Fewer fans, but the same ol’ enthusiasm

The players are noticeably bigger and better, the crowds are noticeably smaller than in the heyday of local high school hockey

John Browne jbrowne@thetelegram.com
Published on December 5, 2012
Coady Barron (10) of the Gonzaga Vikings and Craig Abbott (2) of the St. Kevins Mavericks attempt to dig the puck out of the corner as the Vikings’ Michael Delaney (12) moves in on the play during their interlocking high school hockey game at Goulds Arena Tuesday night. The Vikings won 6-3.
 — Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

“…Be true to your school now

Just like you would to your girl or guy

Be true to your school now

And let your colors fly.”

— The Beach Boys

High school hockey’s undoubtably better today than it’s ever been, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the significance it once did in this town.

That’s not a great surprise as times and situations have changed from days when school hockey, for the younger crowd, was the place to go, the place to be seen. It was a time when rooting for your school team was as automatic as exams and summer holidays.

I grew up attending the old St. John’s High School League games at Memorial Stadium back in the 1960s, with teams such as St. Pat’s, Holy Cross and Model, while teams such as St. Bon’s, Prince of Wales Collegiate and Bishops College played in the intercollegiate league at Prince of Wales Arena.

The atmosphere at high school games back then was electric.

In those days, St. Pat’s and Holy Cross had their own bands and they were situated in the seats with other adults while the school kids had to sit in the bleachers.

The crowds were loud and just about everyone wore a touque in school colours. I still recall hearing the drum roll every time a player would get a breakaway and the crash of cymbals if he scored. Schools encouraged their students to make up new cheers for the games.

The two leagues combined in 1962 and Brother Rice and Gonzaga high schools replaced St. Pat’s and St. Bon’s. They competed against Bishops College Barons, Prince of Wales Collegiate and Booth Memorial Braves at the Stadium and the games, especially the playoffs, drew huge crowds in the 1970s.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the amalgamation of the St. John’s high school and intercollegiate leagues.

Anyway, by the late, 1960s teams had their own cheerleaders and the atmosphere for the afternoon games and later for the Friday night contests was impressive. Fans sat in their own specific part of the Stadium for every game.

Most of the students in those days went directly to the 4 p.m. games after school and hundreds of adults showed up for the second half of the game after they got off work. Later, the Friday-night games were a bit rowdier and there was an even mixture of students and adults.

There was also a pretty good rivalry between Bishops and Prince of Wales before they were the Cavaliers. School loyality, in terms of sports, probably peaked in those days.

There were some fights in the seats, but in most cases, they had little to do with the games and were more of a street rivalry with students that happened to be from mother schools than anything else.

One incident that’s stayed in my mind involved a fight at a game between Gonzaga and Brother Rice.

The fight had nothing to do with the score of the game at the time. It was premeditated.

Word got around early in the week that a fight between fans of the Vikings and Celtics would happen at the 10-minute mark of the second period under the picture of the Queen.

Remember there were no cellphones, text messages or tweets in those days. It got around simply by word of mouth.

Sure enough, just after the 10-minute mark of the second frame and with most of the fans looking at the clock, about a half dozen spectators from the Brother Rice side of the ice got out of their seats as did an equal number of Vikings supporters on the other side of the ice. They met under the Queen and punches were thrown.

Prince of Wales and Brother Rice developed such a bitter rivalry and their fans came up with cheers so vulgar they can’t be repeated here.

Gonzaga and Brother Rice students weren’t permitted to smoke anywhere near their schools, so Memorial Stadium became a place to light up. There was no smoking restriction back then and the students took advantage of it.

A special Centennial Cup game between Gonzaga and Brother Rice high schools was instituted in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday and the game was an immediate hit with the students of both teams. Supporters of the Vikings and Celtics packed balcony seats at Memorial  Stadium for several years.

It evolved into the game your team had to win no matter where they finished in the standings on any given season. The schools put together motorcades prior to the game and while I’m a Rice man, I have to give a tip of the hat for Gonzaga having the best floats over the years.

Charlie Decker, convenor of the St. John’s High School Hockey League for the past 40 years, tells me the Centennial Cup the teams played for is probably still in Room 127 at Brother Rice High School.

The league seemed to lose its lustre in the 1980s. It’s never been as important within the community, and although there were some nasty fights among spectators after games in Mount Pearl many years ago, the hockey’s never been the same in terms of fan interest.

These days. there’s a St. John’s league and a Metro league, with the teams from each circuit playing some inter-lock games as was the case Tuesday night when Gonzaga Vikings of the St. John’s League took on St. Kevin’s Mavericks of the Metro league at Goulds Arena.

Decker says high school games these days only draw 100-150 spectators. There were just under 100 fans at the Tuesday’s game, which the Vikings won 6-3.

What I did notice was that today’s high schoolers are, on average, a little bigger, skate better, shoot harder and the goalies look better trained. The small crowd was into the game and the players were enthusiastic as usual.

Andrew Powell scored twice to pace the Vikings win. Tyler Boland, Michael Connors, Ben Cleary and Cameron Dunne had the other goals. Jarrod Avery scored twice for the Mavericks and Adam Walsh had the other one.

Vikings’ coach Bryan Cooper said his team’s biggest rivalry the last few years has been against the Holy Heart Highlanders, but he says there are four or five really good teams when you consider the Metro League as well. He rates O’Donel of Mount Pearl and Ascension Collegiate as strong teams.

Cooper, who played for the Vikings from 2001 to 2004, said tournament play is more popular these days than specific games against rivals, but games against Holy Heart and O’Donel still draw pretty well. He also said the players still love to play for their high school clubs.

Cooper said he’s noticed overall play has improved since he skated with the Vikings.

The high school league is watered down somewhat with players competing in other leagues However, he’s found the calibre has been “pretty consistent.” And, he noted there are at lest seven Vikings who also play major midget.

One thing the Vikings’ coach has noticed is the improvement in goaltending.

“They are leaps and bounds ahead of when I played,” said Cooper. “We’ve got three goaltenders on our team and I wouldn’t hesitate to put in any one of them.”

Meanwhile, Decker said there are a few of reasons why the interest has waned for hockey at the high school level of play.

He said there is far more hockey available to the kids in various leagues and levels such as midget AAA and the Doug Marshall league and he also cited the fact the games are played at night instead of right after school.

Decker also noted the rivalries were built up over the years because kids went to the same schools growing up. There was a feeder system to  the high schools and it was based on religious affiliation. Nowadays, he said, kids go to any number of different schools, so there’s little tradition.

That’s a shame because those who remember the way it used to be have memories for a lifetime.