Barry’s Bay – It only lasted a few, precious hours, but it will long be remembered by anyone lucky enough to have witnessed it, as something profoundly worth cherishing.

 In mid-afternoon, last Saturday, more than two dozen old fellows — most now over 70 — traipsed into the Balmoral Hotel here in town and sat down together in the old ‘Ladies & Escorts’ room.

While still teenagers, they had all played for the Madawaska Valley District High School Wolves hockey team, a uniquely local and still much-beloved group, established nearly 57 years ago during Canada’s centennial year, a very heady time.  

They had all been invited to Barry’s Bay by Mike Summers and Liam Murray who now operate a new MV Wolves hockey team. Mr. Summers and Mr. Murray wanted to let those old fellows know that the new MV Wolves had been much inspired by what those old fellows had accomplished more than five decades ago. 

The story of those original Wolves began in the autumn of 1967, when a hockey team had been authorized by Murray Daly, board chairman of the new Madawaska Valley District High School. It had just opened its doors in Barry’s Bay to well over 500 largely rural students from the local area.  

Joe Drago, one of the new MVDHS guidance counsellors, had been tasked with putting the team together, if only to provide some extra-curricular activities. It was also hoped that such a team might help unite the towns of Killaloe, Combermere and Barry’s Bay, that all once had their own Catholic high schools that were either already or about to be displaced by the newer public high school.        

“I’m so happy I’m here” said Mr. Drago, shortly after arriving at the Balmoral, “because I haven’t been in Barry’s Bay since I left.”

He only stayed that one year to launch the Wolves hockey team. The next year, he devoted himself to hockey full-time elsewhere. First, he joined the front office of the Sudbury Wolves, a Junior A hockey team where he had played when he was a teenager. Most recently, Mr. Drago served as the chairman of the board of Hockey Canada from 2012 to 2019.

“I have very fond memories of my time here in Barry’s Bay,” he said. “Yesterday, I was very emotional as we toured MVDHS, as well as the new Paul J. Yakabuski Community Centre and I thought, ‘Boy, what a beautiful arena, to think of the one we used to use.”

The old Wolves played all their home games in the old natural-ice rink where the Valu-Mart now stands in Barry’s Bay. Mr. Drago said it was little more than ‘a big barn.’

“Our first practice!” he said about the first tryouts in the fall of 1967. “Students were lined up from the goal line to the second blue line, there were so many. I was trying to do line-rushes with these kids who didn’t know their ass from page two. Really and truly, they didn’t know much about hockey, but they could skate like the wind, and they had big hearts.”

As Coach Drago talked, more old Wolves arrived: Ron Murray and Dennis Gienow from Killaloe; the four Shulist boys from Wilno; the Cameron brothers from Madawaska; Tommy Neuman from Palmer Rapids, as well as nearly two dozen more, many of whom live or have worked elsewhere, since their Wolves hockey glory days.

Finally, when those 70+ year-old fellows had all gathered together at the Balmoral, it was easy to see that it had been more than 50 years since they had been eager young teenagers, who first learned to skate ‘like the wind,’ to use Mr. Drago’s phrase, on natural ice that still covers local ponds and lakes. Back in those days, most had never played on, let alone seen, the sort of artificial ice now available at the Paul J. Yakabuski Community Centre here in town and where the new MV Wolves had started playing their home games this past autumn.

Rather, the old Wolves played at the ‘old barn’ that could legally hold up to 1,800 fans, or more than double what the new Paul J. Yakabuski Community Centre arena can hold. It was also at a time when most every teacher who taught at MVDHS attended every Wolves home game, as did most people from Madawaska, Whitney, Palmer Rapids, Combermere, Wilno and Killaloe.

“Of course, there wasn’t a high school league at that time,” said Mr. Drago, “so we became a high school team in a Junior “B” league; but, geeze, we had a hellava team.”

Mr. Drago then waxed eloquent about his Wolves’ team captain, Ronnie Murray.

“He was a hellava player, a hellava player!”  

The Wolves were the only high school club playing in a league made up of players from much larger towns that included Deep River, Petawawa, Renfrew and Shawville among other places. They were also the only Junior “B” hockey team that travelled by school bus.

“When we decided we were going to have a hocky team, it was logical to have a logo and a name, so the principal, Pat Carroll, and Geoff Post, the vice-principal, asked me what I wanted to call the team?  Coming from Sudbury, and having played for the Sudbury Wolves when I was a kid, I said, ‘They tell me that the Madawaska Valley and Algonquin Park is loaded with wolves; and so, wouldn’t that be appropriate to call the team the Wolves?'”  

So that’s what the MVDHS hockey team was called. And every one of its other high school teams as well.

Ron Murray spent two years playing for the Wolves including that first year for Coach Drago.

“I remember that first year, all right,” said Mr. Murray. “It was a little haywire. We competed. We didn’t win too much. I always remember the practices were the worst. They were brutal. None of us were in shape, and it wasn’t hard to tell after being out there on the ice for an hour. But we got used to it after a while. And the whining started to subside after a bit”.

He went on to say Coach Drago was a little hard-nosed at times. Still, he chuckled at some of the things he and his coach got into.

“I remember a game we played in Renfrew, one of the stronger teams, a real Junior B team. We were just a high school team.

“They had no trouble beating us, but we always gave them a hard time. Both on and off the ice. They got really upset with us, maybe because we drove around in a school bus. Anyway, I remember, Joe and I got a police escort to the bus. The people were not very friendly. I don’t think they were really going to hurt us, but there was a lot of shouting.”

Mr. Murray readily admits that during that first year, the Wolves, “were usually outmatched but we would give it 100 per cent, and sometimes we had some fun with it. Anyway, it’s a lot of fond memories of a bunch of guys who played together as best we could and sometimes the outcome wasn’t as great as we had hoped, but it was still fun to play on that team.”

Another team member from that first year couldn’t agree more. Back in 1967, Bruce Howard was the new kid in town, his family having moved from the Hamilton area.

“I was 14, the youngest guy on the team,” said Mr. Howard. “I was also the smallest guy too, but I was selected to play, and Mr. Drago was nice enough to pare me with Richard Shulist. If I got into trouble out there on the ice, Mr. Drago told me not to drop my stick and gloves until the other guy drops his, and then I could hit him. But I had Richard backing me up! And so, I did!   

“Afterwards, I moved backed to Hamilton, but all my friends are here, and I still call this home.”

Mr. Gienow, another member of those early Wolves teams, never played for Coach Drago but as he told him at the Balmoral last Saturday, “Joe, I never played for you — thank God from what I hear — but I played against you, when you played for the Barry’s Bay Senior League. And I remember you and I spending time in the penalty box. And you told me that you were going to kill me. So, I went back to our bench and told my coach, I’m not going back out there.”

And so it began, Mr. Drago and Dennis Gienow burst out laughing, along with dozens of others seated in the old ‘Ladies & Escorts’ room of the Balmoral last Saturday afternoon. And then the real mano-mano talk of glory days took off in earnest.

Simply put, it took on a strange atmosphere hard to explain. You’d have to be there to understand what it’s like to hear truly-grown-up, mature men sometimes laughing and sometimes on the verge of tears as they press hard against overwhelming emotions, just thinking of what they all mean to each other, knowing what they know of each other as teammates on a team from long ago, and that no longer exists, except in their collective, diminishing memories.

And their stories are not without their victories. They did win it all one year. And, of course, as with all sports teams, eventually they lost it all as well. Once Murray Daly retired and the local school board was taken over by a regional Renfrew County Board, the hockey team soon found itself orphaned and eventually dead as a door nail. The Wolves as a hockey team ceased to exist for nearly 50 years until Mike Summers and Liam Murray came along.

Still, the memory of that very unique old Wolves hockey team persists.

Late into the afternoon last Saturday, those two dozen and more old guys were loaded onto another school bus, the very sort they used to go to play their games everywhere from Shawville to Deep River. Only that school bus took them to the Paul J. Yakabuski Community Centre where Mike Summers and Liam Murray honoured all 28 attending Wolves with a celebration second to none.