The National Hockey league deserves a lot of credit for the way it has handled its return to play by hosting games in two hub cities-Toronto and Edmonton. It has become known as “bubble hockey,” players, coaches, team officials and a few media isolated within a bubble to protect them from being exposed to the coronavirus that has killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and infected millions more, including several athletes.
One of the biggest obstacles of playing professional hockey during the COVID-19 pandemic has been trying to create an atmosphere within Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and Rogers Place Arena in Edmonton, two cavernous rinks that are devoid of fans during Stanley Cup playoff games. It’s new territory for the NHL, but many years ago in Pembroke, a hot tempered team owner of the Senior Lumber Kings was prepared to create his own bubble within the Pembroke Memorial Centre, threatening to keep fans out of the rink.
It was the 1957-58 season and two brothers had purchased the financially struggling Senior Lumber Kings, Wilfrid and Wally Lenser. Wilfrid was a silent partner, but Wally who local journalists nicknamed “Wally by Golly,” was a firecracker. He was outspoken, not afraid to challenge the players he had on payroll and always willing to battle with rink and town of Pembroke officials to get a better deal for his hockey club.
Lenser was a small town entrepreneur. He had several business interests including selling cars and running a small restaurant. He was used to getting his way and wanted a better rental rate for his team’s home games, proposing he pay a flat rate of $150 per game and be given free ice time for practices.
At that time the Pembroke Memorial Centre Commission controlled contractual agreements for use of the rink which had opened in the Fall of 1951. It was normal practice for the Commission to get a cut on ticket sales for Senior Lumber Kings games, so Lenser demanded additional concessions asking for all revenue from exhibition games, demanding that the Commission cover the costs of ticket sellers and ushers during the games and he pressed to receive all advertising revenue generated by the team’s program.
The Commission bent a bit by agreeing to an 80-20 split in ticket revenue but it insisted on Lenser paying a $6,000 performance bond up front to ensure the team played an entire season. Senior hockey had become quite precarious and teams had been known to fold because of financial pressures, so the Commission was trying to find a balance between protecting itself and helping Lenser retain senior hockey in the community.
But, senior hockey was dying. The introduction of televised NHL games, the rising costs of operating senior hockey teams including player salaries, the increased interest in junior hockey and a decline in attendance all contributed to the demise of the Pembroke Senior Lumber Kings. The financial losses of owning the team were started to pinch the Lenser brothers and Wally was becoming particularly frustrated.
He got into public sparring matches with some of his best players, released playing coach and captain Ken Campbell, setting off a war of words between the two men in the Pembroke Observer. He also fined one of his star players, Bert Giesebrecht, docking his pay $25, telling the Observer, “Bert goes only one way,” and that the suspension was for indifferent play. Four other players were suspended for the same reason.
With all of the off ice controversy surrounding the team, attendance continued to slip. One night when the attendance was particularly low, Lenser threatened to lock the doors and play the game with no fans in the stands. In essence, he was prepared to create a bubble around his hockey team to make a point that if the people of Pembroke didn’t support the team by buying tickets, he would shut them out from attending any future games.
It was of course an empty threat, one spurred by frustration and mounting financial losses, but in hindsight it perhaps could have happened at least once. Wally Lenser was an unpredictable owner who lived up to his nickname for impulsive decisions such as the night in Belleville when he was angry with the way the team was playing, so he stepped on to the bench and started coaching. After a line was on the ice for more than two minutes and he still hadn’t called for a line change, he realized he better go back into the stands and let the regular coach do his job.
When the season ended, the Lenser brothers relinquished their ownership of the team. For the final few years of Senior hockey in Pembroke, the club was community owned by the players who worked hard to secure sponsorships from area businesses to pay the operating bills. It wasn’t sustainable and by the early 1960’s the senior team folded for good. It was inevitable, but still a sad day given the hold Senior hockey had had on Pembroke for so many decades. It helped pave the way for Pembroke to become known as one of Canada’s best hockey towns.