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The Laurentian hockey dynasty of the sixties
2021-04-24
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Forty-one consecutive regular season victories spread over three or four years.

Let that sink in for a moment.

While the record books of the OIAA (Ontario Intercollegiate Athletic Association) from the sixties are hardly pristine or necessarily very well kept, folks who were there insist those numbers are extremely close, if not bang on.

True, the opposition that the Laurentian Voyageurs men’s hockey team, at that time, constituted the likes of Waterloo Lutheran, Ryerson Polytechnical and a fledgling Brock University.

But as the likes of Jim Ferguson, Stu Thomas and others are quick to note, the L.U. lads could more than hold their own when the cream of the crop assembled for Canadian university nationals, advancing to the finals in 1966-1967 in Edmonton, with the best from one coast to the other on hand.

Now 76 years old and a lifelong resident of Capreol, Thomas recalls both of his trips to what was then the CIAU championships, the first trek coming in the spring of 1965. “All hockey teams are close, but there was something about putting that group of people together, just the way that we meshed,” he said.

“And, of course, we had (coach Jack) Porter.”

Sure, there were other crossovers from both teams: Edgar Gagne, Joe Modeste and Richard Proceviat, to name a few. But it was the legendary bench boss who made it all work, all while embracing an innovativeness that was truly ground-breaking.

“Jack was an exceptional coach,” Thomas continued. “He would make each of us teach each other a three on two, drawing up an actual diagram that we had to show to our teammates. People just didn’t do that at the time.”

Built around a core of local talent, the 64-65 Voyageurs embodied the true definition of a team.

“I remember all of those guys so fondly,” said Thomas. “There was not one of them who would not have gone through a brick wall for coach Porter.” Still, in terms of raw ability, they would have to defer to the 66-67 squad that defeated Sir George Williams (4-2) in the quarters and the Saskatchewan Huskies (7-2) in the semis before running into coach Tom Watt and the buzzsaw University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

After spending a couple of years at the University of Denver, Jim Ferguson had returned home by the summer of ‘66. “I met up with Mike Callahan from Levack and we talked about going back to school,” recalled the 77 year-old who has called Bermuda home since 1973.

“They (the Voyageurs) had seven guys who were playing their last year of college hockey. And a group of us came in as freshmen, but with experience.”

Regional lads from the outskirts of town, both Ferguson and Thomas shared somewhat similar hockey backgrounds, at least in terms of their earliest days.

“My father was a mining engineer with International Nickel (INCO) and we lived in a company house in Garson,” said Ferguson. “I could look out my window and see the open ice rink. You would skate until the ice melted, on the rink or up at the Garson Dam. We could skate there, with the cattails sticking up out of the ice.”

“The arena in Capreol was built in 1949, I think, but I played on the ponds all the time,” concurred Thomas. “I’m sure that this is part of the reason that some of my friends and I became such good hockey players. We lived on the river in the winters.”

While Ferguson and Thomas were key contributors offensively, there was little doubt who stood most tall as the anchor of the back-end brigade. “Scratch (Richard “Dick” Proceviat) was so good,” said Thomas, referencing the Manitoba native who went on to play five seasons in the WHA (World Hockey Association).

“I never realized how good he was until Jack ran a really interesting skating drill.” It was an interesting concept that Porter had learned of in conversations with Father David Bauer, who was trying to emulate the skating stride of national team speedster, Roger Bourbonnais. “You would wrap the stick across the small of your back and then start to stride, really long strides.”

“Everybody was kind of getting used to the striding and after a minute or two, all of a sudden, Scratch is lapping everyone. He’s lapping guys like Joe Modeste and Edgar Gagne - and they were quick. You could hear his skates digging into the ice, the power in his legs. The best skater on the team showed exactly why he was the best skater on the team.”

“That was a real eye opener to me.”

Like most who planned to play for Porter for any length of time, Proceviat was known for his overall fitness. It was a staple of his coach’s regimen. “Jack would give everyone hand-written notes, at the end of the year, addressing a letter specifically to each player about training during the summer,” Ferguson reminisced.

“He was very forward thinking.”

Inducted into the Voyageurs Alumni Hall of Fame in 1998 along with the balance of the 1966-67 Laurentian men’s hockey team, Ferguson and Thomas have reconnected a few times, over the years, remaining in touch as both have enjoyed long and most interesting lives.

Ferguson and his wife have two sons, the oldest (Trevor) of which swam in two sets of Commonwealth Games, representing Bermuda. In fact, it was at an OUA Swimming Championship meet in Sudbury, one in which his son participated, that Ferguson was eventually notified of the L.U. Hall of Fame recognition that dated back about a decade or so earlier.

The president of the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum & Heritage Centre in Capreol, Thomas remains every bit as active now as he was in his career as a teacher, or when he sat on the town council in his own community.

There is something about the taste of nostalgia that runs in his veins - whether it be about hockey or trains.

“Were we good?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes. Was the league as good as other leagues? Maybe not. But we were still a school of only 600 to 800 students, beating the University and Saskatchewan and others - and that was a real coup.”

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