The unforgettable worldly experience of the 1956-57 Pee Wees.
By Danny Corcoran, Quispamsis, NB
When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the city of St. John’s only had two ice facilities: St. Bon’s Forum and St. John’s Curling Club. The old Prince’s Rink, home to the various hockey leagues, had burned in 1941 and was not replaced because of war conditions. In 1948, a committee was formed with the intent to raise funds to build an arena to honour the many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who lost their lives during the world wars. In late 1954, the well-designed, 4000-seat St. John’s Memorial Stadium was completed. The first manager of the stadium was Lorne Wakelin, who previously was the manager of the arena in Goderich, ON. Lorne and Wilson Butler organized the first ever Pee Wee hockey league at the new stadium in the fall of 1955.
Wakelin was so impressed with the calibre of young players in the initial year that he convinced the Royal Canadian Legion to sponsor a team to compete in the 1956 Young Canada Week - an invitational hockey tournament for Pee Wee hockey players (under the age of 13 years) organized by the Goderich Lions Club. The tournaments were held each year during the schools’ spring break. Although the team - the Legionnaires - was eliminated without winning a game, they were well-respected and played excellent hockey. Wakelin, Butler and coach John Doyle realized that with a lot of practice, the next Pee Wee team could be very competitive.
Selection for the new all-star squad began in the fall of 1956. Doyle and Butler selected approximately 50 hopefuls for the initial tryout, and the players were advised that a maximum of 18 would be selected for the team. Practices were early each morning before school and again in the evening. Players were advised if their grades dropped during this period they would not be eligible to travel with the team. Hopefuls were cut after each practice until there were 19 players left. Barry Fraser, the only returning player from the previous year - and without a doubt the best player on the team and the eventual captain, was considered safe from elimination. In the dressing room after practice, the players anxiously waited for Doyle to announce the last hopeful to be dropped. Instead he declared that authorization had been received to take all 19 players on the trip! The 1956-57 All Star team included Brian Gibbons, a nine-year-old goaltender. And me.
On Friday, April 19, 1957, hundreds of people gathered at Torbay Airport to wish the team the best of luck as we departed via Trans Canada Airlines. At the stopover in Halifax, NS, Newfoundland’s Member of Parliament, Jack Pickersgill, was there to meet us. When the Legionnaires arrived in Toronto we were registered at the world-famous Royal York Hotel. There, we had the pleasure of meeting Al “Bunny” Dunlop, the head of the hotel’s security. Dunlop was a fixture on the Toronto wrestling scene for 40 years, first as a wrestler and then as a referee. He was seen on TV every Friday night in Newfoundland.
On Tuesday, the Pee Wees travelled by train to Goderich, ON, where we were met at the train station by Major John Graham and the Goderich Pipe Band. We were escorted into waiting convertibles and treated to dinner at the Canadian Legion Hall. At nine o’clock that night, the Pee Wee Legionnaires played our first game before a full house against the Goderich team. This was an exhibition game with the teams vying for the Lorne Wakelin Trophy. The Legionnaires won the game by a score of 5-4 to take home the trophy. This was the first time since Confederation that a Newfoundland hockey team registered a win in national competition.
On Wednesday night, the Legionnaires were again victorious, beating Winnipeg by a score of 4-2 for the East-West Trophy. On Thursday night our team was in great form and registered an 11-0 victory against Port Huron, MI, for their third consecutive win. The Goderich press reported that St. John’s could possibly be the team to win the entire tournament. On Friday afternoon, the Legionnaires played in the semi-final game against Peterborough for the Group AA finals. Although our team out shot the Peterborough squad 22 to 11, we lost 3-0. Toronto went on to win the overall tournament on Saturday, defeating the winners of the other four divisions.
But the adventure was far from over. After the Friday afternoon loss, our team flew to New York. We stayed at the elite 22-storey Taft Hotel on 7th Avenue, just north of Times Square. On Saturday morning, the Pee Wees visited the top of the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest building at the time, and travelled via subway to Yankee Stadium where we were delighted to see a Major League Baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox won the game 2-1. Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin, Bobbie Richardson and Ted Williams were five of the many professionals who played before 33,575 fans.
On Sunday night, our team was featured on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As we appeared onstage with Sullivan, he read a telegram he had received from Newfoundland encouraging us to hold our two trophies high on the show. Team captain Barry Fraser presented Sullivan with a stuffed baby seal (we named Sammy) on behalf of the team.
On Monday, the team flew from New York to Montreal, arriving late in the evening. On Tuesday, we enjoyed a tour of the Montreal Forum led by Kenny Reardon, vice-president of the Montreal Canadiens and a member of the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame. Reardon took the team into the Canadiens’ dressing room, where we saw the players’ equipment. These players included Jean Béliveau, Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante and others. On Wednesday, the team were special guests at a dinner hosted by the Canadian Legion in Laval, QC. As a surprise, Jean Béliveau and NHL play-by-play announcer Danny Gallivan were special guests.
On Thursday, we were supposed to fly from Montreal home to St. John’s, but we had to land in Moncton, NB, instead due to heavy fog back home. Next day we took off again, and this time made it to Stephenville, NL. We had to stay overnight there on the American Air Force Base. As it looked like the fog wouldn’t be lifting in St. John’s for a few more days, a decision was made to travel to the capital city by train. The Pee Wees had no idea that there would be hundreds of citizens waiting at the CNR terminal when we arrived. We assembled for a team photo and proudly displayed the two trophies we had won in Goderich. We were then escorted into waiting convertibles and paraded through the main streets, joined by more than 100 cars decorated in the Canadian Legion colours and thousands of residents lining the streets. The parade ended at City Hall, where Mayor Mews was on hand to deliver the official welcome to us young ambassadors. He commended us for our marvelous showing at the tournament and said that all citizens of St. John’s were very proud of us. He also said that most important was our impeccable conduct and appearance at all times on the tour. When the ceremonies were over, we rejoined our families and returned home to tell them our own incredible stories.
Lorne Wakelin moved from St. John’s to Harbour Grace in 1958, and became the manager of the new Conception Bay Recreation Centre. Pee Wee hockey leagues and provincial tournaments were organized across the province in that year. St. John’s did not enter a team in the annual Goderich tournaments thereafter, and as a result did not defend the trophies we had captured in 1957.
Stan Cook Barry Fraser Charlie Pollock
Danny Corcoran Brian Gibbons Vic Parsons
Neil Corcoran Ronnie Goodyear John Stamp
Pat DeBourke Dave Kendall Bobby Walsh
Jim Drover Rollie Martin Neil Windsor
Blaise Dunne Gordie MacNab Donny Youden