If I were in charge of installing those blue 'Historic Site' plaques around Canada, my next stop would be Skead, on the south shore of Lake Wanapitei.
On my plaque would be the heroic story of George Armstrong, born there in 1930 to an Irish father and Ojibwe mom.
At six, he was struck with spinal meningitis. But Armstrong — who went on to beat the odds and the disease — became a hockey legend, skating 21 seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He played a huge role in helping the Leafs win the 1967 Stanley Cup, which was the last time they did so.
I know about Armstrong only because I happened to read “The Last Hockey Game” by Bruce McDougall.
The book is a play-by-play and personality-by-personality account of that historic ’67 game between the Leafs and Canadiens.
It was the last season before NHL expansion, but according to “The Last Hockey Game”, 1967 marked the end of the game’s legendary Canadian character.
To a man, the players were tough determined Northerners who played out of love and loyalty. Team owners took full advantage of their passion; and the players, while heroes, suffered. Armstrong, nicknamed “Chief”, epitomized the lot of them.
The thing is, “The Last Hockey Game” was named a finalist for the 2015 Toronto Book Award. I think it should win the Sudbury Book Award. (Is there one?).
I grew up on Eyre Street in the west end of Sudbury. And even though I’ve been away more than 30 years,
I still feel a twinge of nostalgic insiderness every time I go past a certain house on Regent Street because I was told that at one time, Habs coach and Coniston native Toe Blake once lived there.
Really, hockey is in our DNA.
My brother Eddie and I often joke that even though we’ve never watched an entire game, we can fake a believable hockey conversation.
And I know Eddie’s going to like “The Last Hockey Game.” The story is as fast paced as a championship match and it’s rich with scandal (Harold Ballard did some awfuly sleazy stuff), dirty politics and passion, but more also, the book makes you proud to be an area-code 705’er and Canadian.
Here’s a passage that you might think about next time you roll up the rim:
“[Tim] Horton and [George] Armstrong had first met long before they got to Pittsburgh. They’d played together as fifteen-year-old kids for a team called the Redmen, in Copper Cliff, a couple of hundred miles north of Toronto. Inco, the mining company, had built the town outside of Sudbury, upwind from the company’s smelter, so its managers could eat dinner without breathing the stench of melting rock and molten nickel.”
The book’s rich with great stuff like that: From Rouyn-Noranda to Victoria Mines. You could organize a northern Ontario tour based on this story.
McDougall wraps all the gut-busting pain, nasty behaviour and a portrait of a Canada that we all should remember into a novel that’s such a fun — card-carrying hockey agnostic —that I stole time from other chores to finish the book.
Now that I think about it, a copy of the "The Last Hockey Game," a Stompin’ Tom's Greatest Hits CD, an Adventures in Rainbow Country DVD and finally, a gross of delicious Jos. Louis snacks should be issued automatically to every newcomer to Northern Ontario.