On the morning of February 21, I’m going to wake up in a hotel room at the MacDonald-Fairmont Hotel in Edmonton wishing I was somewhere else.
Nothing wrong with the stately hotel on the hill in the Alberta provincial capital city, but the capital of Canadian hockey that Saturday will be my hometown, Campbellton, N.B.
The city, with its team the Tigers, was my ticket to the National Hockey League as a play-by-play broadcaster. It is hosting CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada.
I pondered going back to my old stompin’ grounds for the occasion when the announcement was made last summer. However, when you’ve been around for every game the Calgary Flames have played and it’s your job to follow them the decision was made.
The first thing I’ll do on the third Saturday in February is turn on my television set in the hotel to see if the old hometown still looks the same.
The beauty remains
The last time I was in Campbellton in winter was four years ago for my father’s funeral. Little had changed from my boyhood. There were mounds of snow creating a great winter scene. Taking a backseat only to the splendor of summer in Campbellton with the water and mountains as a backdrop making it a summer paradise.
I’ve been back every summer since I left Campbellton in September of 1978 to pursue my dream. Every time I drive into the city I’m in awe of the picturesque scene. It never gets old.
Despite its natural beautiful nothing defines Campbellton better than, the Tigers, and a hockey institution in town for decades.
Most of the coverage on February 21 will come from inside the Campbellton Civic Centre, home of the Tigers.
For me its predecessor, Memorial Gardens, has many more memories. I’ll never forget the evening in 1990 when my brother, Noonan, a former Tiger player and coach, phoned telling me that my old second home was on fire.
In my Calgary home, located prominently in my office, is a brick from the long-gone building which was given to me by then-and-still Campbellton Mayor Bruce MacIntosh.
Pictures of two Tigers teams from the 70’s adorn the back wall in the room where today I prepare for Flame home games. They are the two Canadian Intermediate Hockey Championship squads from that decade – 1972 and 1977. The only other picture on what I call "Grand Champions Wall" is that of the Stanley Cup Champion Flames from 1989.
Although having been gone from Campbellton for just over 30 years, the city and the Tigers are never too far from my heart.
How could it not be? Without them I wouldn’t have had this wonderful journey I’ve experienced following the greatest hockey in the world, the NHL.
I was fortunate to have grown up in a city large enough to have a radio station, CKNB, but small enough to allow a teenager to broadcast on-the-air. I started at age 16 while still in high school. Play-by-play broadcasting would come later.
In another dispatch on this web site I’ll reflect on how in less than 3 weeks I went from being PBP broadcaster for the Tigers to having the same position with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Campbellton has produced a number of outstanding hockey players over the years from its superb minor hockey association. Of recent vintage, my former neighbor, John Leblanc, scored 26 goals in 83 NHL games over a 7-year stretch.
Some outstanding graduates
Perhaps the best Campbellton hockey product was Bill Miller, who played for the Tigers as a kid before playing 3 years in the NHL in the mid-30’s including a Stanley Cup title with the Montreal Maroons.
My earliest recollection of the Tigers was in the early 50’s just after Memorial Gardens was built.
Then they were a senior team playing in the old North Shore Hockey League with teams from neighboring Dalhousie, Bathurst, Miramichi in New Brunswick and Causapscal, Quebec.
My dad used to have seats in the first row behind the Tiger bench with no glass separation. In fact, there was no glass around the ice surface – only screens at both end zones.
The seats were behind where the defensemen, who were resting sat and we were so close, I recall at least once tracing the number on the back of the Tiger jerseys worn by George Davis, #2, and Jean-Roch Bellivance, #4. Its seems kind of fitting considering how numbers on the back of hockey players jerseys would later come to play such a vital role in my career as broadcaster for identification purposes.
In the mid-50’s the Tigers and other teams in the NSHL were comprised of local players with a sprinkling of imports. During a four or five year period in that era we witnessed the best caliber of hockey likely ever played in Northern N.B. A number of former pros including some with NHL experience were among the imports.
In 1954-55 the Tigers not only won the NSHL title but also won the Maritime senior championship. In those day that was the ultimate since there weren’t any national play downs.
In the late 50’s and into the 60’s, the financial burden of employing imports saw the NSHL struggle to stay together. The Tigers in the mid-60’s moved to the Quebec-N.B. Senior League where it had success winning the league title. It was then that Memorial Gardens had its largest crowd ever. In the league final against Amqui, 4,400 jammed into the 2,600-seat building. There were crowds in excess of 4,000 in the ‘70’s.
Ouellette had great success
Former Boston Bruin and long-time minor pro standout, Gerry (Red) Ouellette came to Campbellton in 1971 to play and coach the Tigers as well as run the minor hockey system.
Ouellette had incredible success. He coached the 3 Canadian Championship Hardy Cup Tiger teams. The two mentioned earlier in the 70’s plus another in 1988. A third team under Ouellette went to the national finals in Prince George, B.C. in 1978.
When senior-intermediate hockey left in the early 90’s, the Tigers became a junior team and have played in the Maritime Junior Hockey League for over a decade now.
It isn’t Campbellton’s first venture into junior hockey. In 1959, the Junior Tigers won a Maritime Championship, advancing to the Memorial Cup play before bowing out in Pembroke, Ont.
Make no mistake, in Campbellton hockey is a religion. I’d glad it was, and is.