Top (from left): Dr. Smith

Top (from left): Dr. Smith

‘It was a great thing for Vernon’

On a spring Sunday night 60 years ago today – April 29, 1956 – history was made

It’s a good thing Ivan Armstrong and his friend knew the usher.

The Vernon Civic Arena was packed to its wooden rafters – fire chief Fred Little had fans sitting on the section steps – on a spring Sunday night 60 years ago today – April 29, 1956 – as history was about to be made.

Armstrong, then 13, had ventured in from his home on Guildford Court in Coldstream to watch his hockey heroes, the Vernon Canadians, take on the Chatham Maroons of Ontario in Game 5 of the Allan Cup Canadian Senior hockey championship.

A Vernon victory on this spring Sunday would give the Canadians – or Blues, as the team was nicknamed for its dark blue jerseys with large white numbers on the front and back – the Allan Cup.

By the time Armstrong and his friend arrived for Game 5, the arena was already full. People who didn’t have a seat inside could listen outside on speakers to Don Warner, the voice of the Canadians on Vernon radio station CJIB, broadcast the history-making game.

“I knew the usher, he saw me and my friend and told me to go inside but do so on our hands and knees,” said Armstrong, now 73, retired from the City of Vernon.“He said ‘go in on the aisle’ and we did. We crawled in. We were able to see the winning goal.”

The winning goal came late in the first period off the stick of captain Johnny Harms, a Saskatoon native who scored twice in the opening 20 minutes as the Canadians jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Forward Jack MacDonald, picked up for the 1956 Allan Cup playdowns from league-rival Penticton Vees, and defenceman Willie Schmidt had the other goals for Vernon.

The Maroons chipped away at the lead and cut the Vernon deficit to 4-3 but goalie Hal Gordon, who was marvellous throughout the playoffs, shut the door the rest of the way.

Merv Bidoski – the only Vernon Minor Hockey product on the Blues – scored the Cup-clinching goal, set up by player-coach George Agar and forward Brian Roche – at 17:45 of the third period.

The old scoreboard clock in the northwest corner slowly ticked down the final two minutes.

Vernon 5 Chatham 3. The Canadians had won the Allan Cup in five games.

“It was a great thing for Vernon,” said Bidoski, 82, who came with his family when he was two from Grandview, Man., and worked in the parts department for J.S. Galbraith and Sons, a logging/construction firm.

“The last few minutes were quite hectic,” added Canadians forward Odie Lowe, who turned 88 on April 15, and is one of four surviving members of the Allan Cup squad (Bidoski, forward Walt Trentini and defenceman Tom Stecyk are the others, all four living in Vernon). “Everybody was sweating.”

Senior hockey and the Allan Cup were big in the 1950s.

The Canadians were members of the four-team Okanagan Senior Hockey League, along with the Penticton Vees, Kelowna Packers and Kamloops Elks. It was a league made up of former professional players who still enjoyed playing competitively.

Lowe, for example, had been in the New York Rangers’ farm system with the New York Rovers, members of the Quebec Senior Hockey League (Lowe appeared in four NHL games with the Rangers), before moving home to the Peg, then came to Vernon in 1954 “for a chance to get ahead and play hockey.” Lowe got a job with Cliff Brown’s furniture delivery business before working for the city.

The Vees had won the Allan Cup in 1954, having beaten Lowe’s former team, the Winnipeg Maroons, in the Western Canadian final, then knocked off the Sudbury Wolves in seven games in the Allan Cup final. Penticton, as Allan Cup champions, represented Canada and won the 1955 World hockey championship.

With the Vees concentrating on the worlds, the Canadians won the 1955 Okanagan title and beat the Yorkton Terriers in six games to advance to the Western Canadian championship against Ontario’s Fort William Beavers, who beat the Blues in six games. The Beavers then lost the Allan Cup final in five to the Kitchener-Waterloo Flying Dutchmen.

The following season, Vernon repeated as OSHL champs with a 37-17-2 record, winning the Becker and Willoughby Cups as league and playoff champions. They won the B.C. Savage Cup title, then defeated the Winnipeg Maroons four games to none (with one tie) in the Patton Cup Western Canadian final.

The Chatham Maroons, coached by Murph Chamberlain, were led offensively by the trio of Jim Connelly, Eric Unger and Lloyd Ferguson. Combined, the three forwards had 75 goals in 1955-56. In goal, the Maroons picked up 21-year-old Marv Edwards, who played all 17 Maroons’ Allan Cup playdown games. Edwards went on to NHL fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the Pittsburgh Penguins and California Golden Seals.

A crowd of 4,000 lined the streets of Vernon to welcome the Maroons to town which obviously put the Eastern champs in good spirits. They won the opening game of the Allan Cup 7-1.

“Agar just about s—t,” laughed Lowe. “We regrouped after that first game.”

The Canadians won the next four – 6-2, 7-1, 6-4 and 5-3. Games three and four were played in Kelowna and Kamloops, respectively.

“It was about money,” said Lowe. “The organizers wanted to spread it out so it wasn’t so hard on our public paying the whole shot. There wasn’t that much work around here in ‘56. The players, we were upset that the games were moved from Vernon.”

Team general manager George Castonguay, a real estate agent, and Vernon Mayor Frank (One-Eyed Frank) Becker were among the well wishers in a cramped Canadians dressing room after Game 5, where Harms told reporter Dennis Williams of The Vernon News, “We are proud to be able to do something big for Vernon and for B.C.”

Agar, taking a swig from a bottle of Coke, told Williams: “It was the biggest game of my life, believe me. It was the toughest game and biggest game in 18 years of hockey. The boys were wonderful. Tonight’s game wasn’t easy, but we licked ‘em.”

The Vernon News – which came out on Mondays and Thursdays in 1956 – paid special tribute to the Allan Cup winners with HAIL THE CHAMPIONS! THE CUP COMES HOME as its headline on April 30. The issue featured congratulation ads from such businesses as S.P. Seymour and Son, Fitzmaurice Ltd., Kripps Real Estate, Sigalet Brothers, Coldstream Hotel.

The Vancouver Sun saluted the Canadian champs while legendary Canadian sportswriter Dick Beddoes of Toronto wrote about the Canadians’ win in his column.

An estimated 10,000 fans lined the streets of Vernon for a championship parade for the Canadians, complete with Agar burning his hockey long-johns.

The Canadians had hoped to represent Canada at the 1957 World Hockey Championships in Moscow, but a Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 led to a boycott.

The Blues would reach the Allan Cup final again in 1959, but were swept in four games by Ontario’s Whitby Dunlops.

Chatham won the Allan Cup in 1960, beating the Trail Smoke Eaters in five games (with one tie).

Due to dwindling fan interest and finances, the OSHL ceased operation in 1961.