Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
The game of hockey has been alive and well in Stratford for generations, but for many people it really took hold of our collective consciousness during the 1951-52 season.
That year the Stratford Indians senior hockey team, not expected to be any good, made an improbable run all the way to the Allan Cup before bowing out in the national championship in six games. But unlike anything the city has seen before or since, the players received a hero's welcome upon returning home. Fans lined the streets for a parade and to cheer them on.
"They treated the team as if they had won the Allan Cup," former CJCS play-by-play man Bill Inkol recalled. "At that time, I think the sporting fraternity here in Stratford had come of age."
Inkol, who would go on to work as a sportscaster at CKCO-TV in Kitchener, was among the guests Saturday at the Stratford Perth Museum to share some memories and help open a new exhibit entitled "The Good Old Hockey Game" which, among many other items, includes artifacts and memorabilia from the Indians teams of the early 1950s.
Inkol talked about some of the great memories from his career, including the first live broadcast from the Stratford Festival tent on opening night in 1953, and stepping into the batter's box to attempt to hit a fastball from Blue Jays pitcher Tom Henke. But it was that 1951-52 team, led by what he called "one of the best lines in the history of amateur hockey in Canada" with Billy Flick, Mickey Roth, and Denis (Dinny) Flanagan, that stands out the most.
He recalled returning home with the team after losing in the final and being stopped in Shakespeare, where a fleet of donated convertibles were waiting to carry the players to City Hall.
"The whole city square was full," said Inkol. "It was one of those moments you never forget."
Following speeches, the new exhibit, which runs until April, was given a most appropriate send-off – a lively rendition of Stompin' Tom's "The Good Old Hockey Game" by the Stratford Central secondary school choir.
In addition to several items of local hockey importance already in the museum's possession, including sticks, team photos, and artifacts from as early as 1900, the exhibit has been given a boost by the Hockey Hall of Fame, which has contributed artifacts specific to Stratford and Perth County, among them the jersey worn by Stratford native Nick Libett when he played for Canada in the world championships.
Craig Campbell from the hall of fame attended Saturday's exhibit opening and noted two of hockey's first true superstars were products of this area – Listowel's Frederick Wellington "Cyclone" Taylor and Mitchell's Howie Morenz.
A stick used by "Cyclone" Taylor and a gold medallion he earned as a Stanley Cup champion with Vancouver in 1915 are included in the exhibit, as are a number 7 Montreal Canadiens sweater and a Chicago Blackhawks team jacket worn by Morenz.
"Those are two of the biggest names in the game ever. So you have a rich history here," he said.
The Hockey Hall of Fame operates as a non-profit and is committed to covering all leagues and levels of hockey, Campbell noted, adding he recently returned from trips to Scotland and Smooth Rock Falls in northeastern Ontario.
"Wherever we go it's amazing the response we see towards the game of hockey," he said.
The hall of fame is also the curator for the National Hockey League's trophies, two of which – the Prince of Wales and Hart – were on display at the museum Saturday only, along with the Canada Cup trophy.
"We want to cover (the game) well," Campbell added. "So for us to be able to bring some pieces that we have, it's great fun for us. And it's great for us to be a part of this with the rest of you."
Museum general manager, John Kastner, said the idea for a hockey exhibit – the first at the museum since 2010, when Stratford hosted CBC's Hockey Day in Canada – really started to take off when he was able to secure participation from the hall of fame.
"We've got some pretty remarkable things from the Hockey Hall of Fame," he noted, adding the museum also put out a call to the public for old team photographs and received dozens of submissions.
Also donated for the exhibit were the Olympic team jacket and coat worn by Stratford's Steve Monteith during the closing ceremony of the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, as well as his hockey bronze medal.
Monteith told the Gazette he was both surprised and delighted that the items are still of interest 45 years later. The jackets and medal have never been on display before, and up until he learned about the hockey exhibit had been packed away in his house.
"It's nice to be able to bring them out and let people have a look at them," he added.