By John Lynch
Special to TC Media
For over 60 years, Cape Breton hockey players have made an impact in the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League.
In fact, the latest crop of Cape Bretoners playing in this province could be considered the third or fourth wave from that Nova Scotia island to chart a course in what some consider today the hottest senior hockey market in the entire country. Newfoundland senior hockey fills the void in Harbour Grace, Clarenville, Gander Grand Falls-Windsor and Deer Lake, where hundreds flock to arenas on weekends to watch the only game in town.
For three decades, fans were treated to Cape Bretoners like former NHL tough guy Kevin Morrison, Bruce Campbell and ex-Ontario Hockey League junior stars Jack MacKeigan and John Hanna, among others.
The trail from Cape Breton to Newfoundland was blazed by a quartet of Buchans-bound Nova Scotians, namely Hughie Wadden, Frank Walker, Frank Finlayson and Mort Verbiski, legendary names within Newfoundland senior hockey circles.
Another, Neil Amadio, played on and coached a number of provincial championship teams in Newfoundland.
This past hockey season, three Cape Bretoners starred in the revamped Newfoundland Senior Hockey League — Ryan Desrosiers (New Waterford) of the Clarenville Caribous, and both Brett Morrison and Ryan Sparling (Sydney) of the Western Royals.
Desrosiers, who finished third in league scoring this season with 34 points in 24 games, reached the Herder Memorial Trophy final before the defending champion Caribous were swept in four straight games by the Conception Bay North CeeBee Stars. He’s a three-year veteran of the provincial senior league, starting with the now-defunct Deer Lake Red Wings.
“I was finishing up my degree in kinesiology and physical education, and flying back and forth on weekends to Deer Lake,” Desrosiers recalls. “I got the idea to play senior hockey in Newfoundland from some players who put me in contact with the right people.”
Last year, the Desrosiers skated in the Allan Cup Canadian senior hockey championship in Lloydminster, Sask., as a pickup player with the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts, and will be going to the event hosted this year in Bentley, Alta., as a member of the Caribous, along with Morrison, who will be going as an affiliate player.
For Morrison and Sparling, the NHL lockout played a role in their decision to play east of Nova Scotia.
“I was thinking about playing pro (in the ECHL), but it just did not seem to be the best time to do it with players being bumped down the line because of the lockout,” said Morrison, who played four years in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before spending four seasons with St. Francis Xavier of the Atlantic intercollegiate circuit.
“I thought the Newfoundland senior league was a good calibre league with a lot of players who had college, minor pro, junior A and major junior experience.”
Like Morrison, Sparling also toiled four seasons in the QMJHL before attending St. FX for one year and spending two winters in the Central Hockey League.
“The league is somewhere between junior A and university, I would think,” said Sparling, of the Newfoundland senior league.
“I’m not sure where I will play next year,” he said. “Right now, I’m gearing up to head to Alberta for work in the oil fields.”
As for how long he continues to skate, Desrosiers hopes for a career that lasts well into the future. He’s currently teaching school in the Clarenville area.
“I love Newfoundland, and I’m staying,” he said.
“Before I got off the plane in Deer Lake a few years ago, I had never been to the island before. I plan to stay here and continue playing until they kick me out.”
Sixty years later, nobody has found a way to get rid of Hughie Wadden.
The Telegram ranked the forward the second-best import ever — behind another Hall of Famer, the late Frank ‘Danky’ Dorrington of New Glasgow — in a feature published 20 years ago.
This fall will mark the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Port Morien, N.S., native to Buchans, the one-time mining community in central Newfoundland.
Wadden came to play hockey with the legendary Miners in 1953, then winners of three consecutive provincial crowns from 1949-52. Buchans has not played in the league since the late 1960s.
“It was Oct. 29, 1953,” Wadden, 80, said recently. “I remember the date because in those days, you had to be there before Nov. 1 or you would not be allowed to play.”
The game conditions and travel were more primitive than today, Wadden explained.
“It was a day's travel by train to St. John's to play in there,” Wadden said. “We didn’t have our own stadium in Buchans until 1960, and there was no road out of the community at all until 1956. Before the stadium was built, we played our games in an ore shed on natural ice.”
Wadden played junior hockey with the Glace Bay Miners before moving to Buchans.
“Larry Barrowman owned an intermediate team in the area and he asked me if I wanted to come play some exhibition games in Buchans, and I did,” Wadden said.
“The next year, I got a call from Buchans asking if I wanted to go over there and play, so I did.”
Wadden took a trade as a mining surveyor, married a local woman and remained in the community for a lifetime.
“The company paid for everything,” he said. “There were some others who came from Cape Breton to Buchans. I guess I blazed a trail for them.”