Jean Beliveau helps Kingston get a franchise
Almost 3,800 wild, screaming fans jammed every seat and standing room space in the Memorial Centre on a beautiful fall evening in 1973. With the first game of the Kingston Canadians franchise, there was finally high-level hockey in the city a decade after the championship-winning Kingston Frontenacs left town when the EPHL folded.
Over the past 50 years, the junior franchise has seen stars like Ken Linseman, Bernie Nicholls and Shane Wright begin their rise to professional hockey in the WHA and NHL. Along the way, there have been great years and tough ones – but usually some outstanding entertainment and exciting hockey.
In the months leading up to that first game, the Kingston ownership group had to skate on some thin ice just to get the franchise and put a team together. With a little help from Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, they pulled it off.
In 1972, the Memorial Cup was being held in Ottawa and the Ontario Hockey Association was meeting at the same time. The Kingston group sent company president Jim Magee and Gerry ‘Doc’ Wagar to plead the case for a major junior franchise in the city.
The league nixed the Kingston proposal, saying it had no immediate plans to expand.
Next, the locals turned their eye towards the Montreal Junior Canadiens, which had been playing in the OHA but were under pressure to move to the Quebec league. The team had “paused” play for two years.
Beliveau had recently hung up his skates and was now vice-president of the Montreal Canadiens, in charge of finding a home for the junior franchise. “We contacted Mr. Beliveau and told him we wanted to bring the team to Kingston,” recalls Peter Radley, a young lawyer at the time and part of the ownership group.
After reviewing applications from several cities, Beliveau called him back: “We’ve made a decision. The team is going to Kingston.”
So far, the Kingston group had invested only time and sweat in the team. Now they had to put their money on the line. The owners had to pony up $5,000 each to pay the $50,000 to the Canadiens to purchase the franchise.
Within a week, Radley had cheques from all of them. In addition to Magee and Wagar, the owners were: George 'Doc' Myles, William Osborne, Wilmer Nuttall, Michael Simurda, Doug Cunningham, Ken Linseman Sr. and Hugh Bennett. Terry French withdrew from the group shortly after the purchase was completed.
And the OHA approved the franchise transfer.
“At that point, we had no team colours, no players, no coach and no general manager,” Radley recalls.
The first step was to hire a GM – Walter “Punch” Scherer. “He was the most honest and straightforward hockey man that I have ever met, except perhaps for Beliveau,” says Radley, now 84 and retired from a lengthy law career.
Jack “Red” Bownass, who had played with the Canadiens and the Rangers in the NHL, was brought on as head coach.
Scherer immediately hired four scouts to prepare for the 1973 draft. Then the bad news hit – the OHA ruled that since Kingston had purchased the franchise it was not an expansion team and would draft last.
After all the other teams had made their selections, Scherer named Brad Rhiness as the team’s first-round pick. It turned out to be a great choice. Rhiness played three seasons with the Canadians, notching 112 points in his final year. He would go on to skate with the WHA’s San Diego Mariners and other pro teams.
Next, the team had to choose their uniforms. The defunct Kingston Frontenacs had worn the black and gold of the Boston Bruins and many local players, including Rick Smith and Wayne Cashman, went on to play at the Boston Garden. On the other hand, senior hockey’s Kingston Aces sported red, white and blue.
“What would you think of calling them the Kingston Canadians,” Scherer asked Radley. “I was thinking the same thing,” he responded.
Radley phoned Beliveau and got approval to modify the Montreal logo by inserting a K instead of an H. Not only that, the Montreal team offered to include the Kingston squad in its uniform order so that the sweaters would be the same as those used in the NHL, except for the Montreal crest. Kingston paid for the uniforms but didn’t have to cover any licensing fees.
As the opening game approached, Magee called Beliveau to ask him to come to the game and invited him to drop the ceremonial puck. The Montreal star quickly agreed and brought a colleague - the legendary anthem singer Roger Doucet.
Unfortunately, the Kingston fans at the Memorial Centre were denied both the opportunity to see Beliveau under the spotlight and to hear Doucet’s stunning version of O Canada.
The city of Kingston owned the Memorial Centre and the team executive decided to ask mayor George Speal to drop the ceremonial puck. Ever the gentleman, Jean Beliveau stepped aside and shifted to signing autographs for adoring fans. He also took the time to shake hands with the Canadians staff, including assistant trainer Len Coyle, who remained with the franchise until his death at age 84.
And the anthem? It was played on the arena’s organ. “The sound system at the Memorial Centre was so bad that it would never have done justice to Doucet’s amazing voice,” Radley says.
Finally, on Sept. 28, 1973 the first game was under way. The visiting Oshawa Generals and the Canadians had a great battle, with Kingston emerging with a 6-4 win. Local boy Roger Dorey scored the winning goal and the new franchise had its first victory.
The Canadians finished out of the playoffs in the inaugural year. With four games remaining in the 1974-75 season, Scherer fired Red Bownass and went behind the bench himself.
Fans camped out at the Memorial Centre to get playoff tickets
The team squeaked into the eighth and final playoff spot and had to play the powerhouse Toronto Marlies in the opening round. The Marlies had far and away the best team during the OHA regular season with 105 points and were led by Bruce Boudreau, John Tonelli and Mark Napier. They had an incredible 11 players who would go on to skate in the NHL.
The Marlies met Kingston in an eight-point series that went the full eight games.
Fans in Kingston camped overnight at the Memorial Centre to get tickets and the town was in a frenzy over the Canadians. It was partly stoked by the fact that the team had five local players - Ken Linseman, Rob Plumb, Larry Murphy, Roger Dorey and Bob Parent – very unusual for a major junior team.
In the playoff series, Toronto trailed and then won a crucial game in Kingston on a controversial goal scored by Mark Napier (most Kingston fans still contend the puck didn’t go in) that sent the Marlies on to victory and ultimately the series win.
The fans were loving the team. More than 2,000 purchased seasons tickets and the 3,300 seat Memorial Centre sold out every night for the first three years.
“I had the mayor of Gananoque calling me and desperately asking ‘do you have two tickets available for this week’s game,’ “ recalls Radley.
Patrons flocked to the Memorial Centre despite the fact that the arena, only two decades old, was starting to show its age. “You could spill a coffee in the stands and it would leak into the dressing rooms below,” Radley says.
The game clock often malfunctioned and during warm fall days the players would have to skate around to clear the fog off the ice.
“The city always promised to improve the Memorial Centre but didn’t do anything,” Radley says. It would not be until 2008 that a new rink, now the Leon’s Centre, was built downtown.
Over the next decade, the Canadians would field some of the strongest teams in franchise history. Jim Morrison coached the squad from 1975 to 1982, with the Canadians making the playoffs every single year.
The 1980-81 Kingston team featured one of the best power plays ever in the OHL. After a great rookie season the previous year, Bernie Nicholls notched 63 goals. Linemate Scott Howson – who now serves as president of the American Hockey League – wasn’t far behind with 57 goals. On defence were future NHL players Rik Wilson and Neil Belland. The team set a regular season franchise record with 39 wins.
In the playoffs that year, the Canadians defeated the Ottawa 67s in the division semi-finals, before losing to the Sault Greyhounds in the division finals. There were only two divisions at the time, Leyden and Emms. It ties for the best playoff run in franchise history, along with the Frontenacs 1993 and 2018 seasons.
However, by the late 1980s the team was struggling. The number of season ticket holders had dwindled to 500. Many of the owners were aging and no longer wanted to take the financial risk. A flamboyant and controversial businessman from Peterborough, Lou Kazowski, bought the team. It proved to be a disaster, both on and off the ice. The renamed Kingston Raiders won few games and Kazowski threatened to move the franchise out of town.
“There was definitely some regrets among the Kingston owners,” co-owner Doug Cunningham recalls. “We weren’t happy with the new direction the owner was taking with the team.”
Fortunately, hockey veteran Wren Blair stepped in to buy the club. He held onto it for a decade before selling to the current owners, the Springers, in 1998.
Now, just three of the original owners are still alive – Doug Cunningham, Peter Radley and Ken Linseman Sr. For Radley, it’s been an incredible journey and he’s proud to have been associated with the business and professional group that brought the franchise to Kingston. “The owners had to do a lot of work in those days, including filling the press lounge refrigerator with Coke. But I loved every minute of it.”
About the photos
Top photo: Kingston Mayor George Speal dropping the opening puck at the first game at the Memorial Centre in 1973
Second photo: Future professional players Mike Crombeen, Brad Rhiness and Tony McKegney