"They Just Didn't Let Up"
The Con Cougars left the ice stunned. After all, this was supposed to be their year. They’d dominated the Yellowknife District Hockey Association’s regular season, but here they were, down 4-0 to their rivals, Molson’s Indians, in game seven of the 1963-64 championship series. Con’s fans were just as sullen, watching across the packed Gerry Murphy arena as Molson’s supporters chanted and cheered, some with drinks concealed in paper bags. Bob Olexin, the local Molson’s rep and team manager, was already prepping champagne to drink out of the Walter Howe cup.
As rink rats scraped the ice and filled ruts with hot water to repair them, the Cougars convalesced in their dressing room. Coach Ray Merrifield walked over to Johnny Balsillie, 18, and told him to shadow Molson’s star Louie Prince: “Wherever Louie goes, you go.” The beleaguered, sweating players didn’t say much as they looked around the room. There was the hulking captain Pat “Moose” Balsillie, and his brother Johnny, who was flanked by his two wingers, younger brother Bobby, 16, and childhood friend Johnny Paul, 17. (The three speedy local teenagers formed “the Kid Line.”) There was moustached goalie Ray Prefontaine from Quebec, young Gary Syverson from Medicine Hat, Alberta, the McCluskey brothers—Burton and David—from Peace River, and league MVP Joe Baumgarten from Saskatchewan. No rousing speeches were needed—they knew to a man they only had 20 minutes left to end Con’s 23-year Walter Howe Memorial Cup drought.
This was far from some beer league game, and there was more than pride on line in the three-team league.
Yellowknife was then a mining town of 3,500, and divided between the main town (Molson’s), Con mine to the south, and Giant mine to the north. On Saturday nights it was common to get 1,000 paying spectators out for a game. (And 750 or more for the Tuesday and Thursday night games.) This was before there was a TV in every home, before Yellowknife became a government town. The rink was the place to be.
Both Con and Giant recruited hockey players in southern papers and gave them jobs at the mine. They paid for the players’ sticks and tape, and for beers after the game. “You only supplied your own skates,” says Bobby Balsillie. Players didn’t wear helmets back then, but the league permitted full-body contact and handed out five minutes penalties for fighting. There was no shortage of physical play—like the time Con’s Syverson, fed up with the stick work from Molson’s Jack Yost, swung around and whacked him across the forehead with his stick, producing a vicious gash. “It was a hit ‘em up and drag ‘em out game,” says Ron Sulz, a star stay-at-home defenseman for the Molson’s squad. “You didn’t go out on the ice to come off tied.”
But there might have been more fights in the crowd than on the ice, with overzealous and over-imbibing fans—segregated according to their allegiances—often getting carried away. There was the night that a group of young men, just in from the bush, and having consumed a “significant quantity of liquid refreshment” chased the refs back into their change room after a penalty was called against their favourite player, causing their team to lose. The RCMP had to be called “before the whole arena exploded in a hockey riot,” according to league board of governors member Reverend Ken Genge. Fans once burned a rival coach in effigy. Small fortunes changed hands at games, as did bottles of booze smuggled into the rink.
If you were a hockey player, life was good. Italian fans—noted for their support of Con—would send 24 beers to the Cougars players’ table at the Yellowknife Inn bar after a game. “You’d go to the Gold Range after school and some miner would buy you a hamburger or something,” says Balsillie. “Everybody knew you.” And being a good hockey player pretty much guaranteed you work. “I didn’t have to worry about jobs around here at mines,” he says. “I used to quit them every spring. Fall time’s coming and the snow’s flying? Someone would hire me at Con or Giant.”
Kids spent every minute outside of school at the rink. Arena manager Louie Prince gave them the run of the place so long as they repaired the ice and cleaned up after themselves. Balsillie had grown up playing with his mates on “The Kid Line,” and as the Con Cougars took to the ice against Molson’s for the third period on that Tuesday night in 1964, they faced the most daunting task of their young careers.
And then it happened—“Moose” Balsillie chipped the puck off the boards and past a defenseman, broke in and put the Cougars on the board. The score was now 4-1. “It got us going,” says Bobby Balsillie. Con kept up the pressure and soon there was a scramble in front of the net and one of the McCluskey brothers scored. And then Con got another. And another. “They just didn’t let up,” says Molson’s Sulz. “They just peppered goals at us and they caught us.” With just minutes remaining, Baumgarten found the back of the net and the Con crowd erupted. The Cougars took the lead in the most improbable comeback in YDHA history.
The game ended and the party started. The Cougars were presented with the cup on the ice and soon were parading it through Yellowknife, on the way to the Con Rec hall. “They were driving around town with that Walter Howe trophy on the hood of the car and it bounced off and the trophy was damaged,” says Sulz. “But they had a ball.”
According to Balsillie, Yellowknife’s taxi drivers were known Molson’s fans and somehow they got their hands on the cup that night. “We couldn’t find it and they said it was on top of the old CBC building,” he says. “And someone went up there and that’s where it was.”
52 years later, Sulz still can’t quite explain that third period. “I know it happened, but why? Why did we allow it to happen?” he says. Molson’s players still drank their champagne, but it didn’t taste so sweet. “Nobody wants to be up 4-0 and lose the game 5-4 and drink out of a gallon-pail instead of the cup, eh?”