Wren Blair saved the Kingston junior hockey franchise
It was probably the ugliest moment in the 50-year history of the Kingston junior franchise. Livid that the Kingston Canadians were losing 7-2 to Peterborough during a game in March 1988, new team owner Lou Kazowski went behind the bench with coach Jacques Tremblay. The furious bench boss resigned the next day.
Unfortunately, the reign of error got worse.
When the Canadians finished out of the playoffs, Kazowski decided to rebrand the franchise after the then Oakland Raiders. Yes, a football team.
The Kingston Raiders were dismal, winning just 25 games in a 66-match schedule in 1988-89. Kazowski’s slogan that “Real hockey is back in town” proved to be a sham. When fans stayed away, he called Kingston “a lousy hockey town.”
At the end of the losing season, Kazowski loaded all of the team’s equipment onto a truck and got ready to move the franchise out of the Limestone City.
And then a saviour appeared.
His name was Wren Blair. The NHL coach, general manager and team owner had taken a liking to Kingston when he coached the Kingston Frontenacs to the Eastern Professional Hockey League championship in 1963.
He partnered with former Frontenacs player Bob Attersley, owner of Attersley Tire in Whitby, to purchase the Kingston franchise. Don Anderson, who owned a trucking firm, spearheaded the deal.
Almost immediately after they took over the junior team, now renamed the Frontenacs, season ticket sales jumped from 450 under Kazowski to 1,300. Kingston hockey fans were back.
According to those who worked with him, Blair was mercurial, hardworking and brilliant. He wasn’t a coach in the modern sense – he didn’t develop systems or help players hone their skills. However, he was a great motivator, using both carrots and sticks to accomplish team goals.
“He was completely different from anyone that I ever played for or coached with,” recalls former Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden, speaking over the phone from his home near Boston.
“He got people excited and motivated. He didn’t have much of a game plan and didn’t know as much about hockey as some of the other coaches.”
Blair would stand behind the bench and yell at his own players, the opposing team and officials. “He would just go all goofy,” Sinden says.
Ron Brown, former sports editor of The Whig-Standard, co-wrote a biography with Blair, called The Bird, which was his nickname. Blair told the stories to Brown, who then crafted the narrative. Brown recalls that Blair would throw chairs across the ice at the opposing Sudbury bench. Their coach, Murph Chamberlain, would toss chairs too. “One time, Blair threw one that slid all the way across the ice, striking the boards. He won the chair-toss championship that day,” Brown says with a laugh.
Blair got his start as the founder, coach and general manager of the Whitby Dunlops. In 1958, the team won the Allan Cup, earning the right to represent Canada at the World Ice Hockey Championships in Norway. Blair knew that the Soviet Union would be the primary threat in the tournament. In order to deceive the Russians, Blair benched some of his top players, including Attersley, during the preliminary games.
He also was aware that the Soviets would come to the Canadian practices to gather intelligence. Sinden played on the team and recalled: “During practice, he made the players wear different jersey numbers and play different positions to confuse the Russians about which player was which.”
His antics succeeded. The Canadians defeated the Soviets 4-2 in the final game to capture the title.
In 1960, Blair joined the Boston Bruins organization and was posted to the Kingston Frontenacs farm team in the Eastern Professional Hockey League. He signed Sinden as a player/coach. Bob Attersley also came on board, even though he had to commute from Whitby, where he had just started a tire store.
Sinden remembers that Blair would frequently ask him to be the Frontenacs bench boss – which was probably a good idea given Blair’s tendency to scream at the referees and opposition.
In 1963, the Frontenacs captured the league championship before 3,500 screaming fans at the Kingston Memorial Centre. It was the first and only title for a professional Kingston hockey team. Unfortunately, the league folded after that win and the team was moved to Minneapolis. Blair went with the squad.
Then there was the signing of Bobby Orr. In 1961, several key Bruins officials were in Kingston for a playoff game. Blair invited them to check out a couple of Bantam boys from Gananoque playing a tournament in Gan.
“They instantly turned to look at Orr because no one else was touching the puck,” Brown says.
Bobby Orr had been “discovered” but there was a challenge. He was only 12 years old and the rules at the time stated that a youth had to be 14 to be signed with a Major Junior A team. For the next two years, Blair would make frequent visits to the Orr home to pave the way for his signing with the Bruins organization.
When the Frontenacs were on the road to play Sudbury, Blair would insist on staying in Orr’s hometown of Parry Sound. “Some of the players were convinced that Blair had a woman in Parry Sound,” recalls Brown. “But Blair wanted to keep it a secret to prevent other teams from signing Orr.”
It worked. At 14, Orr signed with the Boston-affiliated Oshawa Generals. And the rest is history.
In 1967, the NHL was expanding and Blair was hired as the first coach and GM of the Minnesota North Stars. Six years later, he led a group in purchasing the bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins. He also owned the Saginaw Gear of the International Hockey League and worked with the Los Angeles Kings.
By 1989, he had pretty much retired from hockey. But then he heard about the disastrous Kingston Raiders team and Lou Kazowski’s threat to move the team out of town.
Partnering again with Bob Attersley and Don Anderson, Blair bought the Raiders. Sinden was invited to join the group but he was too busy. Nevertheless, he watched Blair’s hard work from a distance.
“He was vital in keeping the Kingston franchise alive,” Sinden says. “That’s how persistent he was – he wouldn’t give up.”
Blair owned the Frontenacs until 1998, when he sold the team to the Springer family. Under Blair, the team had its best year in 1993, when it made to the OHL semi-finals before losing to Peterborough.
Wren Blair died in 2013 at the age of 87. At the time, former Frontenacs coach Larry Mavety paid tribute to Blair in an interview with The Whig-Standard.
“Hockey was Wren’s passion,” Mavety said. “He lived it and loved it every day.”