Celebrating a century of hockey at St. Mike’s

By  Steve McLean, Catholic Register Special
  • February 12, 2007
torontostmichaelsmajors2TORONTO - For many, Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School is known as one of the finest all-boys Basilian high schools in Canada. But for others, who may not know a rosary from a rose garden, the St. Mike’s name means just one thing: hockey.
This year the school is celebrating its 100-year connection with hockey. St. Mike’s became the top amateur team in Canada when it won the Allan Cup in 1910, and the school built a lasting reputation for turning out well-rounded young men who earned valuable educations while playing the game they loved at a high level. When the Ontario Hockey Association was split into A and B levels in 1933, St. Mike’s followed suit, as the Junior B team became the Buzzers and the Junior A team became the Majors. The Majors were the dominant team in the country that year, as they became national champions by winning the Memorial Cup. Not to be outdone, the Buzzers won the Sutherland Cup as Ontario champs.

Legendary Toronto Maple Leaf and alumnus Joe Primeau coached the Majors to another Memorial Cup championship in 1945. They lost in the final the next year but returned for a third straight time in 1947 where, in a rematch of the 1945 final against the Moose Jaw Canucks, the Majors again emerged victorious to take their third Memorial Cup.

Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Red Kelly followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by going to St. Mike’s. He won midget and Junior B championships under the tutelage of Fr. Ted Flanagan and was a key element of the 1946 and 1947 Memorial Cup teams.

“I spent four years as a boarder and they were some of the greatest years of my life,” Kelly said of his St. Mike’s experience.

“I developed by leaps and bounds. It was fantastic education-wise and hockey-wise and preparing you for life. I went right from here to the NHL, so I had to be trained really well in order to step right in.”

Former St. Mike’s student and player Fr. David Bauer returned to the school and took over the coaching reins of the Majors in 1953. With a team anchored by the goaltending of future Boston Bruin Gerry Cheevers, Bauer led the Majors to a record-breaking fourth Memorial Cup championship in 1961. But the school saw longer schedules, increased travel and rough play, and the Ontario Hockey Association’s growing professionalism as negatives for its students, and it withdrew after that season.

But the team was a valuable source of players for the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose owner Conn Smythe created the Toronto-based Metro Junior A League to try and alleviate some of the school’s concerns. Despite a league championship in 1961-62, the team was discontinued and Bauer went on to create and oversee a national team of the top amateurs in the country. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame posthumously in 1989.

“Once they started to play more than 50 games, Fr. Bauer became concerned that it was becoming harder and harder for some of the guys to finish Grade 12 and 13,” said Dick Duff, another Hockey Hall of Famer who moved from Kirkland Lake, Ont., to attend St. Mike’s in 1951 and became part of a heated rivalry with the Toronto Marlboroughs, who they shared playing time with in Maple Leaf Gardens along with Smythe’s National Hockey League Leafs. “There were only a few of us that went on to play pro, so they had the obligation and responsibility to the other boys to enable them to finish Grade 12 and 13 and go on to something else.”

Former St. Mike’s president Fr. Tom Mohan and then member of Parliament and alumnus Dennis Mills resurrected the Majors program in 1996, when the team was admitted to the OHL.

“We were starting off with pretty high ideals, but it’s obviously not the same Ontario as it was in the ’60s,” Mohan conceded, as it quickly became apparent that the team couldn’t be based on the same principles it had in the past if it was to effectively compete in the modern league.

Former NHL player Mark Napier coached the Majors for their first two seasons, and says it wasn’t easy.

“Not every player we inherited or drafted wanted to play for us because of the school issue, as every player had to go to the school to play on the team.”

That’s no longer the case, and the Majors were purchased by another alumnus, Biovail Corporation CEO and Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, early this decade. Melnyk purchased the Mississauga Ice Dogs OHL team last summer and plans to sell it so that he can move the Majors into its rink, the more modern Hershey Centre, in time for the beginning of next season. The Majors’ current arena, on the school’s campus at Bathurst and St. Clair, is almost 50 years old, has the OHL’s smallest playing surface and can only hold about 1,600 spectators.

“We understood all along that there needed to be a larger venue for them,” said Fr. Joseph Redican, St. Mike’s president. “We don’t have the space to put in the kind of facility they need and for the parking that would be required for that size of facility. I know it was explored, but it really wasn’t a viable option.”

While the relationship between St. Michael’s and the Majors isn’t as strong as it once was, it still boasts a proud heritage that has seen more than 170 former players make it to the NHL, including Tim Horton, Ted Lindsay, Frank Mahovlich, Turk Broda and Dave Keon along with the aforementioned Hall of Famers.

(McLean is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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