When the Nova Scotia Oilers broke training camp back in 1985, they had bad news for Rob Forbes: The AHL club in his hometown of Halifax didn’t have room for him. All they had to offer was a spot on their roster in Muskegon in the now-long-gone International Hockey League.
Forbes was a bit of an East Coast legend years before his nephew — that being Sidney Crosby — was born. Forbes had played virtually all his hockey Down Home and didn’t like the idea of scuffling along in the pro game’s low minors. It was then that he got a call — from even further east. It turned out to be the luckiest break and wildest ride of his hockey career: The Corner Brook Royals were in the market for an import, some skill up front, for the 1985–86 season.
“For me it was a pretty easy choice,” Forbes recalls of his decision to head to Corner Brook, the site of this year’s Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada. “The Royals had made it to the Allan Cup finals the season before, losing out to Thunder Bay at home in seven games. They had a good team and they really wanted to be the first team from the province to win the Allan Cup.
“The Newfoundland Senior league was a semi-pro league but I knew it was a high level of hockey, a lot of players with AHL experience, even NHL experience. And as an import, I was looked after really well by the team — some guys were holding down jobs as well as playing.”
Forbes’s first game with the team was one of the most memorable of his career — and not necessarily for the right reasons.
“My first game with the team was against Stephenville, and in the first period they had the biggest bench-clearing brawl that I had ever been involved in,” he says. “It was like something that you’d see in the movies. I wondered what the heck I had got myself into. A bunch of guys were thrown out and the benches shortened, but after that it was a pretty high-energy game, a lot of fun to be involved in, for sure.”
Forbes wasn’t much on brawling — he wound up winning the league’s award for the most sportsmanlike player. (It probably says something about the loop that he won the award even though he racked up 54 penalty minutes in 40 games.) Forbes also lit up the league with 53 goals and 64 assists. Though he showed the way in scoring, Forbes says the Royals’ key player was Dave Matte, who won both the league’s award as top goaltender and the Gus Soper Trophy as most valuable player.
“Dave was the best player at any position that I ever played with who didn’t play in the AHL,” Forbes says.
The Royals played out of Humber Gardens, a small arena where the fans were up close to the action.
“It was an amazing atmosphere,” Forbes says. “The small ice surface… fit me perfectly.”
The Royals had a brutal road to get back to the Allan Cup in 1986 and almost didn’t get off the Rock, outlasting Stephenville in six games. The toughest test came in the next round when the Royals packed off to Ontario for a seven-game series against the Flamboro Mott’s Clamato’s, champions of the Ontario Hockey Association Senior A league.
“Winning a best-of-seven in the other team’s arena is a pretty tall order and [the Flamboro team] was loaded — they had guys with NHL experience like Rocky Saganiuk and Stan Jonathan,” Forbes says. “They had a team built just like us and there were a couple of real donnybrooks, lots of fights, but eventually you just have to get down and play hockey.
“We wound up winning in seven games and their GM Don Robertson said that the Royals were the best senior league he had ever seen.”
In the wake of a couple of wars you might have thought that the Royals would have been spent after traveling another three times zones west to take on the Nelson Maple Leafs in B.C. in the Allan Cup final. Instead the series was, as Forbes says, “an anti-climax”: Corner Brook won in four straight games.
“When we got home there was a motorcade from the airport and a line-up on the road for two kilometres,” Forbes says. “I think the party probably went for three days.”