There is no denying that Stu Duncan has a well-established reputation as a very accomplished hockey coach.
A pair of OFSAA championships with the Lockerby Vikings (1965 & 1968), a better than average campaign with the Sudbury Wolves (1974-1975), a later stint with the Laurentian Voyageurs (1990-1991), and countless stops at many a level in between is clearly a testament to that.
Through it all, however, the now 85 year-old soft-spoken mentor insists that he may have been even more at home in a more developmental setting, one that literally touched hundreds of youngsters who strapped on the skates locally for the better part of a half century or so.
“I really loved working the hockey school, just because you’re working with young kids,” said Duncan. “It helps you stay young. We taught the basics - how to skate, how to pass. We always divided the rink into three. At some point in the hour, the kids were going to play three on three, so that everybody was going to touch the puck.”
What is old is new again, as those involved in youth hockey these days might readily attest.
A number of phases of hockey involvement would sculpt the coach, the teacher that Stu Duncan would become. While many in the region can still recollect their start with shinny on the area playground rinks, his was an era that pre-dated even that.
“Memorial Park - that’s where the outside rinks were; there were no indoor rinks at the time,” explained Duncan. Born in 1935, he was 15 years old as the construction of the Sudbury Community Arena began. His father the Wolves’ team manager, the youngster would serve as part-time stick boy - when he wasn’t playing hockey, across the street, on his own.
“The teams were sponsored by the service clubs. We all dressed in one big dressing room with a big wood stove.”
One year of junior hockey in Falconbridge, playing under coach Leo Gasparini, would give way to a hectic but short playing stretch which included passing on an opportunity to join good friend Cummy Burton with the Windsor Spitfires, a brief stay at the University of Michigan, school and hockey combined in London at Western, before heading to Toronto to complete Teacher’s College.
“If you went to Teacher’s College, you weren’t allowed to play for the University of Toronto,” said Duncan. “But they had a house league that played at Varsity Arena - there must have been eight or nine divisions. I got asked if I would coach. I don’t know why they asked me - it wasn’t like I knew anybody.”
One championship season later, the wheels were well in motion.
Duncan would return to Sudbury, teaching and coaching at Lockerby Composite in very short order. Very much a student of the game, he would avail himself to any and all opportunities to discuss the finer points of hockey. “When Max Silverman was coach of the Wolves, I learned so much from his players,” said the father of two daughters.
“Guys like George DeFelice, Nick Tomiuk - you asked them something and they would show you, right away.”
To his credit, Duncan was rapidly absorbing the information that was shared. In both 1964 and 1968, he would lead the Vikings to an all-Ontario banner, the first of which occurred with home ice advantage. “St Charles had finished first in our league, we were second - but we both won our divisions at OFSAA,” he said.
“At the final game, the rink was sold out, more than 6000 people jammed in, standing room only. Ken Anstey, one of my centres, gets a breakaway with about five or six minutes to play. He changes hands on the way in and scores - I am not kidding you. I had never seen that before.”
By the time he’s added the OHL coaching gig to his resume, Duncan has formed an even more important alliance, introduced to a gentleman who would expand the scope of a very solid foundation of hockey, and do it in a way that resonated with his future business partner.
“Al Arbour was running his hockey school by then,” recalled Duncan, referencing the NHL Hall of Fame player/coach who suited up in more than 600 games and coached in the big leagues for no less than 22 seasons, capturing the Stanley Cup four years in a row with the dynasty that was the New York Islanders (1979-1983).
“I had met Al only briefly; my cousin was a good friend of his,” Duncan continued. “He asked me to be an instructor at the school; Eddie Giacomin was the other. He was coaching in St Louis at the time, so in came guys like Terry Crisp, Gary Sabourin, Frank St Marseille, Larry Keenan, George Armstrong, Ken Wharram.”
“The information that you would pick up was incredible. They could really, really teach.”
Arbour, who partnered with Duncan for a number of years with the New Sudbury location of Sports Unlimited, was at the centre of it all - for very good reason. “He could tell you exactly what you were doing wrong and how to correct it,” said Duncan. “He could talk to the lowest level kid, but also to the highest level. He had that ability.”
“He was that amazing - never criticized you, never tore you apart. His skating drills were so simple, so easy. I asked him once where he got all of the drills and he said that he had played for a lot of coaches, over the years, so he would write down all the good drills, and not write down the bad ones.”
Over time, the Al Arbour Hockey School would give way to what eventually became the No Frills Hockey School, closing up shop in 2014. With the likes of Bev McIver and Arnie Gallo sharing his love for teaching the game of hockey, at the very rudimentary level, Stu Duncan would remain involved almost to his 80th birthday.
Such was the passion that he likely enjoyed even more than coaching - and that’s saying something.