It was a baptism by fire for the first Kingston Canadians
At the age of 16, Mike Crombeen left his home in Sarnia and came to Kingston to join the first year of the Canadians hockey franchise. For him and the rest of the squad, it was an exciting and nerve-wracking baptism by fire as hockey fans jammed the Memorial Centre to welcome the sport back to the city in 1973.
None of the players had experience in the Ontario Hockey Association. A handful of locals combined with draft picks from across the province to form a cohesive team. Given their lack of experience, the team had a rough start, finishing out of the playoffs. But the following year, the Canadians were contenders.
“The team was put together from scratch,” recalls Crombeen, now retired and living north of Toronto. “From a player’s viewpoint, we were all in the same boat, playing without experience in the league.”
He was billeted with a local teacher and his family. They were incredibly supportive but it wasn’t quite the same as living with your parents. “It forces you to grow up pretty quickly when you leave home at such a young age,” he recalls.
In that era, OHA rules allowed franchises to protect several local players. Not only did this provide Kingston teenagers a chance to play, it also sold tickets as family and friends turned out to the Memorial Centre to cheer them on.
The locals included Roger Dorey, Larry Murphy, Bob Parent and Kipp Acton. Steve Dine served as one of the goalies.
“It was a real honour to be protected by the Kingston team,” says Dine. One of his highlights was fending off the Memorial Cup champion Toronto Marlies in a 5-3 regular season victory. Dine was named the first star and was interviewed by the Toronto Star following the game.
During one match at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Dine was backup goalie and was sitting on the bench during the action. An usher offered him some peanuts, which Dine gladly accepted. However, he didn’t want the coaches to spot him eating on the bench, so he stuffed the empty shells into his goalie pads.
Moments later, he was sent into the game to replace the starting goalie, who was struggling in net. Dine dove for a puck and suddenly there were peanut shells strewn across the goal crease. The referees had to stop the game while the cleaning crew came out.
Coach Red Bownass was furious, telling Dine: “Elephant Boy, that’s going to cost you $50.” In those days, players received a $60 a week stipend during the season so Dine lost almost a week’s pay.
For another local player, Rob Parent, the fact that all the players were newcomers to the league was a huge benefit. On other teams, the veteran skaters forced the rookies to take part in hazing rituals, often with the intent of intimidating or humiliating the young players.
“Thanks to Red Bownass and general manager Walter “Punch” Scherer, that old-school hockey mentality never existed with the Kingston Canadians,” Parent says. Bownass was also ahead of his time on the ice. “He brought a European mentality to our game. We were constantly moving in practice and developed a flow style of play. It was something that stayed with me when I coached young soldiers in Army hockey during my military career.”
Parent recalls the incredible energy on opening night in 1973, with the Memorial Centre packed with screaming fans. The Canadians eked out a 6-4 win over the Oshawa Generals. “I remember playing on pure energy when we beat them,” says Parent, who went on to play in the International Hockey League in Fort Wayne, Indiana, before returning to school at the University of British Columbia and playing for the Thunderbirds.
Parent juggled studying at Loyalist Collegiate and Vocational Institute with lengthy road trips to London and other cities, which sometimes saw the bus returning to Kingston at 3 am. “It was a long season and a mental and physical grind,” he says.
Crombeen credits the Canadians management with building a solid and respectful organization. “Punch Scherer always had time for the players. He understood that it was a big adjustment for those who were coming from out of town.”
Scherer also encouraged the Canadians to focus on both hockey and education. “Punch was realistic about how difficult it is to go on and play a professional career,” Crombeen says. “He was always advising players to keep up with their studies should hockey not pan out for them.”
In that first year, the Canadians finished out of the playoffs with just 20 wins in 70 games. However, the team quickly gathered momentum. Bolstered by up and coming stars like Ken Linseman and Tony McKegney, the Canadians won two rounds in the playoffs in 1977, before finally losing in the third round to the Toronto Marlies.
Crombeen, who was later joined by his brother Brian on the squad, credits the Kingston fans with helping the team be successful. “The support was phenomenal. It was a great experience to play there.” He was chosen fifth overall in the 1977 NHL draft and played with the short-lived Cleveland Barons. He later skated for the St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers.
He was not the only player from that first year who went on to professional hockey. Brad Rhiness skated for the World Hockey Association’s San Diego Mariners and Indianapolis Racers. Gord Buynak played a handful of games with the St. Louis Blues and had a six-year career in the minor pro leagues.
Parent laments the fact that the reality of junior hockey today means virtually all of the Kingston Frontenacs players come from out of town. “What differentiates the team when I played with the Canadians and the Frontenacs today is the connection with the city as a whole.”
The following year, the Canadians made the playoffs, narrowly losing in the final game of an eight-game series with the Toronto Marlies. Recalls Parent: “There were thousands of fans who filled the Memorial Centre, ranting and raving. It was a lot of fun!”