Durham, the Ultimate Hockey Town!

By Bill Trbovich

Like most Canadian towns, ice hockey in Durham developed on outdoor rinks, be it a frozen pond or an organized, municipally-run facility with boards and painted lines on the ice. However, these outdoor rinks were at the mercy of the weather and often a hockey season was divided by a thaw every year in late January or early February.

The first covered rink in Durham was built in 1890 by Thomas Brown near Neff’s Garage. It was great for ice skating and served the community well to 15 years but as a hockey rink it had a serious flaw. The posts seemed to interfere when it came to passing the puck! It was abandoned and eventually demolished.

Determined to correct this flaw, Mr. Brown built a new hockey and skating rink in 1908 located on George Street. For the next 43 years, it served the community well. It was owned and operated by various groups and people over the years.

When opened in 1908, the Durham Review described the new Durham arena as a “Commodious Ediface”and this is where the first indoor hockey game in Durham was played in 1909.  Photo courtesy of Durham Public Library

Durham hockey was first organized in the early 1900’s by Frank Irwin, Peter Gagnon, Eben Schutz and Martin Lauder. It was Lauder who became the community’s first NHL star, playing for the Boston Bruins in the 1920’s. It was under the roof of Mr. Brown’s second creation that Durham hockey began to flourish.

Early Durham Hockey

Founded around 1920, the Durham Hockey Club participated in the Ontario Hockey Association Intermediate League. This league was divided into numerous small divisions in which each club would have two home and home series. The team with the top record after this round robin moved on to the provincial playoffs. In the inaugural 1920-21 season, the Durham Hockey Club played against Markdale, Owen Sound and Wiarton in OHA Group 14 Intermediate Division. The club won its historic first victory in the final game but still finishing tied for last place with Owen Sound.

As members of Intermediate Group 16, the 1928-29 Durham Hockey Club competed against Flesherton and Markdale, finishing the season undefeated but then losing to Walkerton in the playoffs. In the 1930-31 season, the club moved into a division with Walkerton and Owen Sound, but missed the playoffs. However, at the same time Durham’s junior team won the Northern Hockey League’s Junior Championship.

In the 1935-36 season, the Durham Hockey Club coached by Dr. Royden Burnett, won its first ever Senior OHA Championship and it would be the last title this organization would see for 16 years.

While hockey continued to flourish under the roof that Thomas Brown built, the building itself was beginning to show its age. Despite the efforts of the Rotary Club which oversaw the repairs and installation of a new roof, a replacement eventually had to be built. This resulted in a new arena and community centre in 1952.   

The Durham Kinsmen Club decided to build a new community Centre and arena as its first major project. A canvass was conducted of Durham and surrounding district by Kinsmen, Rotary and Legion members in November and December 195. Along with a funds raised, a government grant was obtained and Wilson Lumber Company of Cannington began construction in May 1952. An ice plant was installed by the Creamery Package Company, providing ice for the 180×80 foot playing surface. Seating capacity for 1100 people was provided with standing room for many more. Photo courtesy of Durham Public Library.

Within the walls of this new arena and community complex, hockey in Durham began to expand. Minor hockey routinely provided leagues for more than 250 children and teens each year, the local skating club also made use of this facility. During the winter months, this building was a beehive of activity!

The Durham Huskies

A little known fact is that the Huskies (before they were called the Huskies) were actually three different hockey teams: a Junior team, an Intermediate team and a Senior team. From 1951-52 through to 1988-89, the Durham Huskies won no fewer than 18 league championships. What makes that statistic even more impressive is that they did it at so many levels in ten different leagues! They were Intermediate B champions, Intermediate C champions, Intermediate A champions, Senior B champions, and Senior A champions.

The new Durham Arena and Community Centre was opened in 1977. Photo by author

During the 1951-52 season, the Durham Hockey Club was competing in the Western Ontario Hockey Association Intermediate A league, and they were dominant.

       Durham Hockey Club 1951-52 WOAA Intermediate Grand Champions
Photo courtesy Durham Chronicle

A reporter from the Durham Chronicle felt the team needed a nickname so he tried the Hornets and then the Phantoms but nothing stuck. It was near the end of the 1952 playoff run when he dubbed the team the Huskies. The name caught on and the team won its first championship in over a decade! They repeated as champs but at the Senior A level in 1952-53 but then the league fell dormant. As the Intermediate Huskies, they won the OHA B championship in 1953-54 and 1955-56. It was the 1955-56 version of the Huskies that brought Durham national attention. On January 25, 1956, the front page of the Toronto Telegram displayed this headline:

20 Hurt, woman trampled in riot of hockey fans’

the story described a hockey game between Durham and Meaford! The game got out of hand, the players were fighting on the ice, and the fans were fighting in the stands! Durham arena manager Hap McGirr pleaded with patrons over the public address system to stop the fighting and he was ignored. He eventually turned off the lights and the arena went dark. As soon as he turned the lights back on, the fighting resumed. The OPP had to be called in to quell the riot! Women from Meaford began taking bricks in their purses to games when Durham came to town. Purse swinging duels in the stands between female fans became a thing of honour at Huskie games!

Back then, when they weren’t playing hockey, they were working in local factories. “My Dad came to Durham in 1950 to play hockey, and Pete Gagnon got him a job at Durham Furniture,” recalls Jim Nixon Jr, who would also play for the Huskies, 72’s and Thundercats “He continued to work at Durham Furniture for 45 years, long after his playing and coaching days were behind him. A lot of the players worked there over the years, when you played hockey here you were well taken care of.”

              Durham Huskies OHA Intermediate B Champions 1955-56
Photo courtesy of Jim Nixon Jr.   

Unlike today, alcohol was not served in hockey arenas in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. If you wanted to drink and watch hockey, you brought your own booze in a brown paper bag and bought your mix at the concession stands. Future Huskies, Jim Nixon and Andy Grant Jr. were rink rats in the 1960’s and they had the job of cleaning up the stands after weekend games. “The old arena had a railing around the top of seats where it was standing room only,” explained Nixon. “After the game was over and the fans had gone home, there was a row of cola cups around the top of the rink and you could smell the booze.” “We didn’t mind cleaning up,” said Grant, “we were given free ice time after we were done so we wouldn’t get home until after two in the morning.”

After the 1956 season and the infamous riot, Durham would not drink from a championship cup again until 1964-65 when it won the WOAA Major Intermediate C championship. This was followed in 1967-68 with the Central Intermediate B championship and the OHA Intermediate B championship. They followed that with another title in 1968-69 as OHA Intermediate B champs before they changed leagues.

Durham Huskies, 1967-68 OHA Intermediate B Champions
Photo courtesy Durham Huskies

Traditional rivalries developed between Durham and surrounding communities. “It was the only ticket in town and these games were intense because of the fan base,” explained Jim Aitken. “The games in Lucan were legendary and their fans were always on us.” When the Huskies were on the road, many fans from Durham would hop into their cars to follow the team. One of the most boisterous of the Huskies devotees was dedicated hockey mom Catharine Schafer. According to legend she had taken referee heckling to new heights. One of her favourite targets was referee Bill Devorski of Guelph. Nixon recalls a game he played in Stratford where Schafer was constantly on Devorski. “She kept hounding him to blow his whistle and call a better game,” recalls Nixon. Now keep in mind this was back in the day before there was glass around the entire rink. “Doesn’t Devorski take off his whistle and throw it to Schafer in the stands, telling her you try it I can’t get it to work,” said Nixon. “Mrs. Schafer gave the whistle a couple of tweets and threw it back to him. Devorski said, “Thanks I had dropped it in the toilet and I didn’t think it would work!” The crowd loved it.

When the Huskies travelled to Stratford to play the Stratford Perths in 1973, the reception was anything but warm. “My Dad was coaching and someone had made a huge sign at one end of the arena,” said Jim Nixon Jr. It read “Jim Nixon and his travelling circus are in town featuring the Meat Grinder.” The sign was referring to Jim Aitken, a player known to not shy away from the rough stuff! “It was a rough game, there had been a number of fights during the game,” recalls Aitken. “I was coming off the ice at the end of my shift and a fight had broken out in the stands. All of a sudden a fan came flying over the boards!’

At the centre of the melee was ardent Durham fan, Jerry Ferris, who had mixed it up with several Stratford fans and apparently tossed one of them down the concrete arena steps. The Stratford fan was knocked unconscious. “With the game almost over, Ferris was whisked away to the Durham dressing room,” said Jim Nixon Jr. The police were called and so was the ambulance. The Stratford fan awoke allegedly no worse for the experience but the search was on for Ferris. When the game ended, the players filed inside the dressing room where Ferris was hidden. “My Dad told Ferris to undress and take a shower with the rest of the team. The police came into the dressing room and found the team taking a shower but there was no sign of Ferris, so they left! They never did find their suspect.”

Two Teams are better than one!

Durham turned 100 years old in 1972 and it was decided a second Men’s hockey club could succeed. Thus another team came into being known as the Durham 72’s, forerunner of the current Durham Thundercats. This new club worked alongside but would play out of different leagues as the town’s established the team The Huskies. The town applied to and was accepted to enter the Western Ontario Athletic Association’s Northern League. This allowed many talented local players a place to play competitive senior hockey. What followed was 40 years of championship calibre clubs. In the Intermediate C loop of the WOAA, their competition came from Arthur, Woodford, Thornbury, Elora and Chatsworth. In the first two years, they won their division but lost in the playoffs. In 1975 the club finally broke through winning the WOAA Intermediate championship. This was followed by a two year hiatus while a new arena was built. They won Intermediate B championship in 1978-79. Changes to the league format favoured the 72’s when they won their first Intermediate A championship in 1981-82 and won it again five years later 1986-87. The following year was disappointing to say the least, finishing with a .500 record. It marked the last season for the team known as the Durham 72’s.

During the summer of 1988, senior hockey returned with a new team. The 72’s became the Thundercats and the colours changed to black and silver. The titles continued to pour in. During the 1990’s, the Thundercats won seven WOAA championships beginning in 1990-91with Intermediate A, followed by three consecutive Senior Grand championships. From 1995-98 they won three consecutive Senior AAA titles. The next century has provided more titles, including three Senior AA championships and one Senior A championship in the first decade. Durham considers itself first and foremost a hockey town and it has the hardware to prove it!

“The titles are nice but it’s the lasting friendships made during my hockey days that mean the most,” said Jim Aitken. Former teammates Jim Nixon Jr. (left) and Jim Aitken (right) look back fondly on their playing days, a bond developed decades ago on the ice. Photo by author