Monday, November 10, 2014

November 11th - Remembrance Day

I can't think of a better occasion to share some photos from recent visits by the NHL Oldtimers to Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto. Organized through the years by Al Shaw, the last trip took place on September 24, 2014.

Hockey is a powerful bond for Canadians and the love of the game remains with us for a lifetime. This became evident when observing the interaction between the Veterans and their guests. One can't help but marvel as the Veterans recall their memories from hockey's Original Six era and the players share stories from the time they played. The mutual respect and admiration between the Veterans and former hockey players is truly amazing to witness.

Al Shaw kicks-off the 2013 visit

A hard-hitting defenceman with Montreal & New York, Ivan Irwin makes his way around the room (2013)
A winner of two Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs  ('62 & '63), Bob Nevin signs an autograph (2013)
Bob Beckett (Boston) on the left and Pete Conacher (Chicago, New York & Toronto) display a  hand-out that the players sign (2014)
A closer view of the above mentioned hand-out which was designed by Phil Samis. Unfortunately, Phil couldn't attend due to a planned trip to his hometown of Edmonton, but he certainly contributed to the cause by donating the hand-out. Phil won a Memorial Cup with St. Mike's, a Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs ('48) and a Calder Cup with Cleveland (2014)
Danny Lewicki a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs 1951 Stanley Cup team (2014)

Dick Duff has a captive audience as he tells a story (2013)
Gary Collins saw some playoff action in 1959 with the Toronto Maple Leafs (2014)
Johnny McCormack recorded 25 NHL goals with Toronto, Montreal & Chicago
Forward Ron Hurst brings cheer as he addresses the 2014 gathering.  Ron skated in 64 NHL games with the Maple Leafs between 1955-56 & 1956-57
Jerry Junkin, who played with Allan Stanley on the 1943-44 EAHL Boston Olympics, signs one of the hand-outs (2013)

Cliff Thorburn, who won the 1980 World Snooker Championship, dazzled the crowd with several trick shots (2014) 

The visit isn't complete until Sunnybrook resident, Murray Westgate, makes an appearance. In the early years of Hockey Night in Canada, Murray served as a pitchman for Imperial Oil. Taking on the role of an Esso Dealer, Murray donned a serviceman's uniform and appeared on screen in several spots. His duties included doing live commercials and introducing the popular intermission feature called The Hot Stove League. Also, Murray did the sign-off at the conclusion of each broadcast. And how convincing was Murray as a gas station attendant? "I can't tell you how many times a stranger asked me to have a look at their car," Murray has been quoted as saying regarding the impression he made on the car driving public.

AHL Hall of Fame member, Jim Morrison and his lovely wife Wanda, spend a few moments with Murray (2013)
Two Hockey Night in Canada guys. Brian McFarlane looks on  as Murray holds up a gift from the NHL Oldtimers (2013)

During World War Two, Murray Westgate boarded a ship and patrolled the waters for enemy submarines. At the time, Canadian navy vessels needed an escort to look out for dangers at sea while transporting supplies.

In 2012, Murray told Toronto Star writers, Paul Hunter and Jim Rankin, in their Star-Dispatches story, I Remember, about his memories of when the war ended.

"I got the surrender signals on VE-Day," Murray said. "We were 200 miles north of Azores. When peace was declared, we got the signal in plain language. Everything was in code up until then. The war was over; splice the main brace, they told all the ships at sea.

Then, Murray commented on the discussions that took place. "As we spliced the main brace, we talked about the war. Thank God, that was the war to end all wars. We were happy about that. But it's worse now than ever.We thought that was the be-all and end-all for peace in our time. No way."

A clear reminder by Murray that conflicts around the world continue to put young lives in harms way.

Lessons passed on from one generation to another.

On Saturday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs held a pre-game ceremony to honour Canada's War Veterans. With members of the Leafs and visiting New York Rangers lined up at their respective blue lines, eight Veterans took their spots at centre ice. Following their introductions, a tape of Sunnybrook resident, Jim Wilson, reciting the powerful and moving In Flanders Fields (John McCrae - May 3, 1915) was played for the hushed crowd at the Air Canada Centre and the television audience. "Jim did the audio reading of the poem at Sunnybrook," Sally Fur, a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook, told me in an email.

At Sunnybrook, Jim Wilson sits on the executive of the Veterans & Community Resident's Council. On behalf of his fellow Veterans, Mr. Wilson annually accepts a gift from the NHL Oldtimers when they come calling. Throughout the year, Gary England, who is a regular at the Oldtimers lunch, makes certain to secure the signatures of the players on a piece of memorabilia. Before dispersing into the crowd to mingle with the Veterans, one of the players makes a presentation to Mr. Wilson and turns over the offering. Last year, Ivan Irwin, as pictured below, proudly passed along a signed helmet to Mr. Wilson.

Jim Wilson's story of his time in the service began when he was 15 years old. The year was 1942 and along with a pal, Jim, like so many other young men, didn't come clean about his actual age when he enlisted. "With some handy work and a connection through the local Police Department in Westmount, Quebec, Jim's birth certificate conveyed that he was appropriately 18," Sally Fur noted in  her bio on Mr. Wilson.

His first assignment came in basic training when he served as the company bugler.

"Then it was off to HMCS Cornwallis in Halifax, Nova Scotia to be a seaman, learning knots and splices and Morse Code," Sally wrote of Jim's first real taste of life in the Royal Canadian Navy. "From there, he went on a Fairmile vessel, to the Belle Isle Straights of Newfoundland, to keep back German submarines that were working their way up the St. Lawrence River towards Quebec City."

Over a period of time, Jim shifted from the Reserve Force to the Permanent Force. This meant he had to be ready to cross the pond and get closer to the action. It also resulted in a trip across Canada to his new home on the west coast. "In Vancouver, he was sent to the HMCS Kokanee, and was stationed on a frigate, a large anti-submarine vessel with advanced technology and SONAR," Sally noted in her piece.

A pleasant surprise awaited Jim when he made his initial trip overseas. "Landing in Ireland, he was granted a leave and took the opportunity to visit relatives," Sally explained. "A visit he vividly remembers and treasures today."

Before returning to Canada, Jim patrolled the waters in Hawaii, the Panama Canal and Bermuda. Upon returning  home, he sailed on convoys out of Halifax. "Here, he saw the most interesting action, when he ran into a surfaced German Submarine recharging its batteries. It was a chase that lasted 24 hours, and one that he will never forget," is how Sally described Jim's wildest adventure.

Jim Wilson's career in the navy lasted for 23 years. In addition to World War Two, he contributed to the effort in the Korean War. Mr. Wilson earned the rank of Chief Petty Officer First Class.

Although Jim wasn't on hand Saturday night, his presence was truly felt by anyone who listened to his rendition of In Flanders Fields. The words of this famous poem coming from this Veteran of the Second World War and  the Korean War took on a very special meaning.

Lest We Forget.

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