The team’s older than the Leafs, the players are younger, the tickets are cheaper, and they’re actually playing

It’s hockey night in Canada: Thursday in mid-November and the seats are packed, standing room’s packed; people are being turned away at the door. The pep band that played the anthem is sitting at the north end of the ice, but the hard rock between faceoffs is coming from the stereo, and once the puck is dropped, the only music necessary is the scraping, slapping, thumping, crashing rhythm of the game. A man in a red tracksuit behind the south-end boards never takes his eyes off the play as he chants, “Hit ‘im agin! Hit ‘im agin! Hit ‘im agin!” A Toronto forward in blue and white answers his call, slamming, arms up, into a defenceman six inches taller than him and CRASH –“Woooooo! That hurt!” calls the guy in the tracksuit — their combined 400-something pounds of body mass is applied full force to the boards.

Did somebody say something about a hockey lockout?

No one’s particularly missing anything here at St. Michael’s College School arena at Bathurst and St. Clair, where the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors are playing host to the Guelph Storm. The tickets are only $12.50 and the 1,800-seat arena is so cozy you can smell the sweat off the bench and hear the grunts of the players, even from the very worst seats in the house. And in the wake of the NHL lockout, this is the best game in town.

What’s more, there’s history here, even more, as it turns out, than there was at the Gardens. The Majors are one of the oldest hockey teams in the country, and one of the most successful in preparing young men for the pros. The Majors’ 98-year history is intertwined closely with the progression of the game in Toronto and is curiously fuelled by the unique educational philosophy of the Basilian priests who run the adjacent St. Michael’s College School.

Both traditions are evident in the building. Beyond the south boards is the “wall of fame,” an array of framed photographs of the 162 St. Michael’s players who have gone on to the NHL, 11 of whom are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon and Tim Horton (see sidebar).

Tyler Haskins — an 18-year-old Humber College business student who plays centre for the Majors — says he’s fully aware of the giant footsteps in which he skates, and that he’s inspired by the uniquely proud history of the uniform. “It’s pretty special … we have a sign in our weight room that says ‘St. Mike’s breeds NHL champions.’ You know it is true,” he says. “It’s pretty neat to see those faces up on the wall and kind of put yourself in a category, you know.”

The other, more spiritual tradition is embodied by the words emblazoned over the front door of the arena: “Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.” Father Hugh Foley, a retired St. Michael’s teacher (and a former SMCS student), says that motto is applied by Basilian educators to athletics in order to “educate the whole person, in mind, body and spirit.” Foley says it is no stretch to claim that the Basilians believe athletic achievement can be a tribute to the glory of God, in the same way that music or visual art can. He points to the writing of former St. Michael’s principal Father Thomas Mohan, who wrote, in an essay entitled “Academics and Hockey,” that humankind gives glory to God, “when every human talent [is] actualized…. Sports are part of this human activity. The young athlete is trained to keep his body fit that he might co-operate with his teammates in playing the game.”

The Basilian approach to athletics led Father Henry Carr to found the St. Michael’s hockey program in 1906, more than a decade before there was an NHL. Carr said he thought hockey would help “form boys into men.” Over the next four years, his team’s success (they won the national amateur championships in 1910) helped develop the popularity of the game in Toronto, leading eventually to the founding of the Maple Leafs. The Majors formed a close partnership with the Toronto Maple Leafs starting in 1926, acting as a farm team until 1961, when coach Father David Bauer (who went on to found Canada’s first national Olympic hockey team) decided that the game was interfering with its players’ education and cancelled the OHL program at the school. Without the Majors, St. Michael’s continued to develop young hockey players (including Eric Lindros) at the high school and Junior “A” levels. The Majors were revived in 1997.

Today, the Majors’ affiliation with the school and the Basilians is more casual (the team is owned by Eugene Melnyk — a St. Mike’s alumnus and also owner of the Ottawa Senators — and only eight of the players are enrolled at St. Michael’s). Yet the players say the same educational principles are at work in the team today.

Haskins compares playing for the Majors to his experience with the Guelph Storm, where he played until October, 2003. “Playing in the OHL, it’s usually so much confined to being a hockey player, but at St. Mike’s it’s really a different experience. The school’s right there and it’s a great school…. Even for those not going there, there’s a high regard for character and leadership and those kind of things that go along with being a St. Mike’s Major.”

Still, for all it has contributed to Toronto sports history, the team is virtually ignored by the Toronto media. The Toronto Sun, that bible of Hogtown athletics, gives more prominence to their absurd dice hockey league than to the potential superstars at St. Mike’s. In other OHL towns, and in comparable leagues across Canada, the players at this level are celebrities. And they deserve it: if the play is less disciplined and the passing less crisp here than in the NHL, the players are every bit as fast and hit every bit as hard and shoot very nearly as well as the pros. In fact, many of these players will be pros soon enough: six of St. Michael’s current 23 players have already been drafted by NHL clubs, including Haskins, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings earlier this year (another 15 of them are still too young to be eligible for the draft).

Back on the ice, Haskins is now breaking in over the blue line, no one between him and the goalie except a 6′ 5″ defender named Michael Okrzesik. Haskins wires a shot between the big man’s legs that the goalie manages to get his glove on, redirecting it so it rattles off the glass. As his teammates fight for the puck behind the net, Haskins plants himself in the Storm goaltender’s kitchen, steadfastly waiting for a pass. He’s just five metres away from the wall of fame, a place his photo may one day be hung. If he notices the wood of Okrzesik’s stick being repeatedly applied to the small of his back, he doesn’t show it. Haskins isn’t going anywhere. Yet.

Next home game: Dec 17 v. Plymouth Whalers. Game tickets are available from Ticketmaster or at the door, SMCS Arena, 1515 Bathurst.

Eleven former St. Michael’s players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame:

FRANK RANKIN (Majors 1912-1915; OHA 1906-1915)

This pre-NHL superstar (he played a position called “rover”) for the Stratford OHA Champions between 1907 and 1909 later coached an Olympic team.

REG NOBLE (Majors 1916; NHA 1916; NHL 1917-1933)

The first St. Mike’s player to play in the NHL, Noble’s career took him through six teams (including two in Toronto and two in Montreal) between 1916 and 1933. He scored 30 goals in 20 games in 1917-18 for the Toronto Arenas. He went on to be an NHL referee.

JOE PRIMEAU (Majors 1923-24; OHA 1923-27;
NHL 1928-1936)

Known as “Gentleman Joe,” he played from 1927-1936 with the Leafs and returned to coach the Leafs from 1950-53 (he was behind the bench when Bill Barilko scored his legendary goal). Primeau later returned to St. Mike’s as a coach.

TED LINDSAY (Majors 1943-44; NHL 1944-60,

Famous “production line” mate of Gordie Howe and Sid Abel with the Red Wings, Lindsay scored 20 goals or more 11 times and won four Stanley Cups. He ran into trouble with the league and was traded to Chicago after trying to organize a players union in 1957.

BOBBY BAUER (Majors 1933-34; NHL 1936-42, 1945-47, 1951-52)

Was a member of the great “Kraut Line,” in Boston during the late ’30s and early ’40s. In a career split by his service in World War II, he won two Stanley Cups and three Lady Byng Trophies.

FATHER DAVID BAUER (Majors 1941-43, Majors coach 1953-51)

Inducted into the Hall as a “Builder,” Bauer was hugely influential in developing amateur hockey in Canada. A promising player who gave up a chance to play with his brother Bobby on the Bruins (see above), he instead went into the priesthood. As a St. Michael’s coach, he helped develop such players as Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon. In 1962 he founded Canada’s first national Olympic hockey team.

TIM HORTON (Majors 1947-49; NHL 1950-74)

A dominant defenceman said by Gordie Howe to be the strongest man to ever lace up skates (and namesake of the donut shop chain), he played for the Leafs, the Rangers, Pittsburgh and the Buffalo Sabres. He continues to hold the Leafs record for consistency, playing in 486 consecutive games between 1961 and 1968.

RED KELLY (Majors 1945-47; NHL 1947-67)

He won eight Stanley Cups, four Lady Byng Trophies and one Norris Trophy in his career with the Red Wings and Maple Leafs in the ’50s and ’60s.

DAVE KEON (Majors 1956-60; NHL 1960-75; WHA 1975-79; NHL 1979-82)

By many people’s estimation, the best Maple Leaf ever, Keon played a remarkable 15 seasons with the Leafs, from the dynasty teams of the ’60s to the Ballard nightmare of the 1970s. The only Leaf to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

FRANK MAHOVLICH (MajoÒrs 1954-57; NHL 1957-74; WHA 1974-78)

Known as the “Big M,” Mahovlich is one of the best forwards in the history of the game, winning six Stanley Cups with Toronto and Montreal. He is now a Canadian senator.

GERRY CHEEVERS (Majors 1957-61; NHL 1965-72; WHA 1972-76; NHL 1976-80)

Played goal for the powerhouse Boston Bruins teams with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He’s widely remembered for his mask, which was white and marked with stitches showing where it had been struck by the puck.

Originally published December 9, 2004 in Eye Weekly.