London Hall inductees remarkable group

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:44 AM ET

Five years in, the London Sports Hall of Fame has finally inducted a group that would be the envy of any other Canadian city.

Late track and football star Bob McFarlane, arguably London's greatest athlete. The 2004-05 Memorial Cup champion London Knights are among the greatest teams in junior hockey history.

Al Morrow is the country's most successful rowing coach, Catherine Bond-Mills remains the standard for Canadian heptathletes -- unless fellow Londoner Jessica Zelinka breaks her records -- and 93-year-old Cliff McWhirter is a legendary boxing figure.

Larger cities would be proud to celebrate a sports class of that calibre. Smaller centres would be thrilled to have one of a grand group that was feted during a dinner last night at Western Fair's Carousel Room and plaque unveilings at the John Labatt Centre earlier in the day.

"Londoners identify with this group because most of them have passed through or represented the iconic institutions of the city -- Western and, more recently, the John Labatt Centre," London Sports Council executive director Cheryl Finn said. "With the Knights, people remember where they were when they won (the cup), so that always draws instant recognition."

McFarlane, Canada's athlete of the year in 1950 and a renowned plastic surgeon in later years, never drew recognition to himself and died before learning of his nomination.

"He was a humble man who would mostly talk about his athletic achievements if he was asked, but he loved telling those stories to his grandchildren because they're interested in sports, too," Bob's wife, Pat McFarlane, said. "The most excited I remember him was when he beat (Olympic running champs) Arthur Wint and Mal Whitfield in the match race (in 1950 at White City Stadium in London, England). It was before we were married and he sent me telegrams from overseas describing it. He thought that was something."

Before winning 10 Canadian titles and travelling the globe to compete at track meets, Bond-Mills recalls her commutes to Tillsonburg to train because her Woodstock hometown didn't have a formal athletics club. Her father, Dave, soon helped change that and her early belief in family support and quality coaching has never wavered.

"I was never pushed into anything, but my parents saw I enjoyed track through school at an early age and they always fostered that," the London pharmacist and current coach with the Western and national junior track programs said.

"In Canada, we produce great athletes but we're so big geographically, that we win Olympic medals almost by luck. The government funding isn't much and there aren't the kind of national centres where athletes can go to find top coaches. I was fortunate to have great coaching from start to finish."

The London-based Canadian women's rowing team feels the same way under the tutelage of Morrow, whose crews have won 24 world and Olympic medals in the past 15 years. This kind of business is routine for the Londoner who has been inducted into seven sports halls-of-fame, most recently the Canadian sports hall last week at Toronto's Fairmont Royal York Hotel, along with figure skater Elvis Stojko and "Man in Motion" Rick Hansen.

"The mean age of the Canadian women's rowing team right now is 28 years old, so by the time they get to you, you already have a group of highly-motivated athletes with life experience and a specific goal in mind," Morrow said. "As a coach in that environment, you're more like a benevolent dictator. You have to be approachable but you're continually doing things that take you away from the lake. You become a promoter. You talk with media. You raise funds. You look at development. You're into a whole different area than just simply coaching."

It's a philosophy fight pioneer McWhirter has lived and London Knights head coach Dale Hunter honed during the Knights' magical 2004-05 season.

Much of that celebrated Knights squad couldn't return for yesterday's ceremony because they're busy pursuing hockey careers. But all of them have something few of their current pro teammates or opponents can claim.

Incredibly, they're hall-of-famers already.


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