Small town hockey heroes loom large in Pictou, NS

Jon Sim shared his experience growing up in Pictou County and the great times he had playing midget and minor hockey in that region.

For generations of small town Canadians, there were two sets of heroes. The stars of the NHL, who were projected into our living rooms on Saturday nights, and the hockey heroes we would see up close in our hometown rinks.

I grew up worshiping players like Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Mike McPhee. But they were just part of my arsenal of hockey heroes. Equal in stature for me were guys like Dana Johnston, Bruce Hebert, Ronnie Muise and the rest of the Pictou Junior C Mariners. I could only see the NHLers once a week on TV but there was a good chance I could bump into one of the Pictou Mariners any day of the week, and I never missed their home games on Saturday night.

A typical Saturday night for 10-year-old me started with a trip down the hill to the rink with my brother Peter and buddies Mark and David. We’d pay a buck to get into the Hector Arena and watch our heroes. We’d always make sure to show up at the game half an hour early to watch the warm up and to pat our favourite players on the shoulder as they went out to do battle. Then, once the game wrapped up, we’d say our goodbyes and head home to watch the rest of Hockey Night in Canada.

These days it’s easy to keep track of my NHL heroes like Gretzky, Lafleur and McPhee. We have countless amounts of video and history on all three. But what about my small town heroes? Well, a generation before me, my grade eight science teacher Jim Nicholson was a huge hockey fan when he was young. While my hero was Dana ‘Teapot’ Johnston, Jim’s was Mark Babineau. Jim spent a good chunk of his childhood on frozen ponds and at the Old Pictou rink, watching Babineau and other Senior stars play.

Jim’s had a lifelong love affair with the game and now he has the book to prove it. My old teacher just released On The Ice in Pictou. It’s an ode to the game and town he loves and to other winter sports like speed skating and ringette. When I got my copy, it was all right there for me to see: the Mariners, just as I remembered them, in all their mid-80s’ glory.

Back in the eigth grade, Mr. Nicholson, or Jimmy Nick as we called him, would tell our class that once upon a time they used to play hockey on Pictou Harbour, and if you got a breakaway, you’d better pack a lunch. He wasn’t exaggerating. “It was true. One of the articles in the book talks about that," my old teacher says. "They had a net in Pictou and one pretty near out in Lyons Brook (a few kilometres away) and they played hockey in between it. Hundreds of people played. There weren’t any teams, it was whoever showed up.”

Jim began this journey over four decades ago and it all started with one picture. It was a picture that piqued his interest in his small town’s hockey past. “It started in 1970 when I got a picture of an 1895 Pictou Scallywags team," he says. "I got it from a lady in New Glasgow. Her father was on the team. That kind of got me to start working on this.”

Jim was coaching Junior B at the time and 46 years later, here we are. “I’ve been retired 21 years now and the last 10 years I’ve been into it pretty steady.”

Pictou was like a lot of small Canadian towns in the past. In the years before the explosion of minor league hockey in the U.S., some of the game’s best would set up shop in small Canadian towns. Places like Belleville, Ontario had the legendary Bellville McFarlands. Trail, B.C. had the Smoke Eaters. In Pictou, we had the Shipyards, the Maripacs and the Royals. I’ve always heard what a big deal senior hockey was in Pictou but it never really hit me until I glanced at a picture in Vol. 1 of Jim's book. The photo shows Tic Williams, the star of the Pictou team, getting a free car from a local dealer.

"He could have played in the NHL," says Jim. "There was a McCready gentleman who played for the Sydney Millionaires and he was asked right on national TV one night who was the best hockey player you ever saw. McCready said, ‘Well he never played in the NHL. His name was Tic Williams.’ That’s how good the man was." For the better part of a decade Williams played in Pictou. He scored over 350 regular season goals.

From On The Ice in Pictou:

It makes one wonder just how far the Ticcer may have gone had he seen fit to ink a pact with the Montreal Canadiens or one of the many other NHL clubs seeking his services.

The Ticcer, who died at age 39, was proof that in the war years -- and those that followed -- senior hockey was big business in small towns across Canada. That includes the town that my grade eight teacher and I grew up in. “During the war, some of the teams that Pictou, New Glasgow, Truro and Antigonish had were as good as teams in the American Hockey League," says Jim. "A lot of imports came this way. In Pictou, we had imports from all over the place and as far out as Winnipeg.”

The war years brought hundreds of men to work in the Pictou Shipyards. Some of those men were great hockey players, others were great hockey fans. Put those two groups together and suddenly you had a huge appetite for hockey. Add in a few sponsors who wanted a winner and suddenly stars from far, and sometimes near, were getting paid to play in little towns like Pictou, NS.

“In 1939, Pictou went after a goalkeeper by the name of Hughie MacDonald," says Jim. "He was from Trenton. Two gentlemen from the team, Art Dalton and Elmer MacLaren, they went up to his home and asked him and his parents, Hughie was 17, will you come and play senior hockey for Pictou? And they said to him and his parents, ‘We will pay you $15 a week.’ Now, in 1939, $15 a week was a lot of money. His brother Sonny MacDonald, one of the great goalkeepers in the Maritimes, was playing for New Glasgow and was being paid $5 a week.”

Hughie took the money and came to Pictou. His team won a title.

“So that set the tone – if you come to Pictou you’ll get a job and you’ll get paid. So that’s how they attracted these types of players. They all came to Pictou because they ended up with more money in their pocket,” Jim says.

The players in the 1930s, 40s and 50s may have come to Pictou for a little extra cash but Jim didn’t write this book to get rich. Most of the players in the book didn’t play the game to get rich either. And the volunteers like Wally Daley, who used to tie my skates, and Paul Landry and Vince Joyce who used to coach the Mariners, they didn’t spend countless hours at the rink in Pictou to get rich. This is a book about hockey in my hometown. It could be a book about hockey in any small town in Canada. The faces I grew up knowing and the faces I grew up only hearing about are now in print for the world to see. Jim printed off 300 copies; they sold out in five days.

“I never imagined for a minute when we had the book launching that people would be lined up almost outside," he says. "We were selling a book a minute. I was astounded. Now I think what it really is, the book, it’s a documented record of how strong the little town of Pictou was in the field of sports.”

You can track down Jim’s two-volume account, On The Ice in Pictou if you happen to waltz into the small town. If you’d like, you could write Jim for a copy as well. But if you are in the neighbourhood and you’re looking for a book, please, Jim insists, just knock on his door.

“They know where I live: 27 Willow behind the fire station. I’m not hiding from anybody,” says a true Hometown Hockey hero.