By Darren Lum
It’s been fifty years since the 1971 Haliburton Huskies captured the Highlands’ one and only Ontario Hockey Association D title, but few who played or saw the championship final game will ever forget it.
This October, the team will be inducted into the Haliburton Highlands Hall of Fame and the story of their amazing season, capped off by the championship title will be immortalized forever for future generations.
Not every member of the Ontario Hockey Association D champions 1971 Haliburton Huskies is alive today, but for those that remain there is a recognition of how special that year was for them and the community that cheered them at home and on the road, who still have them in their hearts.
The Huskies were a strong team with an ability to know where each other were at any given time in a game. They liked each other and supported one another. The team was formidable, having only lost five games all season before they squared off against the bigger Exeter Hawks in the final, who some say were the favourites.
The team’s manager at the time was Scotty LaRue, who can still remember the nervousness of the final minutes of the championship final with close to 1,500 fans in attendence, which was won by the Huskies 6-5 over the visiting Exeter Hawks.
“The year before we went right to the final, seventh game and lost. I didn’t want that to happen the second time. It was pretty exciting and nerve-wracking. Bob Woodcock was our captain and he got a penalty right near the end of the game, so we were short-handed and one goal ahead,” he said. “If you can imagine everyone was right on the edge [of their seat]. People were just screaming … we had Derrell Stamp and Jim Cowen killing the penalty. I forget what defence pair were on, but they did a hell of a job before the buzzer finally went. It was just a big sigh of relief and a big bunch of joy and a lot of weight coming off your shoulders knowing you’re the OHA junior D champions.”
Stamp, who was a forward with the team, said he remembers the mixed feelings he had.
“We were all feeling the pressure, but our team was confident at the same time. The arena was packed and the fan support was tremendous with fans from all over the county and other parts of central Ontario,” he wrote in an email. “Our reaction when the final buzzer went off was the same as it is today on championship teams, with team members, both players and management mobbing each other, hugging and laughing and sharing in the sheer joy of the moment. Many of the fans jumped on the ice to share in the celebration.”
He said part of the pressure to win was brought on by the way the Hawks had lost the year before.
Norwich came back from a 3-0 deficit in the seven game series, taking the last four games.
The major factor, Stamp said, was when Norwich erased a 4-1 deficit in the third period of game four when the Huskies’ goalie was injured. The goalie didn’t play again that series.
“We could never regain our composure after that and Norwich came back and beat us four straight to win the championship. No doubt the experience gave us the confidence and determination we needed the next year to go all the way, although I have to say it was not easy as it also went the full seven games,” he wrote.
The championship win was followed by a raucus party at the LaRue home, where everyone seemed to come and go until the wee hours of the next morning. Ask anyone what happened and everyone laughs, saying little.
At 20, John Parish of the Highlands was among the older players on the team then and helped to keep order on the strong, skilled squad that lost only five games all season before they played the nail-biter against the visiting Exeter Hawks. He also attributes their success to strong upbringing and to the quality coaching staff.
Parish was a rushing-style defenceman, who shared the blue line with the team’s captain Bob Woodcock.
“We played hockey hard and we practiced hard … everybody looked out for one another. Everybody knew one another very well. It was just a good team,” he said.
Woodcock has since passed away, but is not forgotten by his defence partner and friend.
Parish characterized his linemate as a humble and thankful person for a lot of things, especially the team’s camaraderie.
“He was quite a player to play with. He was a heads up player and set up a lot of plays,” he said. “There’s a lot of players still alive and there are a few of them missing and it’s too bad we’re missing the people that can’t see themselves in the Hall of Fame.”
Parish said the team’s coaching staff was led by George Nicholls, who he called “second to none” as far as coaches go.
“He could have probably coached in the NHL,” he said. “He could manage them and handle [everybody well]. He was soft spoken. He never yelled and could relate to the kids – the teenagers at that time. We were all welcomed at his house. We spent a lot of time there. All of us. He was a great man,” he said.
Also with the team was Nicholls’ son, Bernie. His young son was the stick boy and went on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 1980 and went on to score 1,209 points in 1,127 games.
“Bernie was at the arena constantly. He was so keen to have a hockey stick in his hand all the time,” former player Rick Dunsford of Fenelon Falls remembers.
Bev Hicks, who was a 15-year old winger with the team, said he was taken aback when LaRue asked him to try out for the team that went on to win it all. It was only a year before that Hicks was a fan in the stands. He remembers going to all the Huskies home games, including being in attendance for that heartbreaking loss in the final to Norwich a year before.
“I remember those days. The arena was always full and that team that lost to the Norwich Merchants. They were up 3-0. They had to win one more game and lost the next four. I just remember how upset, how heartbroken everyone was, disappointed that they kind of let it slip out of their hands. It’s kind of like the Leafs … same feeling,” he said.
He said the entire year was a highlight for him after playing bantam hockey in Minden.
It was challenging, he said, to go from being among the older bantam players to being among the younger junior players. What helped him get through the season was the help of teammate Craig Stamp, who was among the older players.
Dunsford remembers being a 17-year-old from the suburbs of Toronto when he joined the team, which was a year before the championship season.
“For me it was like winning the lottery. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was and, yeah, it was a major, major adjustment in my life, but it was great. I met my wife up here and life is good,” he said.
His wife Pam Windover (now Dunsford) then of Minden always came out for Huskies games. It was what everyone did back then. She had added incentive to see her boyfriend (now husband) Rick play.
“The place was packed because it was your total entertainment [for] all ages. Oh, my gosh. I’m a teenager. The grey hairs are there celebrating and cheering on the team just as much as every student that went to high school. I remember that excitement. You went no matter what the weather,” she said.
Dunsford said he is proud to have played in Haliburton, where other great hockey players had also played such as retired NHLer Bernie Nicholls and current Nashville Predators player Matt Duchene.
This team never would have happened without Albert John “Ab” LaRue.
It was part of his grand plan to bring a junior hockey team to the community. He always wanted a hockey team that would capture the imagination of the community. However, this required a replacement of the outdated arena and its natural ice with a modern arena with artificial ice. LaRue led the charge where he also led construction efforts. Once the arena was set to be completed he lobbied the Ontario Hockey Association for a hockey team. Once the team was granted to play it only took five years for the Huskies to win a championship.
After 50 years, Stamp, like other players such as Dunsford, Hicks and Parish, said they will never forget the support from the community.
“We often had bus loads of people accompany us to out of town games and in the home town games on Saturday nights the arena was always buzzing with excitement. Also, I should mention that parental support and encouragement was an important element for all of the players. I look back at it as a wonderful time in my life and that of the community,” Stamp wrote in an email.
LaRue said it wasn’t unheard of for fans to travel more than 200 miles and stay overnight at a hotel to support the team at road games.
The large crowd support often gave players a reminder of who they played for.
“You pick up the puck or something like that and you can hear the crowd pick up and cheer. You score or give a good pass or whatever. You’re there to prove we’re here to win it for you guys,” Parish said.
Stamp calls it an honour to be part of the team that will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this October.
“It was a big event at the time, from the LaRues obtaining the junior D franchise, to the Ontario Hockey Association and the whole County of Haliburton getting behind the team and helping the players and coaches mould together over a short number of years to build an Ontario Junior D Championship team,” he wrote.
The Hall of Fame is about recognizing, but it is also about showing what is possible to the next generation.
“For young kids growing up and to get a chance to look in, whether it’s hockey, football, or any of the other sports, Olympics, I think it just says a small town can do a lot more than just sit back and not participate in sports. You can achieve wide recognition, if you really put your heart to it,” Parish said.
Stamp said the story about the championship is something he won’t forget ever, but it can also serve to young people as proof about what can be achieved.
“Future generations can look upon the championship team as an example of what can be accomplished when people join together to accomplish a common goal. It is the joy that is shared during the journey that marks our milestones in life.”