The birth of the Belleville McFarlands

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


When Floyd Crawford took the call from Drury Denyes, he more or less realized that his hockey career was pretty much finished.

Crawford was a former Montreal Canadiens prospect that – like everyone else who played on his senior team in Northern Quebec – still nursed the dream of playing in the National Hockey League. He figured that the NHL had already passed him by, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he still had something left for the game that had consumed his life.

Crawford worked in the salt mines in Val-d’Or to put food on the table but his passion was still playing hockey. But after a few dead-end years with Chicoutimi in the Quebec Senior Hockey League and his 30th birthday quickly approaching, Crawford was nearly ready to hang up his skates for good.

He wanted a better life for his wife and young daughter Suzanne and the call from Denyes offered a slim chance that a better life was ahead.

Denyes was putting together a team of the best amateur players that he could find to play in the newly formed but very competitive Eastern Senior “A” loop.

It was a group of teams east of Toronto that would compete for the chance to play for the Allan Cup – Canada’s national senior championship.

And Crawford – a rock solid defenceman that was as tough as nails – fit the bill for his new club perfectly.

Ike Hildebrand, Belleville McFarlands

Hockey in the 1950’s was considerably different than it is today. Old-timers pine for the simpler way that the game was played but the reality of the time was that there just weren’t many jobs available for a professional hockey player.

The National Hockey League still comprised of the Original Six teams and was a decade away from expansion. The American League didn’t offer a lot more opportunity. There were only six more teams there, as well as six in the International League; all of which were in the United States.

It was simply a tough club to get into.

Senior hockey’s heyday

But with the lack of professional and even minor professional teams, senior hockey became the choice of players and fans alike across small-town Canada.

Belleville had played in the Senior “B” loop for seven years but to be considered for competition for the Allan Cup, they had to step up to the Senior “A” game.

Denyes recruited Armand “Bep” Guidolin from the North Bay Trappers in the Northern League to assemble his team quickly and be the player/coach.

“Belleville wants a good hockey club – a contending team that will hold its own with the rest of the league,” Guidolin told The Intelligencer during the first couple of weeks that the team was together. “It is my job to provide it – and I’m going to do it, if it is humanly possible.”

Guidolin played for Ottawa in the Quebec Senior League against Crawford and knew that the blueliner would fit the mould of his new club perfectly.

Crawford had grown up in a working-class west Toronto neighborhood during the Depression. He spent a lot of his time outside of school at the Kiwanis Club at Trinity Park and that’s where he first started to play hockey after being mesmerized by watching the game as a child.

Crawford excelled at the game and by the time he was 15, he was playing against military men that were stationed in the area and he caught the eye of the Montreal Canadiens’ area scout.

The Canadiens signed Crawford to a C-Form that came with a $100 signing bonus and for the first time, he started to understand that he could make a career in the game.

Following his lifelong passion

After kicking around a couple of training camps, Crawford signed with the Montreal Royals at 19 and toiled in the Quebec Senior League until the phone call from Denyes. Crawford moved to Belleville and planted roots there that were evident half a century later when he reflected on the move.

“That’s the trials and tribulations of following your passion,” Crawford said. “Every one of the guys on the Belleville McFarlands has a similar story in regards to how they got here in Belleville. It was just a passion of the sport that drove you because, believe me, we weren’t making big money at all, enough to be honest with our kids that we could put them in school and buy them the odd pair of pants, things like that.

“We don’t regret it, naturally, we used to have a phrase ‘have skates, will travel’ because we knocked around.”

Belleville Mayor Jerry Hyde (top left), with Ike Hildebrand (middle), Harvey McFarland (right) and Belleville MacFarlands Manager Drury Denyes (bottom) in 1958

Denyes and Guidolin assembled the team quickly. Most of the players came from other senior leagues – several from Quebec including imposing blueliner Maurice “Moe” Benoit. They were determined to suit up a competitive team and Denyes took exception to a snide comment from a team owner in the Western Ontario group who expressed concern at a pre-season league meeting that the new division wouldn’t play at the same level as the rest of the league.

“We’ll be no doormats for your club or any other club in the league this season,” Denyes retorted.

The McFarlands assumed the personality of Guidolin. They had a mix of skill and toughness and showed both frequently.

“We had a team that could play it any way you wanted to play it,” said Keith MacDonald, a forward who had played Senior “B” in Belleville the previous season.

“If you wanted to stick strictly by the book and at a common game good, but if you wanted to get a little bit nasty we had a lot of guys that could do that.”

Forward Hillary “Minnie” Menard was the Mac’s offensive star in their first season. Menard tied the league record with his 50th goal in the last game of the season and led the team with 78 points.

The 22-year-old from Timmins had experienced a good junior career with a season in Barrie and one in Galt and then played in his one and only NHL game with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954.

But if Menard was the salt for the new team, Benoit was definitely the vinegar.

Benoit showed early in the Mac’s first season that he was going to be an imposing opponent – and an entertainer for the fans.

The Mac’s played Whitby in their third home game and it approached riot status. The Mac’s took 101 penalty minutes with Benoit right in the middle of the fray. He took one fight into the penalty box and issued an apology to “The Hockey Public of Belleville and the Officials” for his actions the next day.

Benoit could also play it clean and when he did, he was a marvel to watch. He was a master at throwing hip checks that kept all but the most ambitious forward from entering the Mac’s zone at full speed.

He also had a booming shot that he loved to unload from the blueline.

Benoit and Whitby player coach Charles “Bus” Gagnon, who joined the Macs after their world championship win, had some spirited battles when the arch-rivals hooked up.

Ontario Intelligencer Sports Editor George Carver covered the team and reflected on one early season meeting between the heavyweights.

“Gagnon, it appears, also made the unfortunate mistake of selecting Moe Benoit as target bait,” Carver wrote.

“Moe was right in his element and politely pulled the sweater over Gagnon’s head and proceeded to pummel what was underneath it. ‘Two minutes for fighting,’ but Moe had ten dollars worth of fun and it took two minutes for Gagnon to get his hair back in place.”

Harvey McFarland

Denyes also helped to recruit local businessman Harvey McFarland to sponsor the team.

McFarland was a larger-than-life figure in the community and was the Mayor of Picton for more than two decades.

He didn’t play the game at a high level but was a passionate Boston Bruins fan and was anxious to see Belleville have a team of its own to cheer for.

He put up $3,000 for the first two seasons to help the city finance the team and the club assumed his name and in a lot of ways, his temperament.

McFarland came into the business world as an admitted underdog. He was from a modest upbringing in Roblin, near Napanee, and dropped out of school just before reaching his teens. But he was a hard worker and showed a fierce determination at an early age to reach goals.

McFarland literally built his construction business from the ground up and become one of the most wealthy – and generous – people in the area.

His son Malcolm said that Harvey’s personality was a determining factor in what Harvey’s hockey club went on to achieve.

“He really loved the hockey players,” Malcolm McFarland reflected. “He always called them his boys, and I think he would do anything for them and I think they returned it. They would do anything for him. And I think they played over their heads. I think there were other, better quality teams out there with better hockey players. But they had the determination and the will to win.”

Guidolin was the perfect guy to lead the newly formed team on and off the ice. He came to the team with nine National League seasons under his belt and was coveted by some of the other new teams in the league.

Intelligencer sports editor George Carver watched the birth of the McFarlands as close as anyone and had a quick assessment of Guidolin during the team’s first training camp.

“To this observer at least, Guidolin gave plenty of evidence…that he knows what this coaching business is all about,” Carver wrote. “He is not content to merely skate up and down, blasting on a whistle and dropping pucks.”

The players had instant respect for Guidolin’s ability and appreciated the fact that he was willing to put himself through whatever the expected of the other players.

“He was a marvelous skater,” right winger Dave Jones said. “We’d practice for an hour and maybe he’d pick on six or seven of us. We’re skating for half an hour and he’d skate the whole time – he’d out-skate us – all of us. He didn’t stand around and watch; he did it. I’d call him names underneath my breath at times but he was all right.”

Some of the early stars of the Belleville McFarlands included captain Floyd Crawford (front row, middle), “Minnie” Menard (front row, left), Moe Benoit (front row, right), goaltender Gordie Bell (front row, second from right) and playng coach Bep Guidolin (middle row, fourth from left)

The McFarlands skated out to a pair of wins over the Cornwall Chevies in their first weekend of play. They dropped Cornwall 4-3 in their first ever game at Memorial Arena and then doubled them 4-2 on the road two nights later.

Their success in their opening weekend didn’t keep Guidolin from cracking the whip in practice the following week. He put his players through up-tempo 90 minute skates that left them winded and anxious to get back into the weekend games so they could have a bit of a break.

“There will be no fooling on this hockey club,” Guidolin stated. “They can’t play hockey if they are not physically fit – and unless they are, they won’t play.”

The early games drew a lot of local attention, including crowds of more than 2,000 spectators, but Guidolin took some flak from some fans early in their first season.

Despite their success, a pocket of fans were vocal about Guidolin’s use of the players from the area. They thought the Belleville boys should get some preferential treatment but of course, Guidolin didn’t see it that way.

He sent a message through Carver that spelled out his priorities.

“I want you to tell the people of Belleville that I am hired to do a certain job here,” the coach explained. “I am going to do what I’m paid for regardless of whose feelings I may hurt. Hockey is a serious business anymore…I like this town. My wife and my three kiddies like it. If it is possible I want to stay here.

“The Belleville people with whom I have come in contact thus far are wonderful. We like them and we like this city. But when it comes to my job it is different. I was hired to come here and do a certain thing – to provide a good hockey club for Belleville. I brought a lot of good players I know. You know them now. Belleville fandom knows them now – and likes them. However if any of those chaps which I brought here from other places do not fit the bill – the one that I demand – he’s through.

“The same goes for the Belleville boys or any other player. There is no sentiment in this hockey business as far as I am concerned.”

They clearly weren’t going to be pushed around. Guidolin led the loop with 156 penalty minutes followed closely by Menard with 134 and Crawford with 122. “Bus” Gagnon from Whitby kept the McFarlands from sweeping the top five leaders. Benoit and MacDonald finished fifth and sixth.

“I can’t defend the way we played or chastise the way we played,” Crawford admitted. “Versus today and how they play, I know it was very physical. I also know it was very entertaining hockey, we played three zones and you were going to see some beautiful plays.”

A helping hand from the Whitby Dunlops

The McFarlands were assembled by Denyes and Guidolin but if it wasn’t for the vision of Wren Blair, the team likely would never have existed.

Blair was the driving force to upgrade the Eastern loop to the Senior “A” circuit and Carver wrote that Belleville was the lone holdout clinging to the Senior “B” title.

Blair enthusiastically argued that the Eastern group would hold their own against any in the country and would produce an Allan Cup champion.

He may have been the only one at the table who believed the claim but he was right.

He was the architect of the Whitby Dunlops team that marched through the seemingly superior teams from Western and Northern Ontario before disposing of Spokane to claim the national championship the following season.

They also went on to win the World Championship the next year in Oslo, Norway, and Blair was quickly vindicated.

But if Blair had some allies among his fellow teams after successfully arguing his case for playing Senior “A”, he quickly lost them once the puck dropped on the first season.

He penned a weekly column for an Oshawa paper and used the opportunity to take jabs at the other teams – mostly about signing players that Blair himself had his eye on. He raised the ire of pretty much every team at one point or another but seemed to take great delight in goading Pembroke and Kingston.

“Wren Blair was the prime mover,” Crawford said. “He’s quite a hockey man. He had a vision that he wanted to turn this league into a Senior “A” because he had tried to go for an Allan Cup and they said ‘well you’re only Senior “B”, (so) you can’t go’ – the powers that be in the hockey world.

“So he said ‘well, I guess the thing to do is get together with these people in the Eastern part of the province, and tell them how good they are and then we’ll go Senior “A” and compete for it.’ Which they did. And the rest is history.”

Dave Jones said that the Dunlops were the class of the circuit that first season. Bob Attersley was one of the premiere players in the league and later went on to become the Mayor of Whitby and a part owner of the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League. The team also boasted long-time Boston Bruins’ GM Harry Sinden on the blueline.

“Whitby of course was probably the top team, but they brought in an awful lot of players, particularly the year they won the world championship,” Jones said.

“They had “Bus” Gagnon and Sid Smith from Toronto and Bobby Attersley who probably should’ve been playing in the NHL then. He was a marvelous hockey player. (They) had a good defense and good goaltending.”

Whitby jumped out of the gate with a great start and held down first place the entire season.

“You had guys like Bobby Attersley for instance,” Crawford said. “All the pro clubs wanted him so badly they would have almost given him the rink to sign up. But he chose to stay in Whitby and go into business for himself.

“So that was the calibre of hockey player we had. It was high-calibre hockey.”

The Senior “A” circuit was a big step up from the Senior “B” squads that Belleville fans had enjoyed for years. Keith MacDonald and Dave Jones were the only players that made the jump up from the “B” team the previous season.

“Keith MacDonald is fitting into the Senior “A” hockey picture like a hand in an old glove,” Carver wrote early in the season.

“The Prince Edwarder’s fire, spirit and fearless play rates him plenty of kudos and the fact that he is travelling in the best company of his hockey career has not affected his play or disposition one iota.

“He hits ‘em all and is ‘afeered’ of none. “Gabby” White of Kingston decided to stop him the other night by the rather foolish method of head-on collision. Result? Gabby went down like a pole-axed flounder and remained there until somebody pumped back his breath.”

Even though most of the players came from around the province and several from Quebec, the fans in Belleville adopted the Mac’s as their own team.

They showed early on that they would be competitive and the abrasive style that they played often looked more like the wrestling events that were staged at the Memorial than the hockey they were used to seeing.

Moving to Belleville meant a new start for Crawford and his young family that grew by one when Pauline gave birth to baby Peter during the Crawford’s’ first few weeks in Belleville.

“The people used to almost make you part of their family,” Crawford said. “And you had a sense of purpose when you came out on the ice. You felt very proud and I had never experienced that in other places that I had played hockey.

“You know, you played a game, you left, and no one seemed to care whether you left. And you can ask any of the other guys and I think they’re going to tell you the same thing about the closeness of the Belleville fans to the players, (it) was fantastic.

“They were like a seventh man on the ice. I guess that’s the best way I can describe it. And that gave you a great inspiration to play. So I’m going to say that’s one of the reasons why we achieved maybe more than what we had in other towns or wherever we’d played in.”

Part of the charm was playing in the Memorial Arena. It was laid out like a lot of other rinks that the veteran skaters had played in but the crowd made it something special. The Mac’s regularly drew more than 2,000 fans for their Friday night games and the number approached 3,000 by the time they got to the playoffs.

“It was great,” Jones said. “It was a home rink, a small rink, so you’re close to the fans and they could get on your back pretty good if you didn’t do too well, that’s for sure.”

Cool as a cucumber

Don Larin started the season as the Mac’s netminder but he wasn’t Denyes’ first choice and even though Larin had a good start, the Belleville manager was looking for a star who would give the Macs an edge in the crease.

In November, Denyes announced that he had signed former American League standout Gordie Bell.

The move turned a good team into a championship contender. Bell was very good in a 6-4 win over Pembroke in his debut and prompted Carver to describe him “…as cool as a cucumber…He also appeared to be a cooling influence on the rare occasions when McFarland tempers threatened to flare.”

Bell started his pro career as a 17 year old with the Buffalo Bisons and made eight starts with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1945-46 season. He kicked around the minor pros for the next decade before coming to Belleville in 1956.

Bell helped the McFarlands run a nine game undefeated streak in his first few weeks with the team, hinting at the performance that was to come in the playoffs.

Denyes had pulled off another coup when he signed Ike Hildebrand just after Christmas. Hildebrand was the player/coach in Pembroke but had resigned just before Christmas. While he was home in Peterborough, he was courted by several teams including Sudbury – and of course, Whitby.

The diminutive right winger had NHL experience with the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks and in today’s terms, would have been the hottest free agent on the market.

Denyes was making a name for himself by landing many of the big fish.

The results with Hildebrand were immediately apparent. He skated on a line with Menard and Paul Payette and assisted on the first two goals of the game – both scored by Menard – to help the Macs to a 6-4 win over Whitby in front of a then-record crowd of 2,657 at the Memorial.

The win pulled Belleville to within three points of the first place Dunlops.

The Macs tailed off a bit during the final weeks of the regular season and finished their inaugural year with a 23-24-5 record.

They finished in third place behind Whitby and the Cornwall Chevies which set up a first round matchup against Cornwall.

On to the playoffs

If Menard and Benoit were the standouts of the regular season, goalie Gordie Bell stole that title in the playoffs.

Bell was no stranger to winning. As a 16 year old in 1942, he backstopped the Portage la Prairie Terriers to a Memorial Cup win over Guidolin and the Oshawa Generals in 1942.

The Canadian Press estimated that he made 50 saves in one of the wins. He also posted a remarkable record of nine shutouts on the way to helping Buffalo win the Calder Cup the next year.

The playoff series opened in Cornwall with the home team skating to a 4-1 win that almost didn’t count. The McFarlands nearly won the game by forfeit when the local fans stormed the ice after an altercation with an elderly fan and a police officer.

Order was restored before the referees announced a premature end to the game.

The Macs stormed back in the next game, winning 6-0 at home with Bell stopping all 20 shots he faced.

Bell was the star again in Game 3 which Belleville won 3-1 on the road and then posted another shutout to back Belleville to a 5-0 victory that left them one game from a final series matchup against Whitby.

They dropped a 7-3 loss in Cornwall before romping to a 4-1 win in front of 2,748 fevered fans on home ice to score the playoff upset.

Unfortunately the Dunlops proved to be more than Belleville could handle in the finals.

The Macs gave up four goals early in the first game and came back with a pair in the second period, but were outclassed and didn’t have enough to compete with the Dunlops.

Whitby grabbed back-to-back wins in Belleville and then finished the series with a 4-1 win on home ice.

It was revealed afterwards that Benoit played the series with an injured foot after taking a slash in the opening game of the series. Guidolin dropped back to fill in on defence but it wasn’t enough to topple the regular season champs.

Despite the loss, Bell was sensational again in the Belleville net and hinted at better things to come for the McFarlands.

“The entire Belleville team gave its best but the outstanding man on the ice for either team was Gordie Bell,” Garry Alexander wrote in The Intelligencer. “The ex-NHL custodian put on one of the most magnificent displays of netminding for ten minutes in the second period that this reporter has ever witnessed.”

Excerpt from More Macs More (Bell, Aaron 2009)

Intelligencer photo courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

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