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The commonalities and contrasts of Copper Cliff Braves' championship teams
2020-12-19

Sure, there are commonalities between the seven Copper Cliff Braves high-school boys' hockey teams that captured OFSAA banners between 1948 and 1975 - and yes, those seven all-Ontario titles are more than any other school in the province.

Legendary coach Bert McClelland, the man for whom the arena in Copper Cliff was named, was behind the bench for each and every run: 1948, 1950, 1953, 1954, 1963, 1966 and 1975.

And the fabled Stanley Stadium, with all of its wonderful idiosyncrasies, an absolute shrine to hockey as some have dubbed it, was as critical a part of the lore as the man who led his team into battle pretty much every Saturday night over a period of nearly three decades of action.

Yet there were also clear-cut differences, by-products of the various eras that were covered, contrasting memories that so many looked forward to sharing if not for the pandemic postponement of the planned 2020 reunion of CCHS alumni.

Thankfully, both Norm Cyr (1963) and Chris Kallio (1975) can spin a tale with the best of them, with more folks to follow, I am sure, somewhere down the road.

When the Cyr clan moved from Coniston to Copper Cliff, the parents plus six kids, back in 1960, few could have envisioned the hockey journey that was launched. The future goaltender with both the St Lawrence Saints and Laurentian Voyageurs arrived across town with what was truly a modest resume on the ice.

"I had never played organized hockey in Coniston, just a little pick-up," noted the now 75 year-old resident of Oakville, nicely retired following a lengthy career with the federal government. "We did a lot of skating in Coniston on the outdoor rinks - there wasn't much else to do in the winter - so I learned how to skate fairly well."

"I don't even know how I ended up playing goal (with the Braves)," Cyr added. "I suspect everybody stepped back and I drew the short straw."

Thankfully, he was athletic enough to quickly grasp the nuances of the thankless task, developing an understanding of the key components of success within that final line of defense. "It was all about angles and reflexes," Cyr recalled. "That's exactly what it was. After that, it transitioned, over time, to a different game altogether."

Certainly one where the puck stoppers felt a tad more protected.

"When you got the puck off your wrist or the side of your skate, it hurt," said Cyr. "The arm pads were just basically felt. If you got one off the elbow, it would sting. The trick was to catch the puck or deflect the puck with your blocker. But I always had bruises and got cut up pretty good."

"The masks were not that great."

Thankfully, the team was.

Though netminder George Sleaver had graduated and was now off to Michigan State, hope for the Braves remained high. "I remember that summer (1962) that it dawned on me about how important it was because there was an article in the Sudbury Star where Bert McClelland had announced that I was going to be the goalie for the senior team," said Cyr.

In fact, such were the expectations in Copper Cliff that McClelland and company agreed to host the OFSAA tournament that spring. "Bert did it for a reason, we had a good team," said Cyr. "We won every game, except for one that we tied."

And for all of its quirks, Stanley Stadium clearly constituted a home ice advantage.

"If we played in Copper Cliff, on a Saturday night, it was always packed," said Cyr. "In the corners, along the side of the boards, there was nothing there - no glass. In the corners and around the back, behind the net, it was wire mesh. You didn't want to go in there with the defensemen and get your face rubbed in that."

"You would come away with a few stitches."

Backstopped by Cyr, the Copper Cliff team which also included the likes of Tom Mikkola (Michigan State), Paul Duffy and Ralph Ferris (both St Lawrence), Paul Aloisi, future CFLer Ken Shaw and many more knocked off Upper Canada College, giving McClelland his first Ontario championship in almost a decade.

"He was so straight, as straight as an arrow, and just a really, really good guy," Cyr said of his coach. "I remember one game, he threw an orange, but that was the only time I saw him pissed."

A decade later, Chris Kallio could commiserate.

"Bert was just a little guy, kind of an unassuming sort," said Kallio, a member of the final Copper Cliff Braves' team to hoist the hardware. "But if you had him in the dressing room and the team wasn't playing well, there could be fireworks. In scrimmages, he constantly had a whistle and he would stop play and teach."

If coach McClelland evolved over time, so too did the league. Where the early sixties would find CCHS battling it out with St Charles College, Sudbury Tech, Lockerby Composite and Sudbury High, Kallio and his teammates had staked out a brand new rival that accompanied the wave of disco and perms - a rival with plenty of familiarity.

"When I joined the Braves, I was 16, but by then, Lively High-School (changed to LDSS in 1972) had their own team and they were the perceived powerhouse of the league," said Kallio. "We were the underdog that year. I think Lively went 25-1 - they had a very good team - but they were all the guys that we had grown up playing with in Copper Cliff."

"I grew up outside of Lively, in Waters Township, and in those days, everybody west of Sudbury ended up playing all of their minor hockey in Copper Cliff at Stanley Stadium."

And much like Cyr, Kallio had no trouble sharing thoughts on the venue that would come to mean so much to so many, extending way beyond his memories of the unforgettable fresh fries that became a tradition at the canteen that was at the centre of it all.

"The penalty box there was a communal penalty box," said Kallio. "You could get in a fight with somebody and then you had to sit right next to the guy in the penalty box, side by side, with no separation. It was wild."

With Kallio and Jamie Conroy and Grant Kirk and Barry Bissonette all taking turns leading the charge offensively, and captain Craig Loupelle (Clarkson) solidifying the back end, the Braves would sweep past the Hawks, ousting their North Bay based foes in NOSSA, and eventually blasting the Michael Power Trojans 9-4 in the OFSAA gold medal encounter.

Yet it was step one in this process that particularly stuck with the young mid-season addition, who was thrilled to be asked to step in between Conroy ("our best player") and Kirk ("our fastest skater"). "Because everybody knew everybody, when we played Lively in the championship, we were packing in 1600 to 1900 people," said Kallio.

"The caliber of the high school hockey at the time was outstanding."

In fact, no school in the province of Ontario could touch the tradition of excellence that was enjoyed by those who excelled with the Copper Cliff High School Braves.

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