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In the September 1906 issue of The Muskoka Herald, a Bracebridge weekly newspaper that came into being in 1878, a special insert was included entitled "Bracebridge as a Sporting Town". That insert was one of four produced in that year; each focusing on a subject of interest that the editor/publisher of that valuable historical record of early Bracebridge felt was of significance to the community, including one on the "new bridge" (over the Muskoka River north Branch -in 2014 part of Taylor Road) and the wonderful new steamer the Sagamo, and another on "Agriculture in Muskoka". Worthy subjects for sure and significant in a rapidly growing area that had been a wilderness just a few short years before.
The important link for travelling over the river connecting the community and distant areas to the north (the bridge), the impressive addition to the Muskoka Navigation steamship service (the Sagamo), and the rapidly growing agricultural economy, were all great assets to Bracebridge. A report detailing the numerous sports activities among that highly regarded group of assets surely is an indication of their significance to the pioneer community.
A Good Town Grew Here notes that included in that review were lacrosse, football, tennis, cricket, baseball, hockey and curling. Little, if any, mention is made of football and tennis in those early days in the numerous books on the history of the area, but it is stated that skating and hockey took place on the frozen Muskoka River although no reference is made to team competition in hockey until the construction of the first skating "rink" building built by John Dunn in 1898. The first reference to competitive sporting activities involved cricket and baseball; a meeting to discuss the formation of a cricket club was held in 1878 and the first baseball game is said to have taken place in 1872. Both of these sports gave way for quite some time to lacrosse and a number of significant championships were brought home to Bracebridge.
It didn't take long however, for hockey to become the dominant sport in the community and remains among the most exciting of all team activities.
The "rinks" of John Dunn on the ice of the Muskoka River knew many dramatic and exciting, events. Professional hockey greats, Irwin "Ace" Bailey, Frank and Bill Carson, Clarence "Moose" Jamieson, Herbert Trimble, Roy Cooper and Earl "Squirrely" Walker learned their hockey "tricks of the trade" there. More recent years produced the same in Yearley's and the Bracebridge Memorial Arena. Who could forget the great years of the Bracebridge Bears, a team put together after the end of the World War 2 conflict when so many young men, after enduring the terror of war, returned home and put their heart and soul into assimilating with the culture they had left behind. Veteran Ken Hammell recalled a meeting at the home of "Biff" Shier when the players that had come together to form a competitive team chose the name "Bracebridge Bears". Their heroics and championships are well remembered in spite of the passing of time.
One of the most dramatic events in the life of the Bears, aside from their Ontario Championships which will surely be the subject of future literary work, was a game played on April 25th, 1952 against the Elmira Polar Kings. Elmira was leading the Bears by a score of 4 to 0 when, with just 5:51 minutes left in the game, Fred Nicholls scored assisted by Dint Rowe and Ron Rowe, at 4:34 Vern Vanclief scored assisted by Stu Reid, at 2:29 Johnny Thompson scored assisted by Stu Reid, at 2:11 Stu Reid scored unassisted, at 30 seconds remaining Chub Downey scored assisted by Merv Robinson and with 1 second left on the clock Chub Downey scored again assisted by Stu Reid; final score Bracebridge 6 Elmira 4.
In spite of those heroics, Elmira went on to win the series but nothing will ever erase the memory of that dramatic event from the record of the Bears. The following year the Bracebridge Bears won the Ontario Intermediate "B" Championship and the Bracebridge Midgets won the Provincial Midget "C" Championship. Of special interest, the coach of the Midget team was Russell "Chub" Downey who just a month later played left wing for the Bracebridge Bears Ontario Intermediate championship team; a rather rare occurrence that is an example of the determination and skill of Downey as a coach and a player.
However, one of the most extraordinary events in our hockey history involved the Bracebridge Minor Hockey Association's 1993/94 Bracebridge Bantam team.
Their season started pretty much the same as any other. Registration of players, try-outs, planning schedules, checking out tournament opportunities; pretty much the same routine every time.
Head Coach Bill Earley already had his team executive in place, he tended to not change it much from year to year, but he had no idea that this was going to be a year of success unlike any he had seen. It was not until long after the season ended that an analysis of it showed just how unusual it was.
Earley had chosen Carey Uyeda as Assistant Coach, Norm Webb as Trainer, Dave McLaughlin, as Assistant Trainer, Bill Morrow and Jim Smith as Co-Managers.
There were 30 players registered in the Bantam division that year and after a number of the usual "try-outs" the following were selected to form the Bantam Hockey Team registered to represent the Bracebridge Minor Hockey Association with the Ontario Minor Hockey Association:
Ryan Archibald, Stephen Davies, Mark Downey, Josh Faulkner, Sean Hammond, James Heintzman, Kevin Hyde, Chris Jackson, John Jennings, Cody Jones, Peter Kolyn, Tom Morrow, Mark Robinson, Matthew Thomas, Robert Todd, Ryan Venturelli, Ross Willard, Mike Bridle, Paul Watton, Kirk Poirier and Jason Cox.
The team had a very successful season of exhibition, league and tournaments games, finishing with a 49, 15 and 7 record, including 5 tournaments championships. It was obvious that the players had talent, good coaching and an ability to work together as a team, but it was not here that this team achieved what has to be a rare accomplishment; it was in the playoffs.
After finishing in first place in the Muskoka Parry Sound league regular season, the Bracebridge Bantams started the playoffs against a strong team from Parry Sound. They had already lost to Parry Sound twice during the year and they started out the same way, losing the first two games in a three out of five playoff. Facing elimination in the third game, Bracebridge was victorious. In the fourth game, again facing elimination, the two teams tied, including an overtime period where a single goal by Parry Sound would have ended the series. The fifth game, again facing elimination, Bracebridge won handily and in the sixth game, necessary because of the one tied game and again facing elimination, Bracebridge won with ease. In four of the six games a loss would have ended the Bracebridge Bantam season.
The win over Parry Sound entitled the team to advance to the next series against Port Hope, the winning team from the south-east area of the OMHA jurisdiction. This was the only series where the Bracebridge team were clearly superior and in the three out of five series Port Hope was eliminated from further playoffs in three straight games. With this decision Bracebridge now advanced to the next level of competition, being the semi-final playoffs for Ontario, against Penetang. It was clear from the start that this was going to be different than the series with Port Hope.
Once more, Bracebridge started slowly in the three out of five series by losing the first game by a score of six to five and the second four to two. In the third game, and facing elimination, Bracebridge won five to three. In the fourth game, facing elimination for the sixth time, Bracebridge won four to two. That brought on the fifth game and Bracebridge, facing elimination for the seventh time, won by a score of three to two.
The All-Ontario finals were now in store for the Bracebridge Bantams. It was against a talented team from St. Marys, the winner of the western Ontario region. Just like the previous series, Bracebridge started badly losing seven to four. However, this time they rebounded to win the second game five to four. Then again the pressure mounted. In the third game St. Marys dominated by a score of four to two and in the fourth game, Bracebridge facing elimination again, won by a score of five to three. That brought the all-Ontario championship to a fifth and final game. For the ninth time, Bracebridge faced elimination and won by a score of four to two.
The Bracebridge Bantams were the 1993/94 All-Ontario Champions.
The important and extraordinary achievement is not that they won a valued and elusive Ontario Championship, it is that the team faced so many situations where a hesitant step, a missed play, a defensive lapse, or a goal tender error, would have sent the players home for the summer. If one were to eliminate the one lopsided series against Port Hope, a calculation shows that the Bracebridge Bantam team faced being eliminated from advancement on the road to the championship in 56.3 percent of the games they played!
By any analysis, that is an incredible achievement.
Was it team chemistry? Team spirit? Working together as a team? Helping each other? Certainly the team had talented goal scorers and solid defence, but without a doubt none of that mattered without good leadership. That came from the coach, Bill Earley. There is little possibility that a team would rebound in the situations they faced without the studious guidance and direction of someone putting the right player on the ice at the right time. Of course, a little luck played a role, no one would deny that but luck often occurs because someone was making the right decisions in the first place.
As an aside, a Toronto daily newspaper a few years ago ran an extensive article about a Midget hockey team from Saskatchewan that played the entire 2007/2008 hockey season without receiving a fighting major penalty. The temptation was too much to bear. The writer responded to the newspaper with the following:
It was great to see your focus on the Saskatchewan minor hockey team that went for the whole season without a fighting penalty. Very credible indeed. This also happened last year in the 2007-2008 season when the Bracebridge, Ontario Midget team played the entire season and progressed to the quarter-finals in the playdowns to the Ontario championship without getting a major penalty of any kind, including fighting of course. The team and the coach won "Team of the Year" and "Coach of the Year" for their performance in recognition of a rewarding achievement, proving that success in our great sport can be achieved without fighting at all.
Of course, the newspaper did not acknowledge that they had received the note; no matter, the fact still remains that the coach of that team, the same Bill Earley, brought a team of excitable 16 and 17 year old boys through a entire season of intense competition and was able to convince them to control their emotions in a game where that is not easy.
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