Mrs. Hilda Donati, who once let a referee have it right on the snoot, runs Canada’s queerest hockey league
ROYD E. BEAMISHFebruary151948
HOCKEY’S MERRY GODMOTHER
Mrs. Hilda Donati, who once let a referee have it right on the snoot, runs Canada’s queerest hockey league
ROYD E. BEAMISH
WHAT must, be Canada’s most unusual hockey league flourishes on the frigid open-air rinks of Port Arthur, Ont. It’s Hilda’s Hockey League, conceived, created and operated by Hilda Donati and manned by 300 pint-sized scrappers in the peewee class.
Each of the 20 teams in the league is sponsored, organized and managed by Hilda Donati. And,' until last year, every hoy on those 20 teams was personally selected, assigned to a team and outfitted by the same Hilda. This year other sports-loving men and women have taken over part of her load, hut Hilda’s cheery personality still dominates the league.
A bright-eyed, plump, motherly young woman of 37 who has been mad about hockey since she was a schoolgirl in Oak Lake, Man., Hilda is the mildest, most easy-going, most feminine person imaginable. But; in Port Arthur, a city of rabid hockey fans, she is regarded as the most rabid of them all. That’s nothing, she says; 20 years ago, she “really got excited” at; hockey games. Her contemporaries pale at. the thought.
They remember the night a couple of years ago at a junior game when Hilda took exception to what she considered Referee Archie Bell’s partiality to the visiting team. At the end of the first period she intercepted the referee on his way to the dressing room and climaxed a vigorous dressing-down by busting him right on the beezer. Then she went back to her seat and cheered herself hoarse for the home team, completely oblivious to the stir she had created.
Later, when they told her what she had done, she was at first incredulous, then remorseful. She apologized profusely to Archie Bell.
Since coming to the Lakehead from Manitoba in 1930, Hilda has missed scarcely a single junior or senior hockey game involving a Port Arthur team. Since 1930 she has been a member of the executive of the Port Arthur West End Junior team and the only reason they didn’t win 11 Memorial Cups or even onewas that; the players couldn’t quite match Hilda’s drive and determination.
Whether it wins this year or not, one sure thing in this uncertain world is that. Hilda Donati will he occupying her box seat, right next the players’ box, bouncing around like a girl on a Pogo stick and screaming for goals, blood, the referee’s head or anything that will produce a victory. As soon as the game is over she will be her own quiet, amiable self, slightly surprised at the commotion she caused.
This is not to say that Hilda Donati is completely devoid of showmanship. When she was invited to Toronto in Continued on page 37
Continued on page 37
Hockey's Merry Godmother
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the spring of 1946 to be a guest at the Memorial Cup finals between St. Michael’s College and Winnipeg Monarehs her reputation preceded her. She knew people expected the master touch when she attended a hockey game.
At a particularly crucial moment in the final game of the series at Maple Leaf Gardens, when Monarchs scored their second goal, assuring the defeat of St. Michael’s, a few spectators were horrified and thousands were delighted to see a woman’s corset sail through the air and land on the ice. Hilda Donati threw it, of course, but it was scarcely one of her truly spontaneous gestures. She had brought along an extra corset for throwing purposes.
While incidents like these have made her a hockey character in her own right, it is Hilda’s Peewee Hockey League that has made her a celebrity.
It all began in 1942 when the Port Arthur Minor Hockey Association had a franchise open in its Peewee League.
Hilda Donati was operating a little coffee shop in the city’s business section that had become a rendezvous for people who liked to talk sports.
Hilda was pouring coffee for Tom Crompton, president of the association, when she learned that no one was likely to sponsor a team to fill the vacancy. Crompton, a grizzled little Englishman who had devoted 25 years to the direction of boys’ hockey leagues, wasn’t very happy at the thought of operating with one team fewer than the usual eight.
Hilda knew what was troubling her old friend the moment he sat down at the counter. She made up her mind while she was filling his coffee cup.
“If nobody’s going to look after those kids, I’ve a good mind to sponsor a team myself,” she said. “Have a cinnamon bun?”
“No, give me a doughnut,” replied ! Crompton. Then as the import of her remark sank home he brightened. “Say, that would be a swell idea. Why don’t you?”
“I did,” she informed him. “Two minutes ago. What’s it going to cost me?”
“Hard to say,” said the experienced Crompton. “Some outfits are spending a couple of hundred bucks to ice a team these days.”
“Nuts to that,” snapped Hilda. “I don’t mind spending 50 bucks to see that the kids have some fun, hut that’s all I can afford. Bring me an appli¡ cation blank next time you’re in, Tom.”
The news spread quickly as news does in small towns. Small boys materialized as if by magic and begged for a chance to play with her team.
“You’ll all get a chance,” she assured them. “And the kids that make the team will get sweaters and hockey sticks. But you’ll have to get the rest of your equipment yourselves.”
Every youngster under 13 who wanted to play hockey and hadn’t made a place on the other teams turned out for practices. Hilda signed up 16 of them and regretfully let the others go.
“Sorry, fellas,” she consoled them, “but that’s the most we can handle. None of you would get any hockey if we had more. I’m going to use every boy in every game and I’m only sorry I can’t take you all.”
Hilda’s team didn’t particularly exI pect to win the league championship, I but every one of the 16 played in every
game on the schedule unless he was sick. Hilda didn’t run in her substitutes on the basis of strategy—she just let everyone have a turn. Two goals down or 10 goals ahead, she pulled off her best: forwards and defensemen to put the other youngsters on ice whenever their turn came.
It should only happen in a storybook, but her club won the Peewee Championship.
It also transpired that Hilda had a few exceedingly practical theories about the game which no one had suspected. She had played hockey on an Oak Lake girls’ team in 1927-2829 against girls’ squads from Virden, Griswold, Kenton and Souris.
“I was the pudgiest girl in town,” she confesses now, “and so the coach put me in goal right at the start.”
How to Start a League
Hilda drew on that experience when she began coaching her youngsters. While she couldn’t show them how to do much more than they already knew, she could point out the things they shouldn’t do.
While she watched “her boys” on the ice or when she was back at work in her coffee shop, trading hockey gossip with her customers, Hilda thought a lot about the youngsters she’d had to turn away. By the time the season was over, she had made up her mind. Next year she was going to operate a league of her own for boys who weren’t good enough for the faster company of the minor leagues.
Seasoned sports fans tried to dissuade her. They said the headaches of operating a league were more than she could be expected to cope with.
Hilda listened to her customers’ objections and then smilingly put the bite on them for cash donations. People gave up arguing and gave. Hilda went out and canvassed merchants, professional men and service clubs. The fire department contributed nearly $20; the senior and junior hockey clubs fed the kitty until she was assured of about $450, enough to equip 50 youngsters and form perhaps half a dozen teams.
She found an outdoor rink that was to be abandoned and rented it for the season for $25. Then she buzzed down to City Council and before she left had talked them into flooding the rink at city expense.
Long before ice-making weather arrived, Hilda found she had miscalculated badly. Instead of 50 boys wanting to play, there were more than 100. So she put on what she calls her “Gimme” expression again and went back to canvassing.
Her year as a team operator turned out to be a good investment. She had learned a number of things in that one season—some that more experienced boys’ hockey promoters haven’t learned yet. One was that a team could be equipped for as little as $50; another was that there could be such a thing as too much competition for players.
Accordingly Hilda drew up a few rules and regulations not in the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association books. Anyone can sponsor a team in Hilda’s League, but no one may finance a team beyond $50. That buys sweaters for all the players and looks after incidental expenses. (Sponsors get no advertising privileges, no names on sweaters.) The league looks after everything else. It holds tag days and other money-raising st unts to provide funds for hockey sticks, rink operation and the other financial details.
Other minor leagues set virtually
no player limit; some wealthier clubs sign up 18 or 20 boys, some of whom never play a game. In Hilda’s league 12 players is the maximum and every player must be allowed to play at least five minutes in every game he turns out for.
Organizations sponsoring teams and the coaches they employ are told pretty plainly what they can and cannot do. No “bonuses” to players, for instance, to celebrate victories. No bad language in front of children.
“I’ve seen little kids reduced to tears by a coach’s language,” Hilda says. “Most of the time the coach didn’t mean what he was saying and if he didn’t mean it, there was no point in saying it.”
The redoubtable Mrs. Donati sponsored one team in the league, but it was subject to exact ly the same restrictions. And to make sure she played no favorites, Hilda took the castoffs to make up her squad.
The first year’s operation, with an eight-team league, was an unqualified success. By last year the league had grown to 20 teams.
Hilda now found the job a bit too much for one woman, so she looked for help. Tom Crompton was retiring from the presidency of the Minor Hockey Association and Hilda immediately drafted him. This year, for the first time, there is no Hilda’s team in Hilda’s League.
“Too many kids wanted to play on my team,” she confesses. “So it seemed the sensible thing to avoid jealousy by not having one.”
Another Allan Cup
Another reason for her decision might be found in her extracurricular activities. Hilda now has graduates from her own league playing in the regular minor loops. This year she has two squads in the Juvenile league— the last step before junior hockey— five in the Midget League (14 to 16) and seven in the Bantams (12 to 14). Just to make sure she has enough to keep her busy, she has organized skating classes for tots under seven. And of course she has her coffee shop (which has now expanded to include a fresh fruit and vegetable store) to occupy her spare time.
A lot of people who wondered what all the fuss was about in 1943 are beginning to see that Hilda makes sound hockey sense indeed. But Hilda saw the picture back in 1942 when the open Peewee franchise won her interest.
Her idea was this:
“A lot of youngsters were going up through the minor leagues even the way things were, but a lot more weren’t getting any kind of a break. And there was too much emphasis on winning and not enough on giving the kids the feel of the game. That’s what we’re trying to do and it seems to be working. If you make hockey fun for little boys and don’t break their hearts with too much competition, they seem to come along a lot better.”
In her secret heart she has a dream. Between 1924 and 1934, Lakehead hockey teams won three Allan Cups and finished in the Dominion finals four times more. Latterly the>’ve been pretty much out of the news and the calibre of play has gone down. By 1954 a lot of Hilda’s hockey graduates will be ready for senior company. It would make her pretty happy if they were to establish another hockey dynasty like the one Lakehead hockey fans recall with such wistful pleasure.
No one who has watched her progress thus far will dismiss that possibility as simply a dream. Not when it’s Mrs. Hockey herself who is doing the dreaming ! ir
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