Sports

History appears to be ready to repeat itself—and that’s just fine

ROY MacGREGOR January 9 1978
Sports

History appears to be ready to repeat itself—and that’s just fine

ROY MacGREGOR January 9 1978

History appears to be ready to repeat itself—and that’s just fine

Sports

Even now, as the team skates on for the warm-up, there are not a half-dozen spectators in the grizzled old Memorial Arena in Waterloo, Ontario. One has an arrow through his head. One a false beard. Another is wearing huge plastic Vulcan ears. The sole non-collegian is a Brylcreemed pot-belly in a bile-on-ivory booster jacket; who somehow has his dates confused: he’d heard the Stratford Junior Bs were in town. “Who the hell’re theyV he asks, pointing with a downward stab of his nose.

They are the University of Toronto Blues, last year—and probably this year as well—the country’s finest college hockey team. The boyish-looking man standing on the visitors’ bench slapping his thermal mitts together to scare off the cold is Tom Watt, coach of the Blues and the man who may end up carrying the oppressive burden of Canadian hockey pride into the 1980 Olympics. It is impossible to hear him above the gear-grinding din of the University of Waterloo cheerleading band, but you can see his shouts lingering in tiny balloons of lung exhaust. The shouting is more habit than necessity. By game’s end the Blues will have effortlessly, methodically, efficiently scored 10 more goals in their continuing domination of Canadian college hockey. Unfortunately, barely 200 people—the man who came hoping for Stratford not included—will have seen them play.

But look ahead to 1980, to the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, and listen to the crowds then. It is one of the mystifying ironies of life that the future often lies like tracing paper over the past, and shadowed and blurred through the cover of those coming Olympic Games lurks the ghost of one Father David Bauer. The muffled sound from the past is booing as Bauer uses

kids to defend Canada’s international hockey manhood, always, always coming short of the necessary gold medals. Bauer began his national college team in 1963, and though the players on the various national teams included the likes of Wayne Stephenson (now goaltending for the Philadelphia Flyers) and Fran Huck (now with the Winnipeg Jets), the teams did not win. People thought them chicken-Iivered, bookish (they included law students, PhD candidates and engineers), but worst of all people thought them amateurs. On January 4, 1970, the national team was disbanded, the thinking being that if we were not permitted to send our pros to deliver the humiliation the Soviets deserved, then Canada would not send anyone.

All that, however, was long before a warm night in Montreal on September 2, 1972, when the Soviets beat the first pro Team Canada 7-3. “On that night,” says Bill Harris, coach of Team Canada ’74 and now a college coach himself at Sudbury’s Laurentian University, “people were suddenly very aware of the real strength of Father Bauer’s student teams.”

And so this season, complete with a $50,000 grant from Hockey Canada, the Student National Team has been reestablished. “It might well be the capstone to an Olympic team,” concedes Hockey Canada’s Derek Holmes, a former player with Father Bauer’s teams. “It’s conceivable that none of the present players will be

there for the 1980 team, but this is a nucleus for us to work with.” Hockey Canada has also set aside $85,000 to provide 110 hockey bursaries as an incentive for good players going to play college hockey. All that financial interest paid off in mid-December when the Student National Team went to Czechoslovakia—now generally acknowledged as superior to the Soviets in hockey strength—and won all five exhibition games, a remarkable showing even though the teams the students played were not Czechoslovakia’s strongest. Those victories validated what many others, Harris included, have been claiming: Canadian college hockey is vastly underrated.

Two years from now, when the Winter Olympics get underway, Canada must be represented by a totally amateur hockey team, as the Olympic rules require. That leaves four options: a team composed of junior players, seniors, college students, or a composite of all three. And unless the 1980 team is indeed some sort of composite, the students stand the best chance of appearing in the Olympics.

Concern over the state of this future team has been demonstrated by the Commons-Senate committee which has studied Canada’s approach to international hockey for Iona Campagnolo’s Ministry of Fitness and Amateur Sport. Among the recommendations handed down at the turn of the New Year was a suggestion that Hockey Canada look seriously at a scholarship plan that might keep Canada’s better players from accepting offers from American schools. There was also a recommendation for a permanent coach. The irony is that the committee thinking and the current emphasis on college hockey all harken back a decade to what Father Bauer was trying to accomplish and was being laughed at for even trying. “I remember thinking as the committee interviewed me,” Bauer says, “ ‘How can I adequately answer these questions?’ Surely all the answers were to be found in how we’d

put together that original team.”

As for the possibility of a permanent coach, the fact that it might be Toronto’s Tom Watt, a relative unknown with no professional experience, does not alarm someone like Laurentian’s Harris, whose coaching experience (the big leagues, Team Canada, the Italian team and now college hockey) is second to none. “In the last couple of years several college teams have reached a level where they wouldn’t have any trouble competing with the top junior clubs,” says Harris. “And I’d put Tom Watt at a level with our very best pro coaches.”

The soft-spoken Watt is only 42 but already in his thirteenth year as head coach of the University of Toronto Blues and has won nine Canadian college championships. It is, however, a job totally without glamour. He works out of a sad, narrow office in the university arena where the radiator knocks and the stuffing rises like candy floss out of the torn couch and chair. Travel is by bus, not plane, and there are few overnight luxuries. Practices must be arranged around lab schedules and, as a result, Watt once went from August 25 to March 17 without once having the evening meal with his family. While other hockey operations work with millions, Watt must stretch a $35,000 budget into miracles that include convincing a manufacturer that it would be a wonderful demonstration of philanthropy simply to make sure the team has different-colored practice uniforms.

There are other, more personal problems. For one thing, few people accept Watt as a bona fide coach: “I do get a bit tired of people coming up to me at cocktail parties and saying ‘What do you do for a living, though?’ ” There are also detractors who claim Watt’s success is directly related to the vast University of Toronto population, giving him an automatic and large pool of hockey talent. “What I make up for

in numbers,” he argues, “I lose in U of T’s very high academic standards.”

What hurts most, though, is that North American professional hockey people have little regard for the coach who has never “snowbanked” his way up from junior and the minor leagues. The dues Tom Watt has paid have an unfamiliar texture to them; his diction is so perfect; his manner so mild. And no matter what accomplishments he points to—for example, the 4-4 tie his Blues achieved a couple of seasons ago with the Memorial Cup champion Toronto Marlboros, one of the best junior teams in history—he will always be regarded with suspicion by the pros. Only twice has he even had pro contract nibbles, and never did the talks reach an in-type stage. Perhaps it is because they do not understand him and his success with unpaid players, or players’ loyalty to him, or the jibing manner he has when praising his hockey over the Hollywood hockey of the NHL. “I often tell my friends in the pros,” he says, “ ‘Why not come out and see us some night? We may not be as good—but at least we try every night.’ ”

That, by the time 1980 rolls around, may be all Canada will be asking. After last year’s dismal fourth-place finish by the pros in the World Hockey Tournament in Vienna, Canadians may not be so quick to wrap arms around rib cages and double over in laughter at the failures of college kids who are hopelessly outclassed by the Yakushevs and Kharlamovs, Novys and Tretiaks of the world. If it all does come down to a student team coached by a man like Tom Watt, it’s to be hoped a loss will no longer mean a loss of face. “You know, I always hoped somewhere along the line what we were trying to do back then would surface again,” says Father Bauer, who stayed on as a director of Hockey Canada and still refuses to let his bitterness show. “I hoped that the philosophy would be needed again. I think we are now at that point.”

ROY MacGREGOR