Monday, August 25, 2014

A Night of Hockey & Golf Talk

On August 19, 2014, Mike Wilson ( hosted a fun and informative evening on the topic of early hockey rinks and golf courses in the city of Toronto.

Hockey historian, Len Kotylo, got things underway on the theme of "Skating through the Fairways of Toronto."

The first rink touched on by Len was the Granite Club (1886), located at Church and Wellesley. First used for curling, the Granite had six curling sheets to serve its members.

On February 16, 1888, a history-making event took place at the Granite Club, when the first hockey game was played in Toronto. The host club defeated their opponent, the Caledonia Club, by a 4-1 score.

Two years passed before the next hockey game was played at the Granite Club. The visitors in February 1890 were a team from Ottawa - the Rideau Rebels. On the roster for the Rebels were Arthur and Edward Stanley. Their father, Governor General Lord Stanley, would participate in the formation of the Ontario Hockey Association and donate the Stanley Cup to Canada.

The Toronto Granites hockey team was a huge success. They won two Allan Cups (1922 &1923) and an Olympic championship in 1924. Two of their most talented performers were Hooley Smith and Harry Watson (Note: Not the former Maple Leaf).

Next up in Len's talk was the Victoria Curling Club (1887), situated at 277 Huron Street. Like the Granite Club, it was designed by Norman Bethume Dick. Games were first played there in 1902 and it's another example of hockey taking place in a private curling club.

During the 1930s, as Len pointed out, the depression and lack of desire for private curling clubs resulted in the decline of the Victoria rink. Also, with the Arena Gardens and Maple Leaf Gardens being built, the Victoria couldn't compete on the same level. The building was demolished in 1962 and the land is now occupied by the University of Toronto School of Architecture.

Similar to the Granite Club, the Caledonia Curling Club (1885) became a driving force in the growth of hockey in Toronto. Situated on Mutual Street, it also became known as the Mutual Street Rink.

Of note, the Caledonia hosted Toronto's first professional hockey game. On December 28, 1906, the Toronto Hockey Club faced the Canadian Soo (Of the International Hockey League). It wasn't a good night for the Toronto Hockey Club as they were blanked 7-0.

As time passed, the Caledonia rink failed to keep up with new trends. For example, artificial ice was favoured over natural ice. It was demolished in 1911 and in its place the Arena Gardens (also known as the Mutual Street Arena) was built.

In this new building, hockey flourished. Designed by Ross and MacFarlane, the Arena Gardens (1912) had artificial ice and could seat 8,000 spectators. In addition to the pro game, senior and junior contests were held at Arena Gardens.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs departed for their new home at 60 Carlton Street, the Arena Gardens became a secondary venue. Amateur sports and various entertainment events were booked. In 1962, a name change occurred and roller skating became the featured attraction at The Terrace.

"I can tell you that in the mid-1950s, that both the T.S.S.A.A. and T.I.A.A. high school basketball championships were held at the Mutual Street Arena," noted former NHL coach Tom Watt, who was in attendance for the presentations.

Varsity Arena, where Tom coached the University of Toronto Blues hockey team, was the next rink addressed by Len.

"I used to scout there in my early years," Jim Devellano, the current senior vice president of the Detroit Red Wings, told the gathering. Then turning to Tom Watt he stated, "And it seemed to me you kept winning championships." For the record, beginning in 1966, Tom captured 9 University Cups with the Blues.

I spent 15 years there," said Tom. "The land belonged to the University of Toronto, but both the arena and stadium were built by the University of Toronto Athletic Association. They raised the money and paid off the mortgages."

Varsity Arena opened its doors on December 17, 1926. "The idea of the rink for the Varsity Grads, which won the gold medal in 1928, was for it to be a place for them to prepare for the Olympic games," informed Tom.

Prior to Varsity Arena, the University of Toronto hockey team held their games at the Victoria rink and Caledonia Curling Club. In 1915, the school won a Provincial championship and the captain of the team was Conn Smythe.

The final location covered by Len was Ravina Gardens. Situated north of High Park, construction was completed in 1925-26.

"I coached a juvenile team there in about 1958, 1959," recalled Jim Devellano.

"It had the highest boards," noted Tom Watt, who played at Ravina. "When you went over the boards you were really shocked when you hit the ice."

The crowning moment at Ravina Gardens came in the autumn of 1926. Conn Smythe, hired to run the newly formed New York Rangers of the National Hockey League, decided to hold their first training camp in Toronto and selected Ravina Gardens as their base.

"By mid-October I had the Rangers working out in Ravina Gardens in west Toronto, all staying at a hotel near the rink, when I got a call to meet Colonel Hammond at the railroad station," wrote Smythe in his memoir (If You Can't Beat 'Em in the Alley). "When he got off the train and walked down the platform Lester Patrick was with him." It didn't take Smythe long to figure out what was happening. "I got the message. Hammond offered me $7,500 to settle my contract, and told me Patrick would take over from there."

Ravina Gardens met its end in 1961 and was torn down due to snow and ice damage.

"At that time, I was teaching school in Toronto and there were very few football fields in the city of Toronto," said Tom Watt. "When it was demolished, it became the home field for both Western Tech and Humberview Collegiate."

Once Len wrapped up his presentation, golf historian, Scott Burk, took the floor.

"I've always been a book collector," stated Scott in his opening remarks. "And as I would read things on golf in Toronto, I would keep coming across histories or references to golf in Toronto. Ultimately, it led me to put a map together as to where all these courses once were and if they still existed."

Scott relayed how golf in Toronto was played prior to fixed-routed courses being developed.

"As interesting as anything in doing this research is that before we had fixed courses we had open meadows and farmlands. There are letters that speak to this fact. The well-healed would head out on a Saturday afternoon with a couple of pals, a caddy and a stake. You would say to your caddy, 'go out there 125 yards and put the stake in the ground and we're going to putt into the hole the stake made'."

Then, as Scott explained, came organized golf on Michael Fitzgerald's farm at Coxwell and Gerrard. The Toronto Golf Club was formed in 1881.

"The first record of organized golf in Toronto happens in a Toronto newspaper article on May 9, 1881, where you are invited to a Toronto location to discuss the possibility of becoming a member of what was to become the Toronto Golf Club."

While doing research on the early golf courses in Toronto, Scott discovered the reasons why many of the pioneer clubs moved, merged or sought a better location. One example of this happening was in 1912 when the Toronto Golf Club moved to the west-end of the city. "Why do golf courses die?" asked Scott. "Usually because of urban development or depression."

Another factor raised by Scott was the advancements made in public transportation. A golfer in Toronto was no longer strictly confined to his neighbourhood and had the means to travel a great distance to another course.

"In the early 1900s you would get an electric railcar at Yonge and Woodlawn, just north of Summerhill station, and you could go all the way to Jackson's Point at Lake Simcoe. It was called the Metropolitan Line with dark green cars and grey uniformed drivers and conductors. There was a steering column in the front and back and the reason for that is they didn't want expensive loops at either end."

Changes in the composition of the golf ball also had a direct correlation to the need for larger courses. The feathery ball and gotta percha ball prevented long drives, thus not making the expansion of courses necessary. But when the wound ball was manufactured, it had a tremendous impact. Smaller locations on the golfing directory were no longer a challenge. New sites with vast land were required to meet the requirements as the game changed.

Some early golf courses survived, but as Toronto grew and other uses for land were required, those in the golf business sought other avenues to expand their interests.

Come the year 1921, the citizens of Toronto had two public courses at their disposal. Scott identified Ralph Connable as the gentleman responsible for making golf available to those who didn't have the funds to join a private club.

Connable was an American and worked his way up the corporate ladder in the F.W. Woolworth Company. One of his assignments called for him to move to Canada and expand the Woolworth's brand north of the boarder. He was a believer in golf being the perfect sport for his managers to bond and seal deals with their suppliers.

The expansion of Woolworth's in Canada and building public golf courses in Toronto weren't the only contributions Connable made to his new home. Scott told a remarkable story of one other gift Connable gave to Toronto.

Along with his wife Harriett, the couple spent their vacation time in Petoskey on Lake Michigan. During one trip, Mrs. Connable went to the local library to witness a speech being given by a young man who fought in World War One. Listening to the guest speaker, Harriett Connable couldn't help but be impressed. She found him to be full of life and physically active.

This motivated her to approach him with a proposal which would be beneficial to both of them.

While the lad she met at the library was lively, her son had a physical disability which prevented him from getting the most out of life. She thought her new friend would make an excellent tutor for her disabled off-spring. During their conversation, he expressed an interest in becoming a journalist. Upon hearing this, Harriett Connable hatched a plan. Her husband, who had serious business connections in Toronto, could help find him a job on a newspaper. In exchange, he would help their son.

The offer was made and accepted. The gentleman speaking at the Petoskey Library was Ernest Hemingway.

In addition to these stories, Scott talked about a number of early courses in Toronto. He mentioned that, "The Rosedale, High Park and Toronto all had women's golf sections early on. While they weren't full members, there were lots of inter-club matches between the clubs."

By the end of the night one thing was certain. There is no shortage of stories relating to the early history of hockey and golf in Toronto.

A tip of the golf cap and a raised hockey stick to Mike, Len and Scott for their work!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Supporting a Great Cause

On Friday August 15, 2014, a huge crowd attended the sold-out 3rd Annual Ludzy's (Steve Ludzik) Celebrity Roast in Niagara Falls, Ontario. In the coals this year was Hockey Hall of Fame member Phil Esposito.

A number of former NHL players were on-hand to help raise funds of The Steve Ludzik Centre for Parkinson's Rehab. As noted in the program, "in 2012 Steve revealed that he had been fighting Parkinson's disease for 12 years."

The guest of honour Phil Esposito

Philadelphia enforcer Dave "The Hammer" Shultz

Mike Wilson ( with Steve Ludzik's wife MaryAnn
Brit Selby, the last Toronto Maple Leaf to win the Calder (top NHL rookie). Brit won the Award in 1966
Mark Osborne, who played junior hockey in Niagara Falls with Steve, served as one the celebrity table guests. He is pictured above with his sister Lisa

The event was a huge success with $132,537 being added to the cause.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Review: The Metro Prystai Story by Frank Block

With the Kings Stanley Cup win fading in the rear-view mirror and training camp still many miles down the road, I needed a hockey fix.

And it arrived courtesy of author Frank Block and his e-book - The Metro Prystai Story. Prystai, who passed away on October 8, 2013, wore an NHL uniform from 1947-48 to 1957-58.

Also, there was a pleasant surprise when I opened up the attachment to his e-mail, but I will get into that later.

Wasting no time, Block addresses the crowning achievement of his subject in the NHL - Detroit's Cup victory in 1952. That was the year the Red Wings cruised through their opponents and won the bare minimum of 8 games. In the playoffs they swept Toronto and Montreal.

When asked to comment on his Cup experience, which included scoring the winning goal in game 4 of the final, Prystai replied, "Oh terrific, you know Sawchuk got 4 shutouts...they never scored a goal on us at home."

Then, comes the story of young Metro Prystai growing-up in Yorktown, Saskatchewan. Interviews with his siblings and friends provides insight into his boyhood on the Canadian prairie. His dad worked for the railroad and like most households in the 1930s, his mother looked after the home.

On the hockey front, Block chronicles Prystai from the time he played in high school to junior in Moose Jaw. "We had a pretty good team there...and they were pretty well all local guys," said Prystai. "We won three championships in a row in Saskatchewan."

A turning point for Prystai came in January 1945, when the Chicago Black Hawks decided to sponsor the junior Moose Jaw Canucks. In 1947-48, Prystai earned a spot on the Black Hawks roster and he took up residence in Chicago.

The chapter detailing his time in Chicago includes some incredible stories about his interaction with Matty Capone, who was Al Capone's brother (yes, the gangster). For example, Matty attempted to recruit Prystai into the family business. When he inquired as to what would be required, Capone replied, "just carry a gun."

Wisely, Prystai decided his true calling was to carry a stick and not a gun.

A trade in July 1950, sent Prystai to the Detroit Red Wings. In addition to helping his club capture two Stanly Cups, Prystai had the respect of his teammates. This becomes abundantly clear in the chapter titled "The Strike." A trade in November 1954,  sent Prystai back to the Windy City, setting off a firestorm in Detroit's dressing room. Led by defenceman Red Kelly, the Wings weren't happy with the transaction and they were ready to take action over managements decision to shed Prystai from their team.

Prystai, made a triumphant return to Detroit in 1955-56. He made an immediate contribution as the Wings advanced to another Cup final by defeating Toronto in the semi-final.

The book touches on numerous aspects beyond Prystai's involvement in hockey. It contains background on his family life, and business ventures after he hung-up his skates. And hockey wasn't the only sport Prystai participated in. During the summer he played ball and in one exhibition contest he shared the field with a true baseball icon.

Along with wonderful tidbits of information and moving moments (my favourite being Metro's return to the Motor City in 2011 with his family to receive a Stanley Cup ring), there are amazing photos taken at various stages of Prystai's life. The passage of time reflected in early black & white pictures, followed by bursts of colour as he got older.

Before reading Frank Block's e-book, I was somewhat aware of Prystai's work in the NHL. Going through my files, I came across this description of a goal he scored against Toronto in game 3 of the 1956 semi-final: "Then Metro Prystai, an industrious workman for the Wings, broke away, thrashed into the Leaf end with his bull-in-a-china-shop skating style, and scored with a 35-foot backhander."

How can one not appreciate a player who's style of play is described in this manner? Thus, it was a delight to expand my knowledge of Prystai beyond a file folder of clippings and notes. His story is new and not a recycled effort of the more known names in the game.

Now, for the pleasant surprise.

As Block writes on his website, included in the attachment is  "a professionally produced two and a half hour audio version where you'll get to hear exclusive interviews with Metro as well as other great hockey legends such as Red Kelly (who wrote the Forward), Emile Francis, Ted Lindsay and more."

This extra feature brings a certain intimacy to the process of getting to know Metro. I suggest first reading the text, then close your eyes and soak in the verbal portion.

So, if you're like me and in need of a hockey fix, I highly recommend securing this e-book/audio presentation. You will not be disappointed. It will satisfy the hunger of fans wanting to devour a new meal of hockey stories and information!

For further details, please visit or e-mail the author at

"I have really gotten to know Metro in a truly remarkable way," noted Frank Block. "It seems that no matter who I've talked to about Metro, the underlying theme in our conversations is that everyone has nothing but the utmost respect for him."

And who wouldn't want to read and learn more about someone with that reputation?