In the spring of 1978, the town of Midland had much to be proud of.
It was our Centennial, and the upbeat mood most people felt lasted throughout the 12-month celebration, spreading from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Plans for some ambitious civic events and major community projects would soon become realities.
One of the most important being the long-awaited completion of a brand-new arena, to be called, appropriately enough, the Midland Centennial Arena. By happy coincidence, the same year Midlanders were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the town's incorporation, a minor-hockey team was vying for a provincial championship.
That April, the Midland Huronia Junior Civitan Major Bantams, then fully engaged in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association final – and after making local sports history – looked to crown “a magical season.”
The Bob Colbourne-coached Junior Civitans proved to be a powerhouse squad with strength up and down its lineup.
Led by star centre and captain Pat Brodeur, Midland averaged an impressive five goals per game during the 1977-78 campaign. Brodeur, that year's Georgian Bay league points-scoring champion, skated between wingers Guy Forget and Todd Clarke on the team's first line, with additional offensive output coming off the sticks of talented forwards Gerry Borsa, Paul Hahn, Ken Mugford, Pat and Paul Belanger, and Danny Hall.
Not surprisingly, Colbourne also stressed checking and defence to his players. And with his guidance, the Junior Civitans responded by becoming a well-balanced hockey club that got great work from rearguards Brad Copeland, Mike Downer and Pat Adams, and the league's best goaltending tandem of Paul Tela and Brian Moore.
Midland's quest for an OMHA title began when the first-place Junior Civitans easily defeated Collingwood, 2 games to 0, in the best-of-three Georgian Bay group playoff final.
Tela made several exceptional saves during game one to shut out Collingwood, 4-0; Borsa, Brodeur, Hahn and Hall (unassisted) were the Midland goalscorers.
In game two, Moore allowed just one tally across three periods, while Junior Civitan teammates Brodeur (2), Borsa and Guy Forget provided more than enough scoring punch for the Midland squad's 4-1 series-clinching win.
From there, the Junior Civitans would take four games to push past Aurora in their next playoff round – a best-of-five set called the OMHA elimination series – including winning game two's overtime thriller 8-6.
Aurora did edge Midland 2-1 in game three, but during the series' fourth contest, the Junior Civitans ended any comeback hopes their opponents still held by trouncing Aurora 7-1.
After Borsa had scored the only goal of the first period, Midland then piled up five unanswered markers in the middle frame: Forget, Hall, Belanger and Clarke, with two unassisted tallies, all found the back of the net for the bantams.
In the third period, Belanger's second goal of the night, and Adams' single, completed the Junior Civitan scoring.
“When we got our first goals,” said Bob Colbourne, now deceased, “we broke up Aurora's game pattern and they seemed to lose heart.”
The victory over Aurora advanced Midland into the best-of-five OMHA quarter-finals, where the Junior Civitans beat Hespeler in three-straight games by scores of 5-4, 7-3, and 4-3.
Clarke's hat-trick during game one was a series highlight for Midland, and Brodeur continued his outstanding season also, potting the eventual winning goal early in the third period.
Game two saw both teams draw 27 minutes in penalties as Hespeler, unable to keep up with the fast-skating Junior Civitans, resorted to a rougher and “chippier” style of play. Midland would not be slowed down or physically intimidated, however, and quickly asserted itself on the ice and scoreboard, before closing out the playoff (on Ken Mugford's 4-3 overtime winner of game three) one night later.
For the upcoming semi-finals, the Junior Civitans prepared to meet the defending Ontario-champion Lindsay bantams in what the Midland Free Press claimed was “a natural rematch” between the two squads.
Many of the Junior Civitan supporters remembered that at the end of the semi-final round the previous year, Lindsay had ousted Midland from the OMHA's playoff trail; this time, in 1978, it was the Junior Civitans who'd go on and compete for the provincial title.
Midland swept the best-of-five series against Lindsay, 3 games to 0. During the decisive game three, the Junior Civitans fully displayed their shooting prowess when Clarke, Belanger, Hahn and Brodeur (twice) notched first-period goals, giving Midland a 5-0 lead. Lindsay fought back to make the score 5-3 in the second, yet by the halfway-point of the third period, Clarke and Borsa had already added insurance markers and the contest finished 7-4, Junior Civitans.
With that triumph, Midland's Huronia Junior Civitan Major Bantams became the first minor-hockey team from the town in 16 years to reach the Ontario championship final.
Before the Junior Civitans' playoff run, the 1961-62 Midland Red Wings had won the OMHA bantam A minor crown, outscoring the province's other finalist, the Leamington Jaycees, 14-2, through the two games of the total-goal series.
The '62 Red Wings featured several talented local players on their roster, including Bob Clayton, Keith Bath, Earl Scott, Bob Larmand, and future National Hockey League defenceman Mike Robitaille. Besides the obvious hockey bond, the Midland squads shared some family ties as well, with Junior Civitan centre Borsa's older brother, Tom, having skated for the Red Wings.
Prior to the start of the 1978 final, the OMHA held a coin toss between opposing coaches Tilden White of Salt Fleet (located near Hamilton/Stoney Creek) and Midland's Colbourne to determine home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series. Colbourne lost the flip, but White, for some unexplained reason, still insisted that Colbourne go ahead and decide who'd host Game Seven, if necessary. He chose, of course, his Junior Civitans. White's unusual generosity, and the subsequent decision by Colbourne, would later significantly affect the series' outcome.
In the meantime, Salt Fleet took game one, 6-3, setting the stage for the following playoff match – and one of the most glorious days in Midland sports history.
Across the 1977-78 season, the Junior Civitans played their “home” games at the Wasaga Stars Arena in Wasaga Beach. Because of the fire which destroyed the Midland Arena Gardens, in July 1976, the town had been without its own rink for two years. (The Arena Gardens had served the North Simcoe district since 1931, and during a period within the 1930s, Midland could boast of having the only artificial-ice facility operating between Toronto and Winnipeg.).
But on April 2, 1978, the bantams would open the new Centennial Arena with game two's battle against Salt Fleet.
Attendance figures for the contest, a Sunday matinee affair, varied. Unfortunately, no record of the actual number was ever filed. Most authorities – including then Midland Parks Board chairman Doug Fox and arena manager Jim McLaren – were “confident an estimate of somewhere in the area of 1,100” hockey-starved fans (having braved the walk across the muddy parking lot) squeezed and elbowed their way into the one-side-only seating capacity, and remaining standing-room areas.
Local hockey legend Sib Brodeur was given the honor of dropping the ceremonial puck at centre ice. Sib had skated on forward lines with the Midland Intermediates when the Arena Gardens was built, and starred for the intermediate and senior Ontario Hockey Association clubs the town put together over the 1930s and 1940s. After receiving warm applause from the enthusiastic hometown crowd that packed the Centennial Arena (and was hoping for a Junior Civitan win), he returned to his seat. Sib then watched proudly as his grandson, Midland captain Pat Brodeur, scored the building's first goal just 54 seconds into the game.
Following Brodeur's historic marker, the Junior Civitans fell behind 3-1 to Salt Fleet during the opening period, and were trailing the visitors 4-1 early in the second. Despite the deficit, Midland didn't give up, though: Mugford scored at 7:48, and near the nine-minute mark, Brodeur netted his second goal of the game. Salt Fleet added another tally, before Hahn's goal at 13:25 made the score 5-4, bringing the Junior Civitans even closer to completing their remarkable comeback.
“Defensive hockey took a backseat,” said the Free Press, “(and) the two teams continued their exciting brand of hockey” throughout the third period.
Like a game of road hockey played between kids, where “last goal wins,” both Salt Fleet and Midland traded markers twice more, with Brodeur, again, and Copeland hitting the score sheet for the Junior Civitans.
It seemed the match would finish 7-6 in Salt Fleet's favor until Midland's Borsa “brought the crowd to its feet” and sent game two into overtime with 5:59 to play in regulation time. Fittingly, during the 10-minute extra session (not sudden death), goals from Borsa, and Hall, wiped away Salt Fleet's single tally. Final score: Junior Civitans - 9, Salt Fleet - 8.
With the provincial final even at one win apiece, the series resumed in Salt Fleet for game three, where the home side defeated Midland, 5-3.
Back at the Centennial Arena the next afternoon, the Junior Civitans piled up four first-period goals on their way to a dominant 6-3 victory.
“We opened up like our old selves,” said coach Colbourne. “The team was able to forecheck well and capitalize on most scoring opportunities.”
Mugford, Hahn, Clarke, Belanger and Brodeur (2) filled the net for Midland. Game five, also held at the Centennial Arena, was tied 2-2 entering overtime (Brodeur and Borsa notching the bantams' pair of markers), thanks mainly to the sensational goaltending of Salt Fleet's Brian Rankin and Junior Civitan Brian Moore. But in the overtime frame, it was all Midland as Brodeur scored twice to earn his hat-trick and Forget later iced the 5-2 game with an empty-net goal.
To that point, the Junior Civitans hadn't yet won on Salt Fleet ice; and the outcome wasn't any different following Game Six. Salt Fleet shut out Midland, 4-0, during a contest Colbourne labelled as “garbage hockey.” (Over three periods, Salt Fleet players were called for 52 total penalty minutes.)
In addition, the Midland Times reported how the condition of the ice-surface at the Salt Fleet rink was so terrible, the blade of Brodeur's skate became damaged after steel had made contact with the underlying cement floor.
There was little doubt Brodeur and his teammates enjoyed leaving the Golden Horseshoe-area “barn” and its smaller dimensions and poor maintenance. Now, the pre-series “coin flip” result involving Colbourne and White of Salt Fleet reappeared, meaning that the Ontario title would be decided within the much-brighter hockey surroundings of the Junior Civitans.
Game seven. Originally scheduled for Midland's Centennial Arena, a broken shaft in the condenser of the ice-making machine at the new facility shifted the scene of the playoff drama to Wasaga Beach. The Junior Civitans knew the Wasaga Stars Arena well, and their year-long home rink was filled with a large contingent of banner-waving rooters who'd made the trip over from Midland.
Playing with energy and confidence, the Junior Civitans (wearing the lighter-coloured uniforms of the Midland juveniles) came out skating hard and fast. Brodeur scored the team's first goal at 3:29 of the opening period, but Salt Fleet's Glenn Mototsune tied the contest with one minute remaining in the frame. Midland reclaimed the lead in the next period on Brodeur's second marker, only to have Mototsune even the score again two minutes later.
Perhaps the prettiest goal of the afternoon was finished off at 12:03 of the second, after Mugford stole the puck at centre ice, stickhandled alone over the visitors' blueline, beating two defenders, and pumped a shot past Salt Fleet goalie Rankin. His great solo effort made the score 3-2, Midland.
The match stayed that way until 5:04 was gone in the third period, when Salt Fleet proved why the bantam squad had also been the previous season's finalist, by stubbornly tying the seventh game, three-all.
Overtime loomed once more, and then a hero emerged for the Junior Civitans. With less than two minutes of regulation time showing on the game clock, Hahn picked up a pass from linemate Belanger, deked the Salt Fleet defenceman, and flipped the puck over a sprawling Rankin. That goal by Hahn won the contest, 4-3, and the final series 4 games to 3, and it gave Midland the Ontario Minor Hockey Association Bantam A championship.
Shortly after their triumphant return to Midland, the gleeful Junior Civitan players rode through the town's streets – atop the cars carrying the newly-crowned provincial champions – in a slow-moving and impromptu victory parade.
Several times along the route, the Junior Civitans' party made welcomed stops in front of various local homes, where the hoisting of the OMHA bantam trophy was shared with friends, relatives, neighbours, and, of course, such support staff as trainer Mike Fountain.
A few days later, the team held its formal celebratory dinner and dance at Jimmy Johnson's Rooster Tail banquet hall on Highway 93.
During the gala opening of the Centennial Arena, members of the Junior Civitans were introduced to the audience present for the May 6 festivities and elimination car draw, while captain Brodeur, alongside figure skater Monica Hille, took part in the official ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Midland's town council honoured the Ontario-title winners by giving them commemorative plaques, and toasted them further when Reeve Sam Ancio presented Junior Civitan manager Bob Merkley with “a sizable cheque” from the town. The money was later put towards the funds already raised by the major-bantam squad to purchase leather hockey jackets.
Many of the '77-'78 major bantams went on to finish their minor-hockey careers in Midland at the midget and juvenile levels, with some playing Junior C hockey afterwards for the hometown Centennials.
One former Junior Civitan, Midland-born Brodeur, had skated for the OHA's Tier II Junior A Orillia Travelways across the early 1980s before securing an American hockey scholarship to attend Princeton University.
Brodeur would co-captain the Ivy-league school's varsity team during his senior season of 1985-86, and at the time of his graduation, the gifted centre sat seventh among top-10 points-scorers in Princeton Tigers history.
In 2004, the Midland Sports Hall of Fame inducted Brodeur into its athlete category. There, he joined another honoured member enshrined from the Junior Civitans' championship squad, the late Bob Merkley, who, after devoting decades-long service to the Midland Minor Hockey Association, was embraced as a builder by the Hall of Fame six years earlier.
Today, the OMHA banner declaring Midland's on-ice glory in 1978 hangs from the Centennial Arena rafters at the North Simcoe Sports and Recreation Centre. A team photograph of the Junior Civitans is also displayed along the northwest hallway, while just around the corner from the Bill Thompson Room, their 2012 MSHOF induction plaque graces a south wall.
Those cherished pieces remain enduring reminders of when a dedicated group of hockey-playing teenagers became the best bantam A squad in the province, and brought pride, excitement and renewal to all Midlanders during the town's Centennial Year.
Yet, the purest and most personal understanding of that achievement was captured in words spoken by Bob Colbourne, the coach of the Ontario champions, 45 years ago.
“If there's one thing that sums up the season, it's got to be the boys,” he said. “They're the only ones who can decide what happens on the ice, and with as limited an opportunity as we had to work with them, not having an arena (in Midland), they were able to learn what they were shown and come this far.”
Thomas Paradis is a local writer and sports historian based in Midland.