Fifty years ago, the Lumber Kings were the toast of the newly minted city of Pembroke. The 1972-73 Lumber Kings had put together a season for the ages, losing only four times in 55 games in the regular season and then becoming the first Lumber Kings team to advance to a national championship series.
Players like team captain Steve Croucher, battle tough Derek Emerson, and all-star defenceman Marty Gannon were household names as Lumber Kings fever swept through the Ottawa Valley. In the playoffs the Kings had stoned the Ottawa M and W Rangers with five straight wins to grab the league title and then knocked off the Saint Paul Vulcans, Chatham Maroons and Saint Jerome Alouettes to win their first Eastern Canadian championship.
In their extraordinary season, the Kings played 82 regular season and playoff games, losing only 13 of them, but four of those losses came in the Centennial Cup final, played exclusively in Western Canada. From the time they arrived in Winnipeg to face the Western champion Portage La Prairie Terriers, the Kings had bad luck.
It started when they had to sit in a hotel lobby for several hours while the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association decided where the series would be played. The original plan was to start the series at the home of the Terriers, but when their arena leaked like a sieve during heavy rain, the ice surface was deemed unsafe to play on.
So, the Lumber Kings, already tired from the long flight from Ottawa to Winnipeg were boarded onto a bus and transported to Brandon where the new Keystone Centre would play host to the first three games of the Centennial Cup final. Back home in Pembroke, the Observer was covering every aspect of the series and so were the big newspapers in Ottawa, the Citizen and the Journal who had sent reporters West to cover the series. Art Gallagher and Harold Garton were with the team and calling the action on CHOV Radio, even though Gallagher had to step aside for game three after he froze because he was afraid of heights when he took his seat in the press box in the rafters of the Winnipeg Arena.
Pembroke came into the series banged up. Several players were injured including Randy Mohns who had a hand injury and Tim Young who pulled ligaments in his shoulder in the final game of the Eastern Canadian final with St. Jerome. Later in the series, Murray Thrasher broke his nose and Derek Emerson was sidelined with an ankle injury, and then there was the flu bug that had drained players like rookies Rodney Schutt and Terry Bozak.
“We took some of our guys out of sick beds to bring them out here. Then the flu started to sweep through the team but nobody gave anything less than their absolute best,” MacLean told the Ottawa Citizen, after his Lumber Kings had been eliminated by the Terriers in five games.
It was at times a bizarre series. First there was the moving around because of the problems at the Portage rink and then there were the games. The Lumber Kings had game one under control, leading 5-2 in the second period until they were run over by a one-man wrecking ball named Randy Penner. At more than 200 pounds, the big winger had a wicked shot and he proved to be the Kings nemesis. Penner powered a Terriers comeback by scoring five goals in the opening contest leading the Western champions to a 7-5 overtime win. By series end, Penner had tallied 11 goals in five games.
In game two it was Terriers’ netminder Tye Langton who killed the Kings turning away 39 of 41 shots in a 4-2 Terriers win, and then came the craziest situation in the series. In game three, the Kings were trailing 3-1 with just over five minutes left in the third period when referee Bill Chapple called the game because he ruled Pembroke coach Mac MacLean wouldn’t put a player in the penalty box after he assessed the Kings a too many men on the ice penalty. The Lumber Kings went berserk, protesting the ruling, but it held up and the Kings were down three games to none.
Looking back fifty years, it’s hard to imagine that a national championship game could be called by an official because of an argument with a coach, but it happened. The Kings lost their $100 protest fee and were given a stern warning by the President of the CAHA to respect the officials for the remainder of the series.
The Kings only win of the series came in game four at the Winnipeg Arena in front of a Centennial Cup record attendance of 8,962 fans. Bob Wright and Pat Hahn scored twice for the Kings in the victory while Croucher had a goal and four assists. But a night later, on May 14, 1973, the Kings magical season ended in a 4-2 loss to the Terriers. The five game series had drawn crowds of more than 20,000 people.
By the time they returned home the Kings were given a heroes’ welcome. When they landed in the nation’s capital, they were whisked to parliament hill where Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau congratulated them for a fine season, an irritant to the Mayor of Portage la Prairie who wrote Mr. Trudeau and reminded him the Centennial Cup champions were the Terriers, not the Lumber Kings.
Then it was back home to Pembroke where thousands of people lined main street as the players were paraded through the city’s downtown, and then it was over. Several players moved on to new opportunities including head coach Mac MacLean who took the head coaching job with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. Rod Schutt following MacLean to the Nickel city. Tim Young moved on to the Ottawa 67’s. Bob Wright was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. Pat Hahn moved on to college hockey. Gord Barratt became a police officer. The exodus left too many holes to fill for new coach Bryan Murray and the Kings struggled the following season.
Last fall several of the players on the 1972-73 Kings roster gathered for a reunion at the Pembroke Memorial Centre. Among them was Schutt who took to the ice in the first intermission for a shootout with the current day Lumber Kings goaltender. He was smooth, scoring on two of his three shots. It was nostalgic and special, just like that team that continues to be remembered as one of the best clubs the city has ever had. Hard to believe it’s been fifty years!