The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

The hair is a little greyer at the temples, their palaces of pleasure are smaller and dingier, and instead of wearing a Maple Leaf or an NHL crest they are giving heart, soul and a bodycheck for the Palookaville Trucking Co., the Hicksville Septic & Sewage Co. or the local sponsoring feedmill magnate.

"Senior hockey has always been small town, but it has a very rich history in this country," Don Robinson said. "We have everything from former NHLers to guys just out of junior."

And small towns from Chibougamau, in Quebec, to Ontario towns such as Petrolia, Dundas and Whitby, to half a dozen whistlestops in Saskatchewan's Wild Goose League, they're darn proud of it.

Robinson is president, general manager and coach of the Dundas Real McCoys, champions of Major League Hockey -- the fancy name for the former Ontario Senior A League. He also is the league's president.

"My head, as substantial as it is, has no room for anymore caps. I used to referee, too, but I'm too old and too fat now," he said.

This has been a big week for senior hockey. Especially in Whitby, where the local Dunlops are playing Thunder Bay this weekend for the Ontario championship.

The winner goes to the Allan Cup tournament in Powell River, B.C.

"We didn't have anything left in the tank," said Robinson, whose McCoys from the West were beaten out by the Eastern Ontario league's Dunlops. "But the two teams we beat in our league were better."

Ah, sweet rivalry.

TRAVEL MONEY

Counters Mike Laing, president of the Dunlops: "Our team is non-profit, unlike Dundas and their league where I've heard most of their guys are paid. I've heard $100 a game; $50 for a loss or travel money to get to practice. I even heard they were talking about a salary cap.

"How ridiculous is that?"

Beauty. Don Cherry would love it. They even talk scrappy. The only thing that hasn't receded along with the hairlines is a passion for hockey.

"This is far from a beer league," Robinson said. "We provide an opportunity to continue to play and be treated like pros. We have our own dressing rooms, our guys walk in and their laundry is done, their skates are sharpened, everything is in their stall. We provide them with everything they had as a former pro -- except money."

The calibre of play has been compared to the United or Eastern League.

"The biggest difference is we play twice a week and practise once," Robinson said. "Our players have families, wives, careers and, if their daughter's birthday comes up and they've got 20 kids coming over, they might miss a game."

Hey, at least they have good excuses for not showing up, unlike some NHL teams we could mention.

Senior hockey's predilection, if not its reputation, for goonery died along with the Broad St. Bullies.

"Last year there might've been three fights all year," Laing said. "This year there might've been a half dozen. Don't forget these guys have to get up and go to work the next day."

Bankers with broken knee caps make clients nervous and it's difficult for teachers to preach the evils of bullying with black eyes or pieces of teeth embedded in their knuckles.

The 100th anniversary edition of the Allan Cup comes to Brantford in 2008. Robinson is the last GM to win it for the OHA, in 1987 with Brantford Motts Clamatos.

Laing, who helped resurrect senior hockey in Whitby, has a chance to win one for the first time since the 1958 Dunlops won the world championships.

"We work hard at carrying on the Dunlop name with respect," Laing said. "We have a big responsibility and we can't screw this up. If we'd called the team the Marauders nobody would've paid attention to us. In Whitby, these guys walk the street and everybody knows them. Little kids look up to them.

"It's a big thing here."

How big?

Opening night, 15 members of the 1958 world championship team attended.

"Bob Attersley, who scored the winning goal almost 50 years ago, was there," Laing said. "We played the last four minutes of Foster Hewitt calling the play when Bobby scored the winning goal and he got a standing ovation from our fans."

Still, if not money, what is the the lure that would convince investment bankers, cooks and normally sane family men that crashing the net is still a good idea?

"It's the opportunity to get the adrenalin rush of contact hockey, of playing in front of crowds, of hearing that buzz again," Laing, who has 15 former pros, said.

The Dunnies Brent Grieve once wore Chicago Blackhawks' and Edmonton Oilers' crests. Joe Van Volsen played in the Central League. Pete Mackellar was a 40-goal scorer in the OHL, winning a Memorial Cup with Owen Sound.

NHL LINEUP

"He's 31 and I'm not saying he'd be a first-liner, but he could crack an NHL lineup," Laing said.

In 30 games, Mackellar had 100 points, including 51 goals. Not shabby in any league. Jim Luciuk is 40, Scott McCreary is 39 and they play alongside three 21-year-olds.

"I still just love to play," Mark Jooris, now 42, a former member of Canada's national team and the American League, and now is in his fifth year with the McCoys, said. "I didn't enjoy playing men's league. I wanted to play for something. I missed the competition. I played 14 years in Europe and when you've played to win something all your life ... I don't know, I just don't want to let it go."

The average age in senior hockey is 28 but the McCoys' (named after a local foundry and sporting goods store owner) over-the-hill gang includes Scott Young and Marc West, both 40. Bill McDougall is 39, has worn Red Wings and Tampa Bay jerseys and won the Calder Cup with Cape Breton of the AHL. IHL alumni Brett Barnett is 38 while Scott Kerr is 42.

"Since I started to play senior hockey the Allan Cup has started to mean something," Jooris said. "It's one of the oldest trophies around and to win it would be an honour."

He figures he has about 31 years left to do it.

"I have to out-do my father, Lucien," he said. "He's 73 and still plays soccer in a 45-and-over league. I'll play until they kick me out."

No words can describe better the essence of senior hockey, where "quit" is a four-letter word, and where there is always another tomorrow.


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