Building the Belleville McFarlands

by | 1950's-1960's, Belleville McFarlands

The Belleville McFarlands were already the most popular thing Belleville had ever produced but after winning the Allan Cup, their fame grew to new heights in the Quinte area.

Many of the players now called the city home and they said that the hospitality that they received as adopted sons to the community gave them a sense of team spirit that many of them had never felt before.

Macs captain Floyd Crawford was a typical rink rat that moved from team-to-team looking for a paycheque and a place to fit in the lineup.

Have skates, will travel…

In Belleville, Crawford said that he felt like he was home. He was one of many players that stayed in Belleville after his playing days were over and after a lengthy coaching career in the junior ranks, Crawford and his large family settled in Belleville permanently.

“The fans and the citizens of Belleville really, really gave us a great feeling that we maybe were somebody,” Crawford said.

“A lot of us guys were ‘have skates will travel’. We were on the rebound and all of a sudden we come to Belleville and we started to believe in ourselves. It was because the fans would rush into that arena at nine o’clock at night to see us play that had a lot of affect on us, as far as putting it all together.

“That’s my perception of it, maybe why we were good.”

99 steps…

Friday nights at the Memorial Arena were special for the city. Fans lined up early to get in and squeezed in to watch the Macs at work.

The standing room frequently reached four deep on the North end of the rink.

The side door of the Memorial was exactly 99 steps from the Queen’s Hotel across from City Hall and fans made a beeline there for a quick pint between periods.

It’s no doubt that had something to do with the rambunctious nature of the home fans.

“The atmosphere in there, it was just like a powder keg.

“That crowd was ready to give their lives for us. Our big opposition was the Whitby Dunlops and those games used to be classics.”

Floyd Crawford, Team Captain

Crawford had some memorable fights in his career with the McFarlands but one with Harry Sinden from the Dunlops stood out in his memory.

“Well I got along good with Harry,” Crawford said of the Dunlops blueliner that went on to win the Stanley Cup as the coach of the Boston Bruins.

“After the games were over you’d see those guys and they were like your brother. It was over, the game was over, and they’d come in and have a beer with you or whatever, and the next night you played them, they’d be right back to defend their team. That was good, I liked that philosophy how guys thought.

There was only one penalty box at the Memorial so opponents would be forced to serve their time in close proximity to each other. Naturally, that made it difficult for guys to cool off during their break.

“Guys would get in here and they’d be heated up from the fight and whatnot, and tempers a little flared still and whatever,” Crawford said. “And one word would lead to another and a fight would erupt again in the penalty box.

“As I recall, the Whitby Dunlops bench was right there beside our penalty box. Our bench was across the road. Harry wasn’t a great fighter and I certainly wasn’t a great fighter, so I’m going to say that we probably drew. The thing that sticks out with me is the old police gentleman by the name of Bill Evans, who was just about ready for retirement, was down in the hallway when the fights commenced after leaving the bench.

He kept telling us in high English accent ‘Now chappies, that’s enough of that. Now please be gentlemen!’ And we’re fighting for our lives down in the hallway. It was kind of funny.”

The McFarlands were as much about entertainment as hockey for the people of Belleville. Keith MacDonald was one of few McFarlands that grew up in the area and he said that the community was transformed when the Macs hit the ice.

“People were hungry for hockey.

“The arena – I don’t know exactly how many it held but it was packed to no end. I mean it had a good crowd there during a season, let alone the playoffs.

Keith MacDonald, Belleville McFarlands

“Coming from The County I can remember two or three nights prior to a playoff game that telephone would ring. ‘Keith can you get me a seat?’ There was a lot of interest, not only here in Belleville I would imagine, but in the County in general there was a lot of interest for that club.”

The interest peaked early in the Macs third season when they were tuning up to play in the World Championships.

The eyes of the nation’s hockey fans would soon turn to the small community on the banks of the Bay of Quinte and expect the men that played for the mighty McFarlands would successfully defend the world title the Whitby Dunlops won for Canada months earlier in Oslo.

“I am not worried about the club,” player/coach Ike Hildebrand told The Intelligencer early in the season.

“The Whitby Dunlops were subjected to the same criticism a year ago and look what happened to them. It seems Allan Cup winners are supposed to be supermen, and clean up everything in sight when they pull on their gear the following season.

“Mark this. They can say what they like about this club, but by mid-January or thereabouts they will be just as strong if not better than the Dunnies were a year ago this time.

“We fully realize that the club that won the Allan Cup will not be strong enough to compete in the World Championships. Some players will be cut entirely. Positional changes will be made. Competent players will be added to the club.”

Before the season opened, Gerry Goyer and Russ Kowalchuk moved west to join the Kelowna Packers, who were gearing up for a mid-season trip to Russia to play an exhibition set of games behind the Iron Curtain.

Yes, the same Kelowna Packers the Macs had beaten months earlier to win the Allan Cup.

Manager Drury Denyes had some tough decisions ahead of him. He allowed Goyer and Kowalchuk to head west knowing that they wouldn’t likely play as big a role on the team as they did the previous season.

He also let “Bep” Guidolin go to Kingston instead of re-signing him again. It must have been a difficult decision after Guidolin helped build the team from scratch two years earlier, but Guidolin and Hildebrand didn’t always see eye to eye and Denyes couldn’t afford to let any personal differences get in the way of this team.

Denyes made a couple of early season signings that made bold statements that the Macs were planning to follow in the Dunlops’ footsteps and retain the national title for Canada.

He inked smooth-skating defenceman Fiori Goegan, who played for the North Bay Trappers and was one of the most sought-after defenders in senior hockey.

He also landed big defender Al Dewsbury, who played nine seasons in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. He played the previous season with Buffalo in the American League and Denyes had to clear some red tape before finally getting his release in October.

Denyes also added some depth up front. He brought in former American League scoring star John McLellan and skilled forward Lou Smrke, who played with Crawford in Chicoutimi in the Quebec League.

Smrke came at the glowing recommendation of Crawford.

“Lou was a very productive forward,” Crawford said years after naming one of his sons after his long-time friend. “He was a good finisher. Pound for pound he was a fiery individual and he wouldn’t give you any room on the ice. He was very aggressive.”

The club also thought that they had Frank Bathgate in the lineup but his transfer from Windsor was turned down by the Ontario Hockey Association.

Sluggish start…

Despite the bolstered lineup, the Macs had a sluggish start to the season and were the target of arrows from some sports writers that didn’t think they were up to the task of representing Canada.

Frank Orr had a piece on the front page of The Hockey News in November that claimed “Canada’s World Tourney Reps Too Weak.”

Orr went on to write: “The Macs are not good enough to win in their own league, Hildebrand is on the way out and the defence and goaltending are poor. Apparently, the players aren’t giving their best for Hildebrand and as one Eastern manager puts it, “they have a lot of old pros and you cannot teach an old dog new tricks’.”

Denyes responded to The Intelligencer: “There is nothing farther from the truth. Where Orr gets these pipe dreams from I cannot imagine. Nothing has been done, nor dreamed of about letting Ike go. I personally have never spoken a word to Orr on the matter, nor for that matter on the club.”

Unlike the Dunlops from the previous season, the Macs elected to play their complete Eastern and have it wrapped up by the end of January before embarking on a European warm-up before the World Championships started in March. That meant that they had to squeeze 50 games in 98 days from the end of October through the end of January. It was an ambitious schedule, but one that Hildebrand felt would best prepare his troops for their overseas adventure.

“It is going to be a tough season,” Hildebrand said. “Last season we set the group championship as our goal. We played hard and well and went on to win the Allan Cup.

“This season, as the national champions and Canada’s representatives, we have a lot to uphold. Every team will try to beat us. We have to prove we are championship caliber. The boys have got to play hockey all the time. I had faith in the Macs last year and I have faith in them again this season.

“I believe the team, with the necessary added strength, can go on to bring Canada her second consecutive World Championship.”

Ike Hildebrand,, Belleville McFarlands

Under enormous pressure…

The Macs were struggling early on and Denyes fined each player $25 after a humiliating 7-1 loss to Whitby in early November.

They were under enormous pressure to come together quickly and look like they could compete on the world stage. Wren Blair had guided the Dunlops to the championship the previous year and could empathize with the pressure that Denyes felt to get the team turned around.

“There is only one headache like it,” Blair told George Carver in November. “And only two people that I know of know what it’s like. They are Drury and I.

“All people think you have to do, is get the fellows into shape, pick up a few players to strengthen the club and presto, you’re on your way to Europe with nary a worry but winning.

“Shucks, that ain’t the half of it. You have got a public to please and if you get off on the wrong foot like Whitby did and the McFarlands are doing, you will find there is fan and public relations hostility. Last year the Toronto papers and radio people blasted the Dunnies nearly off the map because we were not the supermen we were supposed to be after winning the Allan Cup. You will find the same thing will happen if you fellows hit a losing skein.

“After a while when the club is complete you will find Canada and Canadians are solidly behind you. Then all you do is pray the boys are up for the tournament and leave the rest to the gods.”

Like Blair predicted, the Macs started getting used to their new teammates and new roles and started picking up steam in November. They appointed Billy Reay as assistant manager in January and he was charged with scouring all reaches of Ontario for help.

Reay, a 40-year-old from Winnipeg, played 10 seasons in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings and was recognized as the first player to celebrate a goal by raising his arms in the air.

Earlier in the season had been dismissed as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs when they won five of their first 20 games of the season and brought a considerable amount of hockey knowledge to his new position with the Macs.

Reay helped bring in Billy Graham from the Kitchener Dutchmen and Dennis Boucher from the Quebec League. The Macs cruised to a 4-2 win over Kingston in mid-January that ran their winning streak to eight in a row and moved them into a tie with Whitby for first place.

If the Macs struggled to start the season, they were rolling by the time it was over. They posted a 20-4-4 record in the final 28 games and finished off the regular season in first place.

Despite their success, the Macs were still the subject of media speculation from around the country. But now, they appeared to have won over their critics and writers were taking up the cause of helping the Macs pick up players to fill in the final pieces of the puzzle.

“The fact remains that Canada should at all times send the best possible team to compete in world competition,” wrote Toronto Globe and Mail Sports Editor Jim Vipond, who suggested that the Canadian hockey regulators didn’t care much about the events held in Europe.

Vipond’s biggest beef was that the Buffalo Bisons of the American League wouldn’t grant a release for Peter Conacher to play for the Macs despite the fact that he hadn’t played professional hockey all season.

“It does not sit well that Buffalo and/or New York, should be able to prevent Pete Conacher from joining the McFarlands for the duration of the tournament. Conacher gave up professional hockey for a business career and was immediately suspended by his hockey bosses.

He has permission from his business firm to play for Belleville but the leech-like tentacles of professional sport prevent his participation. It’s a dog-in-the-manager attitude. ‘If we can’t have him, they can’t have him’, even though there is a national issue involved.”

Conacher got his release at the last minute and was in Belleville for the Macs final game of the season. He dressed for the game, but wasn’t yet in game shape and didn’t see much ice time.

“I had kind of retired,” Conacher reflected. “I’d played six years pro and then I decided I was going to stay. I had a job in Toronto and I was going to stick with it. So they had to get me re-instated as an amateur because pros weren’t allowed to play in those days.”

Hotshot Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Gordon “Red” Berenson also joined the team before they headed to Europe.

Berenson had played in a pair of Memorial Cups with the Regina Pats and scored a pair of goals and added an assist in the Macs 12-1 whomping of the Cornwall Chevies in their final game in Belleville the day before leaving for Toronto to depart for Europe.

Conacher said that he knew that joining the team meant that someone that was already playing in Belleville would get bumped from the roster.

He looked forward to the opportunity to play in the World Championships but was nervous about meeting some of his new teammates.

“I knew some of the guys. I had played with Dewsbury, I’d played with George Gosselin and I’d played junior against Wayne Brown so I did know some of the guys a little bit. I can honestly say I didn’t feel that comfortable about bumping somebody because they had earned the right to go and that was a big thing, a big accomplishment.

“To win the Allan Cup and then have parachuted a few of us in, I’m not sure. But anyway it worked out, and the guys, I think they were really great about it.”

Peter Conacher, Belleville McFarlands

Growing Booster Club…

The Macs’ Booster Club had grown dramatically under the guidance of president Dick Beare. Armand Duffy took over that role at the start of the 1958-59 season and immediately pledged to help the group raise $10,000 to help the Macs with the cost of traveling overseas for the World Championships.

The Booster Club had grown from a couple of hundred fans in the Macs first season to well over 1,000 by the time they won the Allan Cup in 1958.

Their main purpose was to raise funds to help support the costs of operating the hockey team but they also hosted social events for the players and their wives and naturally were the team’s most vocal supporters at home and for many to away games as well.

The Macs’ Boosters donned Scottish Tam hats that made them easily identifiable at home and on the road.

The Booster Club was in full force all season raising money for the overseas fund. They hosted events, signed up new pledges at one dollar each and put on community events like Bingo games to stash away as much money as they could for the team. 

The Belle Theatre also pledged money from the opening night of the new feature “Around the World in Eighty Days” and the Islam Caravan, Order of the Alhambra sponsored the Cliff MacKay Holiday Ranch variety show to support the cause.

Despite playing in a relatively small town with the expectation of representing the entire country at the World Championships, the Macs were on the hook for their own expenses to travel to Europe to participate in the tournament.

The funds raised in the community helped pay the freight overseas and the Macs had a 15-game barnstorming tour lined up when they got there to cover the rest of the charges.

Vipond and others in the media criticized this practice.

“Would not our Federal Government be making a valuable contribution to international competition if it took on the responsibility of flying our representatives to world tournaments or the Olympics or British Empire Games,” Vipond asked in The Globe and Mail.

“Meanwhile the Belleville club struggles for players and money. National encouragement being lacking, it behooves the rank and file of the sports world to get behind this club that it may make the trip under the most favorable conditions.”

Canadian Amateur Hockey Association President Bob Lebel responded to the criticism to The Canadian Press.

“We have heard letters have been circulated asking contributions toward an amount as high as $50,000,” Lebel stated.

“The CAHA has nothing to do with this campaign. When Belleville applied to the CAHA, as the amateur hockey governing body, to represent Canada the Belleville representatives told us they had all the financial support they needed through local organizations and the team management.

“I don’t want to imply that the CAHA doesn’t want to help. We are supplying uniforms, as well as trying to lend a hand in getting reinforcements. But we have no part in a subscription campaign.”

In other words, the Macs were on their own.

“Sir: Again, Canada gets ready to send a hockey team to Europe, the Belleville McFarlands, to defend the world amateur championship won by Whitby at Oslo last year. So, Canada gets behind the team with the usual fight the good fight, uphold the Canadian traditions, play the game for the game’s sake, etc. Now, this is great, and the players who are chosen hope to accomplish all this and a little more. They will not let Canada down. Yet, even before the team leaves, Canada lets them down. Just why is every Canadian hockey team that goes to Europe treated like an orphan or poor relation? I’m surprised these boys are not called on to go by raft. This is not meant to be funny. The facts must make other countries wonder just what’s wrong, why a championship team that’s expected by everyone to win championships has to operate on a shoestring budget. Every year, when the team should leave Canada with the feeling that Canada stands behind them, there is the problem of financing. These players have their own responsibilities and obligations to meet, and we just can’t picture them canvassing, selling tickets, beating drums like some medicine show. Looking at it as a worth-while venture, why doesn’t the government sponsor the team? The RCAF has planes going overseas and who else could represent our country better ass good-will ambassadors? If “Dief” can do it, so can Belleville McFarlands. Wake up, Canada. This is our team.

A.J. James, Keele -St., Toronto

Letter to the Editor – Toronto Daily Star in January 1959:

Excerpt from More Macs More (Bell, Aaron 2009)

Intelligencer photo courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

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