Long before $400.00 skates, home and away uniforms and multi pad arenas our great game had flourished on a much more basic level.
And thanks to former Marlboro minor player Terry O’Hara we are able to take a look back at those simpler times. Born in 1947 Terry was brought up in the Keele and Wilson area of Toronto, which was then very much the outer suburbs of our growing city.
From the time he first put on a pair of skates and up to the age of ten, his hockey education was limited to playing pick up shinny on natural ice at the local outdoor arena.
Arena boards were put up in every city park and flooded during the night. The playing conditions were strictly reliant on the weather each and every day.
Some days there would be as many as 3 or 4 different games being played on the same snowy sheet – at the same time.
Needless to say, the players learned to skate, pass and stick handle in tight quarters and with no coaches or parents offering advice they were free to develop their skills in a competitive but fun environment.
As a student at St Phillip Neri Catholic School Terry was first invited to play for the schools CYO team when he turned 10 years old. The CYO league played on Sunday evenings out of the historic Weston arena and featured two age groups, Molecule (grades 5-6) and Bantam (grades 7-8).
Teams such as St Benedict’s, Our Lady of Victory, Our Lady of the Airways, St. Jude’s and Transfiguration provided the competition for this west end league.
Terry had shown great promise with the Molecules and was invited to play up with the older Bantam team.
It was about this same period while playing another game of shinny at the local park that Terry was approached by a man named Ian Standing. Mr. Standing was what was known as a “bird dog” – a name for local scout who would scour the local playgrounds and minor hockey arenas for burgeoning young talent. When Terry found out Mr. Standing worked for the famed Toronto Marlboros organization he couldn’t believe his luck.
Mr. Standing attended one of Terry’s CYO games later that month and was impressed enough with his play to place a call to the family home to speak with his father. Terry’s father was blue collar factory worker and was not familiar with the workings of minor hockey at that time. Because his job would not allow him to get young Terry to games or practices he politely declined Mr. Standings offer to have Terry join the famed Shopsy’s Pee Wee team the following year.
When he informed his son of the call young Terry first explained the significance of playing in the Maple Leaf family and then begged his Dad for the opportunity to try. It was agreed that Terry would need to take public transit to practices and home games and that other parents would car pool players to farther away games.
Up until the first NHL “Universal Draft” in 1967 teams like the Maple Leaf’s could groom players from as young as 11 and 12 years old in their Marlboro minor and junior systems to eventually become pros with the NHL club.
In the 1950’s the Marlboros practiced and played at the historic Ravina Gardens arena in the Annette and Runnymede area of Toronto. Originally built in 1912 as an indoor arena with natural ice it was rebuilt in 1926 with an artificial ice plant. The rink holding 4,500 spectators had a few quirks not seen in modern day arenas including boards that were almost 5-1/2 feet tall and a step up into the benches that was two feet high. The Ravina Gardens would eventually be torn down in 1961 after ground water flooding in the ravine ruined the ancient structure and was replaced by the current George Bell arena that became the new home of the Marlboro minor teams.
In order to make sure he was ready for the early 6:30 weekday games and to allow for any transit delays Terry would put on all his equipment at home, pack his skates and gloves in a bag and board the Wilson bus to Weston Road, change buses and after arriving at Annette would walk the last 15 minutes to the rink.
There was another bonus to being a Marlboro minor player in those days. The Marlboro teams would all get a chance to practice early Saturday mornings at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens – long time home of the Toronto Maple Leaf’s. After these early work outs the boys would sit quietly in the stands to watch the morning skates of the Leaf’s or the visiting team preparing for their game later that night.
Terry fondly recalls the first time he skated out on the hallowed ice – in awe – the place where he had watched his hero’s play on the early versions of Hockey Night in Canada.
Being that the Marlboro minors, Marlboro juniors and Maple Leaf’s were one big family the equipment each team would wear was passed down the line from the top. The Marlboro juniors would receive the equipment and sweaters used the previous season by the parent Maple Leaf’s and in turn would pass their gear down to the Marlboro minors. It was not unusual for the boys to receive well worn equipment and skates with names such as Armstrong, Horton and Bower written in permanent marker on these well-worn items.
The Shopsy Pee Wee’s and the older Marlboros teams of the 1950’s played in the then Toronto Hockey League (THL). A lot of the teams were of an independent nature rather than the organizational set up we find in todays game.
One oddity at the time was the ability for a player to play on two teams, playing in different leagues, during the same season. A player might finish a THL Game at 2.00 on a Saturday and race out to the suburbs to play for an Etobicoke based team at dinner time.
Besides the Ravina Gardens THL games were played in arenas such as Ted Reeve, Leaside, Weston and Lakeshore. Practices were very basic in this era, usually consisting of hard “board to board” skating for conditioning, skating the circles for balance and 2 on1 or 3 on 2 line rushes.
At that time, the Quebec Pee Wee Tournament had not yet come into being. The big event of the calendar year for Pee Wee’s was the annual best on best event held in the small town of Goderich, Ontario each year.
The Marlboro Junior teams and the Minors were run by the legendary A.J. “Buck” Houle who would also go on to work with Canada’s National teams as well as the WHA’s Ottawa and Toronto Toros. Buck was ably assisted by the equally renowned Frank Bonello who would move up the ladder to become the GM of two Marlboro Junior A Memorial Cup winning teams.
Terry recalls when either of these men would come into the dressing room to address the teams you could hear a pin drop. In their hands was the power to map out a path that could one day lead a player all the way up to the parent Maple Leaf’s.
After completing his Minor Bantam and Bantam years with the Marlboros it was time for high school. This was an important time because the Maple Leaf’s actually sponsored two Junior A teams in the city, The Marlboros and the St. Michaels Majors. Prospects who were Catholic were usually assigned to St. Michaels program while the Protestant players skated with the Marlboros.
The teams were so popular at the time that they would play double headers on Sunday afternoons at Maple Leaf Gardens before sell out crowds. One ticket was good for both games. The young Marlboro minors were given season passes to the games and would all sit together in the higher up greens.
Terry being from a Catholic background was enrolled at St. Mike’s with some financial aide from the Marlboros. After two years of Midget at St. Michael’s Terry was able to make the Jr. B St. Mike’s Buzzers and after a couple seasons ended his playing career with a short stint in the professional East Coast Hockey League.
Returning to his home town of Toronto Terry went on to successfully coach and manage various teams in the THL and Tier 2 Junior leagues and actually became a part owner of the St. Michaels Buzzers franchise. During his time in amateur hockey Terry played a large part in the development of several future NHL players including Craig Mooney, Bruce Driver, Adam Oates, Michael Pecca and Kevin Weekes.
After a very successful career in the toy business Terry is retired in Toronto but is still very much involved with the men he called teammates all those years ago.