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

The Gulf News (Port aux Basques) - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBIN SHORT

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.’”

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

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.

PHOTO COUR­TESY CLUB DE HOCKEY CANADIEN INC

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.

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