Big in Japan: The story of the 1954 Kenora Thistles

The Kenora Thistles take the puck in deep on their 10-game tour of Japan in 1954. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

Many know the story of how Kenora won the Stanley Cup in 1907, but few know about the time the town became international hockey ambassadors and helped grow the game in Japan.

In 1954, Kenora’s intermediate team, the Thistles, traveled to the land of the rising sun to represent Canada in a 10-game goodwill hockey tour. But the story begins back in the 1952–53 season.

Led by the four Robertson brothers — Ken (“Sugar”), Donald (“Spike”), Sam and Murray — the Thistles had established themselves throughout the campaign as a thorny adversary for opponents in the local intermediate league. Kenora finished atop the league standings at the end of the regular season, then went on to win districts, regionals and finally the national title in six games versus Alberta’s Ponoka Stampeders.

They returned home to a hero’s welcome and were honoured with a celebratory banquet a few days later. But just when it seemed as though the Thistles’ unforgettable season couldn’t be topped, they received a surprise invitation.

Leading up to August 1953, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) had been in talks with the Japanese Skating Association about sending a Canadian delegate to Japan for a hockey tour in 1954. It just so happened that, on the heels of their national championship, the Thistles were nominated for the honour.

Thanks to some local and national fundraising — partly to offset the cost of two months’ worth of lost wages for the members of the team — the team set off for Vancouver by train in late winter, 1954. From there they piled into a ship, the Hikaka-Maru, and charted a course for Japan.

The Thistles board a ship for Japan in March 1954. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

The Thistles board a ship for Japan. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

The voyage was rough at times, and some players never quite found their sea legs.

“We were bouncing around the north Pacific like you wouldn’t believe,” says Ken “Sugar” Robertson, who will be turning 90 years old this July.

To keep themselves occupied and active, the Thistles did laps around the decks, jumped rope and played ping pong. Finally, after nearly three weeks at sea, the team arrived at Yokohama on March 21.

While the team was excited to be in Japan, there was no time for sightseeing just yet. The tour was scheduled to start in Tokyo in two days and they needed to prepare for the first matchup. Most of the players weren’t sure what to expect from their competitors, but Robertson looked forward to the challenge.

“We knew we were going to play teams that needed learning, and required it,” he says.

Once the Thistles reached the Japanese capital, they were treated like royalty. Every arena they played in, they were welcomed by the home fans, who were eager to see the Canadian brand of hockey that they were billed for.

The Thistles were a big draw everywhere they went in Japan. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

The Thistles were a big draw everywhere they went in Japan. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

Off the ice, their guides and interpreters made sure the team was well taken care of, whether it came to dining out or entertainment. They were declared official guests of Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda, and stayed at his hotel when in Tokyo.
T
he Thistles reciprocated this generosity with copious gifts for their hosts and Japanese fans. The haul included six dozen CCM sticks, dozens of official NHL pucks and even two hockey nets. The Thistles also gave out 12 NHL sweaters to children during intermissions of their games, which proved to be a huge hit.

For all the gifts they received on the tour, the Thistles gave back many of their own. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

For all the gifts they received on the tour, the Thistles gave back many of their own. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

Although the majority of the games were lopsided affairs, it didn’t diminish the enthusiasm among Japanese fans who still turned out in droves to see the team from Kenora, Ont., take on their country’s best clubs. When the Thistles faced off against the All-Japan team on March 25, over 4,000 spectators crowded into the Tokyo Sports Centre, including Canadian Ambassador Robert Mayhew.

As the tournament wore on, the Thistles continued to dominate play but faced Japanese teams who were increasingly desperate to try to steal a win from their visitors. This led to some rougher games.

“They were getting a little choppy with the stick, so we had to tune them up a bit,” recalls Robertson.

Besides the increase in physicality, which the Thistles were more than capable of handling, there were some tighter matchups as the tour continued. This was evident in the fourth game, where the All-Japan team was actually leading midway through the second period, but the Thistles regained the lead before the final frame, and never gave it up again.

Once the tour wrapped up in early April, the Thistles had played 10 games in 12 days. When the final buzzer sounded, the results spoke for themselves: Kenora posted an undefeated record and outscored their opponents 122–29. There was only one game, the penultimate contest, where the Thistles allowed the first goal against, but ultimately they won that matchup with ease.

But the scoresheets alone can’t capture the significance of the trip. Not only did the Thistles get to play the game they loved in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya – they also got to represent their country. While the team achieved success at home wearing a sweater emblazoned with a prickly plant, nothing could have surpassed the feeling of skating onto the ice knowing they had the maple leaf across their chest.

Kenora Thistles' Sam Robertson. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

Kenora Thistles’ Sam Robertson. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

The Thistles brought back many a story of Japanese kindness upon returning home.

“We do not think that Kenora has ever previously received more friendship and goodwill on any single occasion than was shown during our tour,” Thistles trainer Dick Dixon later wrote.

For the Japanese teams, it gave them the opportunity to learn more about the game and hone their skills from one of Canada’s greatest amateur hockey teams. Recognizing that the Japanese teams’ equipment was often lacking, plenty of Thistles donated some of their gear for the clubs to use.

“I left my jersey there. A lot of guys brought theirs home, but I left mine there because they were struggling after the war,” says Robertson.

The 1954 Kenora Thistles team photo. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

The 1954 Kenora Thistles team photo. (Lake of the Woods Museum)

The 1954 tour wound’t be the last meeting between teams from Kenora and Japan. In January 1960, the Japanese Olympic hockey team played a series of exhibition games in Canada and the United States, including a matchup against the Thistles in Kenora.

This time, however, the Japanese contingent was much improved and they drew their northwestern Ontario opponents to a 5–5 tie. Robertson, who was still playing with the Thistles at that time, remembers noticing the improvements that the team had made from when they first played them six years earlier.

The Thistles reunion against some of their former opponents was more than simply a feel-good event. The Japanese tour took on greater significance as it served as a tune-up for the Winter Games, marking the first time the country would be competing in hockey since 1936.

There’s no doubt that the Thistles’ tour in 1954 played some part in this milestone, however small it might have been.

The story of when Kenora went to Japan, in the end, is reflective of the transformative power of hockey. It transcends language barriers and political differences, and, ultimately, has the ability to bring communities together and forge everlasting bonds.

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