Toe Blake is fittingly honoured
by Randy Pascal
It is a sporting tribute that is long overdue. The re-naming of the Coniston Arena in honour of local hockey legend Hector "Toe" Blake will
be quiet no more as some 500 people or so, including countless relatives, descend upon the small town east of Sudbury on September 10th.
Although the motion that approved the name change dates back to last summer, it's taken the effort and dedication of a six-person committee,
spearheaded by former Nickel Centre councillor Sandra Boyd, to put in place a celebration worthy of "The Old Lamplighter" himself.
While Blake, along with the majority of his ten siblings, was born in Victoria Mines (now a ghost town out near Fairbanks Lake Road), the family moved
to Coniston when he was just one, his mother and father remaining there until they passed away in the 1950s.
A member of the 1932 Sudbury Wolves Memorial Cup winning team, Blake played briefly with the Hamilton Tigers (where he met his wife, Betty). before
moving on to join the NHL's Montreal Maroons.
Capturing three Stanley Cups in Montreal as a member of the Maroons and Canadiens, part of the well-reknown "Punch Line" with Rocket Richard and Elmer
Lach, ranked 66th in the Hockey News listing of all-time NHL greats in 1988, Blake is even more well respected for his accomplishments as a coach.
In his 13 year career behind the bench of the Canadiens, Blake guided his teams to an astounding eight Stanley Cup championships. He was named to the
Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1982, eventually falling victim to a long-time battle with Alzheimer's
Disease in 1995.
"It's been a long time coming" Boyd said, putting the finishing touches on a ceremony that has exceeded her wildest dreams."It was always something in
the back of my mind that I felt I had left unfinished."
While talk of the re-naming initially surfaced in the 1990's and again early into the new millenium, it was the formation of the Coniston CAN (Community
Action Network) that sparked the flame that would bring the process to fruition, thanks in large part to the on-going guidance and support of the City of
Greater Sudbury and councillor Doug Craig, according to Boyd.
While Blake spent the bulk of his adult life in Montreal, eventually opening a tavern along St Catherines Street and raising three children in La
Belle Province, the ties to Coniston remained strong.
One of several nieces and nephews still in the area, Lorraine McGregor gladly jumped aboard the committee to honour her uncle, undertaking the tedious
task of working through family lineage.
Of the eleven children of Wilmer Blake and Arzalie Filion, only Toe's younger sister Margaret survives today, residing at a nursing home in Toronto and
having now celebrated her 92nd birthday.
But the bulk of those children lived in the Sudbury area, most having a strong attachment to the local mining community. Little surprise that Coniston
has always held Toe Blake, who returned to visit virtually every summer while his parents were alive, in very high esteem.
"The Coniston Lions used to have a train trip every year," McGregor said. "I remember taking that trip six years in a row, staying at Place Ville-Marie in
Montreal - and then we went to the hockey game."
"The fellas would go to the (Toe Blake) tavern after and I would stand on the street, because it was men only in those days." By her own accounts,
McGregor did not grow up as a strong hockey fan.
Still, the bond with uncle Toe was strong. "We used to have to listen to the hockey games on the radio and my dad would only buy Esso gasoline,
because Esso sponsored the games in those days."
McGregor's mother, Stella, was three years younger than Hector and one of the three children in the family that were born in Coniston. While McGregor
has vivid recollections of her uncle, getting quality family time together was seldom easy.
"I remember when he came back for his brother's (Tom) 50th wedding anniversary," McGregor said. "It was very hard to sit and talk to him, because
everybody was like, "there's Toe, there's Toe" - he was just swarmed."
By all accounts, it was adulation that Blake would have gladly avoided, if possible. "He was a quiet man, but very caring for his family," McGregor
It was a description that surfaced time and time again as Boyd made contact with a number of people who knew the man well. "He just seemed like a regular
small town guy," Boyd said.
"He had odds and ends jobs, delivering groceries, growing up as a kid in a big family. I think he never forgot his roots and he was always close to his
family," Boyd added.
"I got a call from Dickie Moore, telling me stories and asking me to let everyone know what a leader Toe was, how much respect we had for him, how much
I wish I could be there," Boyd said.
In addition to some 150 relatives who will be on hand along with a variety of local dignataries, the guest list for September 10th includes long-time
NHL referee Scotty Morrison, who later went on to chair the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The newly-annointed Toe Blake Memorial Arena welcomes the general public to attend the site, between noon and 3:00 p.m. on September 10th, with the
ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m.
The arena will play host to an assortment of NHL hardware, including the Hart Memorial Trophy, Georges Vezina Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy, Art Ross
Trophy and James Norris Memorial Trophy. There is no admission fee.