Bill Fitsell

July 25, 1923 - December 3, 2020

“I dreamt of a body that would devote itself to hockey research,” Bill Fitsell recalled, in later years; the Society for International Hockey Research was the dream come true.

One of 17 founding members who met in May of 1991 to launch SIHR and the man who served as president for its first five years, J.W. (Bill) Fitsell died in Kingston, Ontario, on Thursday of this week at the age of 97. He leaves his wife, Barbara, and their five daughters.

“Bill's vision for SIHR transcended the individual interests of our members, “ said president Fred Addis. “He envisioned an umbrella of common purpose for hockey researchers, writers, and historians. But much more than that, he worked to build a network, a community of friends we know today as SIHR. He will be greatly missed.”

A dogged researcher, tireless organizer, and enthusiastic ally, Bill was himself a friend to many, and he was kind and generous and funny with all.

Bill Fitsell photographed at the Canadian Museum of History in 2017 (Photo: James Milks)

Bill Fitsell photographed at the Canadian Museum of History in 2017 (Photo: James Milks)

 

John Walter Fitsell was born in Barrie, Ontario, on July 25, 1923. His father, John Charles, gave his occupation as ‘Farmer’ when he enlisted as an 18-year-old with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915. He served in France, and was at Vimy Ridge in 1917, with the 19th Battalion. After four years with the infantry, he returned to Barrie, where he married Beatrice, Bill’s mother, in 1920.

The family moved east in 1927, to Lindsay, where Bill, along with his sister and two brothers, grew up. It’s also where he first took to the ice.

“My father rented a double lot,” Bill was recalling several years ago. Beside the house, the second lot was vacant. “That was our garden and also our rink. We’d go out and rake the garden and dream about the ice we were going to skate on. It was remarkable, because my dad was an Englishman, he’d fought in the First War, and became a baker. He would work 12 hours and then come out and flood the rink at night. And we’d wake up in the morning and there’d be this gleaming sheet of ice. That’s really where it started.”

Only once, as Bill remembered it, did his father don skates. He did consent more regularly to tend goal, wielding a shovel in place of a stick — until a puck rode up the shaft. “He’d string up a light bulb, so we could play at night.”

Bill’s team then, and ever after, was the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose exploits Foster Hewitt delivered via radio broadcast to Lindsay. Those were good years, of course, for the team. Powered by the Kid Line, with Lindsay’s own Joe Primeau at centre, the Leafs won a Stanley Cup in 1932, and made it to the Final on six other occasions that decade.

The first time Bill got to see the team play in person was in early 1936, when his dad took him to Maple Leaf Gardens and the home team beat the Boston Bruins by a score of 5-2.

Bill was 12. And while his hero, Primeau’s right winger, The Big Bomber, Charlie Conacher, was out of the line-up on the night, Bill did recall finding satisfaction in the evening’s proceedings nonetheless. During a first-period melee in a corner of the rink near where the Fitsells were seated, as fans tossed programs in the fervor of the moment, Bill made a break from his rail-seat.

“My dad thought I was going for a closer look at the fight, but I was going for the programs. I guess that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in Lindsay, there was no minor hockey program per se, other than what Bill and his friends concocted. “You organized your own teams in those days. And of course my team was called the Maple Leafs. I went down and registered us, and we’d play Saturday mornings.”

“We all had different Leaf sweaters,” he remembered. His own version had an authentic Maple Leaf stitched on the front, but the stripes at the waist were wrong, and the collar was a roll-neck, not at all what the genuine Leafs wore — though altogether warmer, he said, out on the cold January Lindsay ice.

A young Bill Fitsell (left) on the ice in Lindsay

A young Bill Fitsell (left) on the ice in Lindsay (Photo provided by Bill to Stephen Smith)

 

In the early months of the Second World War, Bill joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in Victoria, B.C. He was 17. His active service, which lasted from 1942 through 1946, included duty aboard the frigate HMCS Outremont during D-Day operations off Normandy in 1944.

It was in 1945, as Bill’s Navy service was winding down, that he met Barbara Robson in Nova Scotia. Married after a short courtship, the couple celebrated their 75th anniversary earlier this fall.

The newlyweds settled in Lindsay after Bill got his discharge from the Navy. That’s where Bill first went to work in newspapers, as a reporter with the Lindsay Daily Post. “In those days,” he told a reporter earlier this year. “You learned on the job.” He worked on papers in Port Perry and Gananoque before he landed at The Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962.

He was a Whig bureau reporter, then district editor, before settling in to write the paper’s People column from 1988 through 1993. He continued as a columnist for Kingston This Week into his late 70s.

“Hockey’s Boswell” is what Bill’s friend and fellow SIHR founding member Ed Grenda proclaimed him, writing in 2006: “a biographer who traces [the sport’s] often serpentine history and comments on its multifaceted features, past and present.”

“He is hockey’s historian par excellence.”

Bill dated his first serious research project to 1969, and it’s the one that he continued to pursue throughout his career. Organizers of an historic re-enactment of early hockey for the Kingston Winter Carnival were looking for counsel on what the game would have looked like in its original forms.

“It was soon evident,” Bill later wrote, “that there was little information available about the basic code of rules or how the game got its start. Hockey’s historical cupboard was bare.”

He would subsequently evoke the “solitary vigil” of the researcher, the hours spent mining deep into archives and libraries, the squinting at microfiche, the years of work before the advent of internet and all the possibilities of its search engines: that’s how it began for Bill.

He would, in time, produce a 30-chapter manuscript, Hockey’s Roots, that became the foundation of his first book, Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987). Former NHL president Clarence Campbell was an early reader of those pages. They “should be in the library of every student of the sport,” he wrote.

Bill’s other books, all just as necessary, are (with Mark Potter) Hockey’s Hub: Three Centuries of Hockey in Kingston (2003); How Hockey Happened (2006); and Captain James T. Sutherland: The Grand Old Man of Hockey & The Battle for the Original Hockey Hall of Fame (2012). In recent years, he was at work on a compendium of puckish verse called The Joy of Hockey Poetry.

It was in March of 1977 that Bill first floated the notion of a society of hockey historians and researchers to Lefty Reid, the then-curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, who died this past August. The idea gained more and more momentum in the ensuing years until the day in May of 1991 that SIHR’s 17 founding members gathered in Kingston for launch.

The founding 17 members of the SIHR (Photo provided to the SIHR by Bill)

Bill, top left, pictured at the inaugural meeting of the SIHR (Photo provided to the SIHR by Bill)

 

Bill’s many other hockey projects over the years reflect a curiosity that was as wide-ranging as his scholarship was exacting. Examples abound, even if they won’t all fit here.

He was, for instance, instrumental in the effort to establish the Ottawa monument and plaque commemorating hockey pioneer James Creighton that Prime Minister (and SIHR member) Stephen Harper unveiled in 2009.

Browse the annals of SIHR’s Hockey Research Journal and you’ll find Bill’s essays on hockey birthplaces and the history of ice polo alongside his chronicles of team mascots and how the center red line came to be.

Not all his efforts were on the page. From 1969 through 2005, he served variously as secretary, curator, historian, vice-president, and president of the International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum in Kingston.

He was a force behind Kingston’s Historic Hockey Series, commemorating early hockey played on the ice of the city’s inner harbour, and of the Carr-Harris Cup, for which teams from Queen’s University and the Royal Military College play each year.

Barbara and Bill Fitsell pictured with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Creighton Memorial event in 2009 (Photo: SIHR / Cezary Gesikowski)

Barbara and Bill Fitsell pictured with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Creighton Memorial event in 2009 (Photo: SIHR / Cezary Gesikowski)

 

And there’s no forgetting the night in 1961 that Bill witnessed — and famously photographed — hockey history.

It was in Gananoque, when Bill was still with the local Reporter. A bantam team was in town from Parry Sound, and after their game Bill was on hand at the (fortuitously named) Boston Café with Polaroid in hand when the visitors’ star player walked in.

The home team had won the game, but a 13-year-old Bobby Orr had so dominated the play for the visitors that his opponents gave him a standing ovation. The photograph that Bill took of the boys of both teams surrounding an ebullient Orr would end up featuring in a spread in the Bruin superstar’s 2018 book My Life in Pictures. “This was a day that changed my life forever,” Orr wrote there. “Not only did I enjoy the bottle of pop that day in Gananoque, but Wren Blair, a scout for the Boston Bruins, was in the stands.”

The photographer had his copy of the photo hanging on the wall of his office at home. “To my friend Bill,” the inscription reads. “Good luck always. Bobby Orr.”

Bill received the Ontario Minor Hockey Association’s Honour Award in 1967, and was inducted into a pair of Sports Halls of Fame, Lindsay’s (in 1995) and Kingston’s (2009).

Members of the SIHR with Bill and the Fitsell Cup in Orillia in October of 2012 (Photo: SIHR)

Members of the SIHR with Bill and the Fitsell Cup in Orillia in October of 2012 (Photo: SIHR)

 

At SIHR, where he’ll always be Founding President, Bill’s legacy is ongoing and everywhere.

He was editor of the newsletter from 1991 through 1999. From 1993 to 2008, he served on the editorial committee of the Hockey Research Journal.

His contributions continue to be commemorated in the Bill Fitsell President's Award, an annual prize recognizing those making outstanding contributions to the Society. It’s enshrined, too, in the Fitsell Cup, in pursuit of which members vie annually wherever SIHR AGMs gather and an adjacent parking lot allows for outbursts of ball-hockey.

His legacy also endures in the friendships he made and sustained, in the support and encouragement that he was always ready to lend, and in the memory of his wisdom and graceful spirit.

“Saddened beyond belief,” author and editor Kevin Shea wrote in an e-mail this week. “As fine a man as I’ve ever met. His passion and knowledge were beyond compare. Being the recipient of the Bill Fitsell President’s Award has taken on even more significance.”

“Rest In Peace, Bill. And thank you.”

Stephen Smith