners would sit out a year and a half, watching the Corner Brook Royals win the Herder Memorial Trophy and Newfoundland’s first Allan Cup in 1986. In ’ 87, the St. John’s Capitals won the city’s first Herder since the Shamrocks and BlueCaps accomplished the feat in 1979 and ’78.
Of course, to start a team, you need a coach, and the Mariners reached out to Mario Roberge, who had played in the old Atlantic Coast league with the Virginia Lancers the year before and won a championship under a coach named John Tortorella.
Roberge and his brother, Serge, had enjoyed a stint — albeit a brief one — in St. John’s in 1985-86, playing for the Capitals.
Caps trainer Gary Stone tells the story of picking the brothers up at the airport. As Stone recalls, neither spoke very good English, but they had one question: did Kevin Morrison and Gord Gallant throw righthanded or left-handed?
The Roberges — nicknamed “Les Goonies” by now-retired Telegram sports scribe John Browne — played the weekend series against the Jets. Mario scored a goal, and Serge fought hard rocks Morrison and Gallant.
And then the brothers were gone.
So here it was in the fall of 1987, and the Mariners were back, and Mario Roberge was running the show as playercoach.
“When he first got here, Mario was staying at my place,” said Coffin, by now the Mariners’ general manager. “We were having a few beer one night, and he tells me Serge is coming over on the boat, that he’s headed for Stephenville (to join the Jets).
With the two Roberges — a couple of hockey players who’d rather fight than breathe — in the Port aux Basques lineup, the 1987-88 season was promising to offer quite the show.
Just before Christmas, the Mariners and Caps brawled at Memorial Stadium. Eleven suspensions were handed out, and Mario and Serge got a pair of games each.
In January, at the old airport hangar that was Stephenville Gardens, the Mariners and Jets had a huge donnybrook that resulted in Mario sitting for seven games and Serge getting five.
“We really didn’t have anyone to look after us before, but that started to change when the Roberges got here,” said Coffin.
“Mario and Serge made the rest of the team feel like there’s nothing to worry about. ‘If anyone pisses around with you, we’re here.’”
The Mariners finished just under .500 that year, but served notice Port aux Basques was definitely back in the fold.
Bill Ramsay lives in Fort Mac now, has been since 2006 when the taps were wide open and the money was flowing from the land of milk and honey.
He enjoys it up there, a white collar worker dealing with procurements and contracts for the big players in the oil and gas industry in Canada’s north.
It’s been a while since Ramsay was back in Newfoundland, in St. John’s where he sat as the Liberal member for Burgeo-La Poile under Clyde Wells and Brian Tobin. Longer still since he was in his old stompin’ grounds, in Port aux Basques.
He has reminders of home, like the frigid Alberta winters. It’s a different kind of cold, though, much drier than Port aux Basques, where the biting wind off the water can cut you in two.
“Every so often,” Ramsay says, “I’ll walk out the door Sunday morning and the cold will hit me and I’ll remember what it was like then ... to be getting ready to head over to the arena or up to Stephenville, and people getting ready for the game, talking about it, listening to the radio.
“The excitement in a small community was thick. And looking back now, it was so exciting.”
There are more storied franchises in Newfoundland senior hockey, but for one season, there was no better team than the Port aux Basques Mariners, winners of the 1989 Herder Memorial Trophy and Hardy Cup, as Canadian intermediate champs.
And Bill Ramsay was the architect of the championship team.
For a couple of years, following the Mariners’ re-entry into senior hockey, Ramsey was the Sam Pollock of Port aux Basques.
If there was a player to be had, Ramsay was sure to dig him out.
The future politician was a novice, but he was quick to learn and soon could swim with, and survive, with the sharks who ran senior teams in those days, cagey vets like Cliff Gorman in Corner Brook and, prior to him, Terry Trainor in St. John’s and Claude Brown in Gander.
“I had basically no experience, but I’d be calling players all over the world,” Ramsay recollects. “I’d call ex-NHL coaches … just call ’em up, and for the most part they were good, recommending this player and that player.
“I even spoke to Alan Eagleson, before he got into all that trouble.”
Ramsay would often fly players in on his own credit card, although money generally wasn’t a problem in Port aux Basques.
“I’m telling you,” Coffin says, “we’d be selling tickets at the game and people would literally be throwing money at you from up in the stands.
“It was unbelievable. Money was no object.”
The Roberges were getting about $700 or $800 a week, and the other imports weren’t far behind.
And remember, this is late ’80s currency.
“We were in Sydney, (N.S.) and I met with Dave Andrews (then the general manager of the AHL’s Cape Breton Oilers, now the AHL president),” recalls Ramsay.
“He hooked us up with Vojtech Kucera, said he needed somewhere to play.”
Kucera, a defenceman who defected from Czechoslovakia, played with the Mariners in 198788, after playing 13 games for the AHL’s Fredericton Express the previous season.
Kucera would pile up 65 points in 40 games for the Mariners before enjoying an all-star career at St. Thomas University.
Kucera was a dandy signing for the Mariners, but he wasn’t the only one.
The year he played, the Mariners also had Ron Chyzowski from Western Canada, who racked up 113 points. Chyzowski played only one year in Port aux Basques, turned pro the next and scored 15 goals and 40 points in 62 games for the AHL’s Sherbrooke Canadiens.
There was Ryan Stewart, the 18th overall pick by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1985 draft. And Winnipeg’s Joe West, who would go on to have a fine career in the German DEL.
And then there was the nondescript goalie from Halifax, who played a little bit of major junior for the Verdun Junior Canadians. Troy Crosby played a weekend series for the Mariners, no doubt thanks to his brother-in-law, Corner Brook Royals star Robbie Forbes.
Crosby didn’t do much with the game afterwards, but his son sure did.
Sidney Crosby knew all about the Mariners and the old Newfoundland senior league when I asked him about them a few years back.
So this begs the obvious question, and how can we ask this delicately: what did the players think about spending their winters in a small, remote town on the rocky banks of the Atlantic Ocean?
“Here in this little town, the hockey players were celebrities. Everybody was willing to take them here and there, do this for them, do that for them. They didn’t have to do a thing, didn’t have to buy a beer or a bite to eat.
“These guys were signing autographs for the kids.”
By 1989, Ramsay, Coffin et al. had put together a roster to make a run for the Herder.
By now, the Roberges had turned pro with Sherbrooke of the AHL. But the Mariners brought in mainland coach Ron Coleman, and a handful of very good imports, joining Joe West and Strickland.
There was former Bruins draft pick Marc West, a defenceman who finished fourth in scoring and was the league’s MVP, Len Soccio, who would finish second in scoring to Andy Sullivan of St. John’s, Dave McLay of British Columbia, a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, and a goalie by the name of Chris Pusey who enjoyed a very good career in the Ontario Hockey League, and had one NHL game on his resumé, with the Detroit Red Wings in 198586. Duane Joyce, brought in from Massachusetts, was a rock on the blueline, and Don Howse, the Grand Falls native who played 33 games for the Los Angeles Kings in 1979-80, left the Stephenville Jets after seven years with the team to bring veteran leadership to Port aux Basques.
And we can’t forget Bill McDougall — a.k.a. “The Storm” — who had played with the Caps the previous season.
McDougall joined St. John’s after playing-coach Bill Riley promised there was a “storm” coming to town. Speculation — fuelled by Riley, who knew how to fill a building — was it was former minor pro tough guy Val James.
Instead, it was McDougall from the Toronto area, and he didn’t disappoint, finishing second to Corner Brook’s Craig Jenkins in scoring in 1987-88.
The Mariners finished three points behind the first-place Caps in the regular season, so it should be no surprise those teams met in the Herder final.
Game 6 of the final was at the old Bruce Arena in Port aux Basques, where the home ice advantage was off the charts.
An old locomotive horn would sound on every Mariners goal, and visiting players were subject to abuse from fans that would make a longshoreman blush.
“Sheldon Currie (a longtime Jet who served as player-coach one year in Port aux Basques) told me he’d rather be there as a Mariner any day than a Jet,” laughs Ramsay.
The Mariners won Game 6 and the Herder, and the rink exploded.
“I still remember,” Ramsay says, “handing around the Herder (trophy) in the dressing room, and the stick (atop the trophy) broke off.
“I’m carrying around the trophy in one hand, the cracked off stick in the other, and guys are pouring Champagne over my head.”
Rather than compete for the Allan Cup Canadian senior hockey championship, the Mariners went for the Hardy Cup national intermediate title. Bolstered by a few pickups — the Caps’ Riley, Brian Ostroski and Gus Greco, an original Mariner who by then was settled in St. John’s, and Todd Stark and goalie Dave Matte from Corner Brook — the Mariners won the Hardy Cup at Bruce Arena with a final series win over Kindersley, Sask.
It was the second-last time the Hardy Cup was awarded.
As for the Mariners and the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League, it was the end of the road. The horn went silent.
All the teams owed sizable sums of money, and the decision was made there would be no provincial senior hockey in 1989-90.
The old Bruce Arena burned down a few years later, but was rebuilt and branded the Bruce II. As for a coast-to-coast provincial senior loop, there hasn’t been one since.
“After Mario and Serge had gone on to play in the AHL, I got a call from someone with Montreal’s farm team,” Coffin recalls. “This was after we won the Herder and the Hardy Cup. This guy was interested if we would take a player or two the next season, someone they were interested in but wanted to poke away for a year.
“I remember like it happened yesterday,” Ossie Coffin says with a hint of sadness. “I said, ‘I’m sorry sir, but there’s no more league.’”
The Port aux Basques Mariners pose with the Hardy Cup after winning the 1989 Canadian intermediate hockey championship. Members of the team, with pickups from the St. John’s Capitals and Corner Brook Royals, are, from left, first row: Chris Pusey, Don Howse, Bill McDougall, Brian Ostroski, Brian Burley, Dave Matte; second row: unidentified, Todd Savoury, Len Soccio, Marc West, Joe West, Shawn Tobin, Gus Greco, coach Ron Coleman, Dave McLay, Todd Stark, Bill Riley, Stewart Froude, Duane Joyce, Juan Strickland, trainers Eugene Battiste and Terry McNeil, president Junior Bragg; third row: treasurer Joe Battiste, secretary Reg Keeping, John Witzke. Missing from photo are general manager Ossie Coffin and executive member Bill Ramsay.
Five years after serving as playercoach with the Port aux Basques Mariners, Mario Roberge went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens.