Hockey in wartime: Lest We Forget

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(Kitchener Rangers, Remembrance Day jerseys 2013.)

 

As we get closer to Remembrance Day, all hockey teams around the world are donning camo jerseys and incorporating the military, navy and air force into pregame ceremonies to show a gracious tribute. This is a fantastic thing. Honouring our brave men and women that serve our country and strive to make the globe a peaceful place is awe-inspiring.

However, we very rarely think to remember the hockey players who have actively served during war time. The NHL played through both World Wars. During World War II, so many players joined the military either on their own accord or by conscription that that NHL actually thought about shutting down for the 1942-1943 season. To keep public morale high at home, they nixed that notion and played on.

At the very least, over 100 players served their countries during both wars and miraculously only two casualties were sacrificed.

Here’s part one of a brief history of hockey players in the military.

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Scotty_Davidson

 

Allan McLean “Scotty” Davidson was a right winger out of Kingston, Ontario. He and his junior team out of K-town won two Ontario Hockey Association championships before he moved to Calgary and led the senior team to a provincial championship. The year of 1912 saw him turn pro with the Toronto Blueshirts . His rookie year saw him notch 19 goals in 20 games and at the age of 22, he raised the Stanley Cup. With his skill, he was said to have skated faster backwards then anybody who could forwards.

Besides making the hockey history books with his skill, he made hockey history in a not so pleasant way either. With World War One looming, Davidson volunteered his services with the Canadian Expenditionary Force and served with the Eastern Ontario Regiment and attained the rank of lance-corporal. He was the first recorded professional hockey player to do so. Davidson was killed in action when he refused to retreat during a battle in Belguim.  He name is etched in both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

 

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GT_Richardson_portrait

 

Another Kingston, Ontario native, George Richardson was a left winger for Queen’s University. Richardson won a total of four Intercollegiate championships with the Golden Gaels before suiting up for a series against the Ottawa Hockey Club for the Stanley Cup. At 6’1, he was a towering addition to a front line. In 1908, Richardson joined the Frontenacs in their front office.
Richardson also volunteered with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and reached the rank of Captain. 8 months after the death of Davidson, Richardson was killed in action while fighting in Belguim and is now buried in France. Kingston’s Richardson Stadium is named in his honour.

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HobeyBakerPrinceton1

 

A name that most people recognize is American hockey great Hobey Baker. The Princeton University grad played his last collegiate game in Ottawa for the Intercollegiate Hockey Championship of America. The University of Ottawa beat Princeton by a score of 3-2 but that was not the talk of the town. Baker was said to have scored over 120 goals and 100 assists in three years while only taking one penalty. This kid also had the brains to back up his skill as he majored in History, Politics and Economics.

 

Baker became a bank executive and turned down a $20,000 contract to suit up for the Montreal Canadiens in 1916. Baker join the US Air Force when the war was in full swing and became a fighter pilot. With three confirmed kills to his name, Baker was ordered back to America after being stationed in France. One last fateful tour over his squadron’s airfield in Toul, France, Baker crashed his plane nose first into the ground. He made it out but died minutes later in an ambulance. The NCAA hands out the “Hobey Baker Award” each year since 1981 to the best player in NCAA hockey.

 

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If you’re any kind of hockey fan, or if you consider yourself a Leafs fan, you’ll know Conn Smythe. Smythe has eight Stanley Cup titles, was owner of the Leafs for 34 years and helped build Maple Leaf Gardens. What most people don’t know or even realise is that he served in both World Wars and was a POW.

Reaching full lieutenant with the 40th Battery of Hamilton, Smythe and his fellow soldiers headed overseas in 1916. As they faced heavy fire in Ypres, both commanders were killed leaving Smythe in charge. The Battery fought for two months straight near the Somme before reinforcements arrived. That’s nothing compared to what was next.

Conn Smythe is a god damn crazy Canadian war hero.

After getting into a battle with some Germans, the Germans managed to counter-attack their offensive with grenades. So what did Smythe do? Oh just what any other sane person would.  HE RAN INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE FIGHT AND SHANKED THREE GERMANS WHILE HELPING A FEW WOUNDED CANADIAN SOLDIERS BACK TO SAFETY. He earned himself a Military Cross.

hf8nz7z3You know what Smythe, you can have the Maple Leafs too when you come back.

He wouldn’t come back until the end of the war though. In 1917, Smythe had transferred himself to the air force and was shot down by the Germans and subsequently captured. The Germans threw him into solitary confinement a camp at Schweidnitz after he tried to escape not once, but TWICE. Fourteen long months as a prisoner of war and he was finally liberated.

After a few years of fun with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Smythe’s military didn’t stop. He joined up the 30th Battery that was apart of the 7th Toronto Regiment and took off in England in 1942. His bad luck in the military continued as the ammunition depot he stationed to in France was bombed by the Germans in 1944. Leaving him badly wounded, Smythe came back to Canada and would suffer lower body problems for the rest of his life.

But hey, he owned the Leafs.

 

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Sticks, Chicks and Dirty Mitts: Todd McIlrath and his Dark Side of Hockey

Todd McIlrath (Photo: www.facebook.com/GulbransonPhoto)
Todd McIlrath (Photo: http://www.facebook.com/GulbransonPhoto)

I had originally set out to make a part 2 of my article “The Dark Side of Hockey: What people never think of” and delve into the sections with a little more detail. However yesterday, I got a message to my facebook page that immediately required action and have it brought to the forefront of my attention.

When I originally wrote that article I was fed up with hearing how my friends in different teams throughout the world were being treated and how rampant mental illness is in sports with nobody doing a damn thing. I figured at the very least I could write about it and try to bring some awareness to society. I remember thinking that if I could help just one person it would all be worth it.

It was worth it.

Todd McIIrath reached out to me on the afternoon of September 24, 2014 with a lengthy message. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“I stumbled upon your original article about a week after I had been planning to take my own life. I felt as if I was battling something so unique to MY situation until I read the first half of your article. Your article saved my life. I am literally driving from Wisconsin to my hometown in Michigan to admit myself into a facility in an attempt to rebuild. Thank you.”

I could not just leave that message sit and not respond. I responded right away and found out that Todd was in the passenger seat of a car at that very moment with another 5 hours to go before he was admitting himself into a facility in Eastern Michigan. I’m a fairly easy person to get along with so we naturally started a conversation on the topic that fate joined us together with. I then asked the burning question if he’d want to tell his story. With actual enthusiasm he obliged and had the same mentality I did: “If it helps just one person Ash, then it was worth it.” Hey, I had all night. I was all ears.

By the time McIlrath had hit bantam, he knew he was something special in the hockey world. Having played with names such as Erik Condra and Matt Taromina, McIIrath was drafted to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round. Weighing his options, he decided to sign an offer with the United States National Team Development Program and stay a bit closer to home.

He was off to a heck of a start for his junior career. As with all athletes however, he was faced with adversity and well, it wasn’t really his strong suit. Tacking onto his drinking and smoking marijuana that started in Grade 8, McIlrath had started using almost every day. Getting caught cheating on an exam saw him lose his scholarship with the USNTDP as the coaching staff no longer had confidence in him to crack the lineup. However, he could return to the team the next season but had to go to high school in his home town and commute to the practices and games. To cope with not only the loss of time but to gain an edge, he turned to the drugs of Ritalin and Ephedrine. This was during the height of ephedrine awareness. Athletes were dying, and I was buying yellow jackets by the bottle on a weekly basis.” In the midst of

McIlrath with Indiana. (Photo: facebook)
McIlrath with Indiana. (Photo: facebook)

this he had managed to commit himself to Notre Dame University and the Fighting Irish hockey team. Towards the end of the school year, a plagiarism incident put the stop to that entirely. He lost the confidence of not only his coaches but his teammates and most importantly, himself. “At this point I was the problem child. I began to alienate myself from my teammates.

The following summer was a blur built around girls, booze and drugs. When he arrived at camp that very fall, the team had brought in two new forwards. They clearly had no use for him. “The writing was on the wall. After getting healty’d (scratched) the first six games of the year,” McIlrath recalls. “I packed my car and went home.”

By now his agent was already in the middle of a three way deal that was trying to send him back to the OHL albeit with the Sarnia Sting. His parents turned him off of that idea as they wanted him to play NCAA so he managed to land himself in the USHL with the Indiana Ice. The season started off great and seemed like all of McIlrath’s problems were behind him until he popped his shoulder out in the middle of November. McIlrath moved home to have surgery and was sent off with a bucket full of pills and self-described “post-rookie season swagger”.  For the first time in his life he was a normal kid, at home, with no responsibilities. Naturally, the partying became out of control. “I can remember playing drinking games with the option to take a shot, or take a pill; on a school night.” Vicodin and booze saw his new found confidence sky rocket. It also gave him an addiction to prescription medication.

The following season he was billeted with a family that was fairly well off and had a full bar set up in their basement. He was still addicted to pain meds but had upgraded to oxy-contin from having built up a tolerance to Vicodin. ‘Vicodin isn’t cutting it anymore’ was enough of an explanation for my doctor.” By Christmas he was leading the league in points but to his discredit (or credit depending on how you look at it), he only iced a handful of games sober. “My game day routine involved popping an 80mg tab of oxy before my pregame nap, and snorting half of one before I left for the rink.”

Of course his luck got even worse. His first game back from Christmas break saw him tear his ACL. “To this day, I swear it happened because of what I put my body through on a nightly basis.” It was at this point where he began to struggle with how people saw him.

McIlrath with Bowling Green. (Photo: Christine Towles.)
McIlrath with Bowling Green. (Photo: Christine Towles.)

He donned a narcissistic attitude that would make him lash out at people if they didn’t treat him like a God. He’d avoid people that would try to keep him humble and fed off of the rest that told him how great he was. That summer he committed to Bowling Green State University but instead of going, he decided to stay back one more year in junior to be a big fish in a small pond.

“When I think about BGSU (Bowling Green State University) my brain immediately associates it with coke, girls, alcohol and hockey. In that order.” McIlrath had enjoyed a very positive and acceptable first year at Bowling State. By the end of it, he took a job bouncing at a local bar and that’s when things inevitably turned sour once again. “I was always a yes man, so when someone asked me if I wanted a line (of cocaine), I was in deep.” In fact, he played his entire sophomore year on cocaine and you wouldn’t know it from looking at his numbers. Fate came twisting again when his coach’s friend ran into him at the bar while McIlrath was drunk. The coach brought it up at a pre-season meeting and once again he was back in the dog house. He was jerked around every which way; in and out of the line-up, demoted to defence, encouraged to give up for good among other things. By December of his junior year he didn’t care and just focused on playing for fun. After more partying behaviour, the coached took the matter into his hands and gassed him. It was over. He played his final year and graduated with a major in Psychology. “Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me.”

That was it. Hockey was over.

He spent the next three months in an alcoholic haze and the next two years depressed without a hope in life. A friend however told him about the AAHL; the All-American Hockey League. “This league was absolute hell, but I was playing again. This was verbatim the league you spoke of in your article. Five fights a game, not sure if we were getting paid, three guys in a one bedroom apartment; gong show.” The use of his hockey talent gave him a bit of hope. He managed to catch the eye of an organization in the East Coast Hockey League. Through all of the booze, drugs, highs and lows, McIlrath felt like he was being given a second chance. Determined to not blow it, he obliged when the team offered to fly him out on game day.

“And I kid you not, I tore my ACL again in my third shift!”

A constant string of bad decisions combined with even worse luck started to eat at him. As his depression worsened, it’s here where McIlrath first entertained the idea of taking his life. He managed to get a coaching gig with an independent team but was fired when the owner found out he was a coke head. Defeated he turned back to the AAHL and won a championship with the Battle Creek Revolution and signed on for next year

Winning the AAHL championship with the Battle Creek Revolution.
Winning the AAHL championship with the Battle Creek Revolution.

with the Fort Wayne Komets. The bad luck didn’t stop as a drama with his twitter account made the team let him go and that was the end of that.

Depression came back in full force and after a month of feeling sorry for himself, he managed to call up a friend who got him a coaching gig with a junior B team. Things started to seem normal at a steady pace again. The team placed third in nationals and by the end of the year, he had found himself quite the lady that was smitten with him. He turned her into his wife.

However after a few problems in the relationship arose, McIlrath reached his all-time low. He quit coaching and succumbed to the blackness of his depression. He managed to stay alcohol and drug free for an entire year before these problems existed. Determined to save his marriage, he invested and opened up a hockey school. In its second year of existence, it was all too much. “Everything on the surface was silky smooth, but as cliché as it sounds, I was just another duck on the pond.”  McIlrath knew that his sober living was limited.  “The money started pouring in, and it was flying up my nose faster than I could pay the bills.” He managed to save enough money to pay his employees and the bills on time when they arrive but that was it. “Every spare penny went toward living a rock stars lifestyle when I was barely getting by.

Things continued to be rocky. On Fourth of July weekend of this year, McIlrath blacked out a party and hit rock bottom in his depression. “My plan at this point was to get through the summer, finish my hockey school, have a night out with the boys and take my own life.

“So I decide to take a victory lap. I visit my family, and closest friends over the past few weeks and prepare my exit. I had my spot picked out, and even now I have a rope hidden under a pile of clothes in my car. I decided a jump from 80′ might not kill me so I decided to hang myself from the same height.”

“I woke up this past Monday dripping in sweat. This was going to be the day. But after reading your article for the 50th time it is my goal to be an example of strength rather than becoming a statistic. Especially since I’m going to be a father.”

 

10153131_233704133502040_225210655_nI immediately got McIlrath in touch with Corey Bricknell, a former hockey player who started an organization with other former players called “Fighting the Truth”. FTT is an organization built to help players, whether former or still playing, deal with mental illness and the trials and tribulations of professional hockey. They had reached out to me after reading my article as well and I’m proud to say that I’ve joined their organization in helping create awareness.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. I applaud Todd McIlrath and think so highly of him for his decision to get help. As I’m writing this, he is in a treatment center in Michigan surrounded by his no doubt loving family and there is not one damn thing he should be ashamed of either. I hope you’re doing well right now Todd, I’m thinking about you tonight. Thank you for telling your story. I know you’ve helped someone.

Depression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of being strong for too long. It’s time to end the stigma.

#YouAreNotAlone

Feel free to follow me on twitter: @MarchHockey or like the facebook page: www.facebook.com/marchhockey as I continue to add stories to this growing series dedicated to creating awareness of mental illness in the hockey community.

For more information on Fighting The Truth, head to www.fightingthetruth.com or like their facebook page at www.facebook.com/FightingTheTruth

Read about Carson Shields and his Dark Side here: The Beauty, Carson Shields and the Dark Side of JUNIOR Hockey

One on One with former Carleton Place Canadian captain, Elie Ghantous

To say that Elias Ghantous had a huge season last year would be an understatement. In his fourth and final season with the Carleton Place Canadians, Ghantous captained and lead his squad to not only win the Bogart Cup but the Fred Page Cup as well. If it weren’t for a couple of brief moments in the last game of the Royal Bank Cup tournament that showcases that countries best Junior A teams, he could have put RBC Cup champion on his resume. However, being second in the country isn’t a bad showing either. It’s also not very often that a bodycheck from the CCHL makes Yahoo Sports either.

Ghantous is currently suiting up for his first season at Robert Morris University. I caught up with him to talk about his amazing final Junior A season.

(Photo: Robert Lefevbre. IceLevel.com)
(Photo: Robert Lefevbre. IceLevel.com)

March Hockey: What was like to captain the Carleton Place Canadians last year? Did you feel you needed to change your ways as a player?

Elie Ghantous: Not at all, I just knew that i was going to be a big influence on my teammates and made sure my work ethic was perfect in order to make them better. I loved being the captain, I feel like I’ve always been a leader and it really helped that every one last year was on board with our team goal.

MH: Of course winning the Fred Page Cup is a huge accomplishment as a Captain in that you’ve lead your team to the holy grail. How did you and the team prepare for that series and what was it like to finally raise the cup?

EG: The Fred Page Cup was a great experience as a team. It sort of brought back the minor hockey tournament feel in all of us and it was just exciting. The captains all played an important role in maintaining the team focused. We had a lot of things up against us; we were mistreated at times but we managed to push through that and go undefeated. Lifting that cup was a great feeling (a lot heavier than I expected!) and it made us realize that we had our ticket to the Nationals. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

 

(Photo: Robert Lefevbre)
(Photo: Robert Lefevbre)

MH: Making the finals of the RBC Cup is an even bigger accomplishment! I remember smiling as I saw a team from the CCHL on TSN. How was the experience of playing hockey in front of a national audience for you? Was it intimidating with not only the media but the weight of the tournament itself?

EG: Playing at the RBC cup was a dream come true. The atmosphere was just awesome and Team Canada ran a top notch tournament. We had access to food, gatorade, and water at any time. It made us feel like a professional team and it showed in our play. Playing in the final game I was very nervous at first but I remembered that all my friends and family were watching back home and all I wanted to do was play hockey. Most definitely the best hockey experience of my life so far.

MH: This is your first year suiting up for the Robert Morris Colonials of Robert Morris University. How did you prepare during the offseason for your first NCAA season?

EG: I trained at the Ottawa Sports Performance Centre, like I have for almost 8 summers now and I just focused on my foot speed. My workout partners are also NCAA athletes and I received a lot of knowledge through them about what i needed to work on. Lifting 5 days a week and skating twice a week was what I did and i enjoyed every second of it.

MH: Where do you see your hockey career taking you?

EGI hope to one day, like any other hockey player, play professional hockey. I realize now that it is very hard to make it to a professional league so going to school gives me something to fall back on. Hockey has brought me here so far and I’m already ecstatic about where I am now.

MH:  Who do you look up to most if anybody for your style of play?

EG: I’ve always admired Scott Stevens. He was feared by all in the league and with obvious reasons. His defensive play and hard hits and synonymous with my style. He was also a great leader and won the Stanley Cup 3 times. 

(Photo: Robert Lefevbre.)
(Photo: Robert Lefevbre.)

MH:  If you could play against any player from any decade, who would it be and why?

EG: The league is just so good now that I would love to play against anyone in the league. But first I would love the opportunity to make one of those teams. If I were to pick one person, it would be Sidney Crosby. I would like to play against him just to compare myself to the very best and see how I would do.

Thanks so much for your answers Elie! I’m going to check in with you half way through the season and see how far you’ve come along with the Colonials! All the best for the first part!

Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @MarchHockey and like the page on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/MarchHockey for more player one on ones this season!

Cornwall Colts loss of Pontarelli is Union College’s Gain

Just like that, the Cornwall Colts have lost a key piece to their next season’s attempt at back to back champions.

(Photo: icelevel.com)
(Photo: icelevel.com)

Michael Pontarelli, a right winger out of Laval, Quebec, announced that he is not returning for another season with the Junior A Cornwall Colts after weeks of will he or won’t he. He has opted instead to get his college career underway with Schenectady, New York’s Union College. He’ll start off his career with the NCAA Division 1, Union Dutchmen. David Roy and Sebastien Gingras who are Brockville Braves alumni are already apart of the squad.

Now, let’s take a look at what a powerhouse the Colts are losing. Pontarelli played one year in the CCHL with Cornwall. In 53 games played, Pontarelli notched 107 points (52 goals, 55 assists) coincedently leading the league in points and goals as well. Here’s a list of his accomplishments and keep in mind, he only played ONE season.

  • CJHL Player of the Year
  • CCHL Most Valuable Player
  • CCHL Sportsmanship Award
  • CCHL First All Star Team
  • CCHL Most Goals (52)
  • CCHL Most points (107)
  • 2013 CCHL Champion

That’s quite the list of accomplishments for having played one year. Union will know exactly how to mold a player like Pontarelli. On Cornwall’s side of things, it will only give somebody else the chance to step up and shine. Well, somebody’s going to HAVE too. Welcome to the nature of hockey boys and girls.

(Photo: icelevel.com)
(Photo: icelevel.com)

I have no doubt in my mind though that the Colts are still going to be up to par come season time even with the loss of their best player. Coach Ian MacInnis doesn’t like to lose (then again what coach does really). Though he’ll have his hands full come fall, juggling both the Colts and head manning  Team Canada East for the 2013 World Junior A Challenge. That tournament is set to take place November 5-11 in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.