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Saturday, December 20, 2014
great Gazette Story Today on Leo's Boys in Point St Charles
It’s another cold night in December when the lights go out over Ash Park.
Except for a faint glare from the nearby rail yards, the park, the children and the skating rink are all cloaked in darkness. It’s time to shuffle home, for the kids to retire to the rowhouses on Ash Ave., Liverpool St. and the other narrow roads that slither through Point St-Charles.
But for Shawn O’Donnell and his chums, the night is just beginning. The boys break a padlock affixed to the park’s fuse box, turn the lights back on and continue playing hockey. Now the dull buzz of electricity returns, bathing the ice in artificial light. The boys glide across the rink for a few more hours, chasing the puck as night turns into morning.
O’Donnell says this was a common scene during his years as a teenager in 1970s Point St-Charles — the working-class Irish neighbourhood on Montreal’s southern peninsula (the area is affectionately known as “The Point” to locals).
“After a while, they stopped locking the fuse box because they knew we were going to break the lock anyway,” said O’Donnell, now the headmaster of Sacred Heart School of Montreal. “We’d play until 2 in the morning on weekends. When we were done, we’d clean the ice with our shovels, turn off the lights and walk home. … We were troublemakers but no one ever told us to stop, we never got in trouble. Well, not for that, anyway.”
Hockey may be “Canada’s game” but it’s among the nation’s least accessible sports. It costs less to put a child through competitive horseback riding than it does to fund one season of hockey, according to a 2014 study released by Solutions Research Group of Toronto. Youth hockey costs Canadian families $1,666 per season, per kid, in fees and equipment—a figure that doesn’t include extras like the travel and lodging costs associated with tournament play.
And yet, in The Point, generations of children were able to lace up their skates and compete in organized hockey even if they couldn’t afford it.
By and large, they were from poor families, lived in small crowded homes in a neighbourhood that was often overlooked by city hall. But through a seemingly endless sequence of fundraising drives, their parents cobbled together enough money to field dozens of youth hockey teams each year between 1951 and 1991 (there were “A” “B” and “C” teams for every age level).
They played a relentless, rough-and-tumble brand of hockey that resulted in both bench-clearing brawls and city championships.
They wore their neighbourhood’s green, white and gold jerseys on outdoor rinks and in the few arenas that existed in southwest Montreal.
They called themselves Leo’s Boys.
A unique neighbourhood
Years after he competed in youth hockey, a friend of O’Donnell asked him why he’d been so fearless on the ice.
“Fearless?” O’Donnell recounted, quizzically. “I was scared to death out there.
“When we played the big tough teams I was always looking over my shoulder. I never showed it because I was more afraid of what my teammates would have thought if I didn’t go in the corners,” he continued. “You were expected to play a certain kind of hockey when you had that Leo’s Boys sweater on. You had to be tough and you had to be working class when you came to the rink. Whether you were a star or not, there was absolutely no, no tolerance for guys dogging it. It was a culture that didn’t accept that. The worst thing that could happen to you, far worse than being hurt, would be to have a teammate call you out and say, ‘Hey, O’Donnell, you better get in the corner and get that friggin’ puck.’ ”
Leonard Johnston says he was 13 or 14 when, during a game against the rival Ville Émard Hurricanes, an on-ice brawl quickly spiralled out of control.
“I was skating across the blue line and I had my head down so a kid just punched me in the eyeball,” Johnston said, smiling. “I guess I should have kept my head up. … We fought but by the time I got to the penalty box, it hurt so bad I could feel my heart beating in my eye. … So I grabbed him and cracked him in the head, we fought again.
“There were skirmishes across the ice but then it spread to the crowd, to the benches, the coaches, outside the arena,” said Johnston, now a manager of housekeeping at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “Pretty soon, they called the police. … It was pretty much forgotten the next time we played (the Hurricanes). There were no hard feelings, things just got out of hand sometimes.”
On at least three occasions, O’Donnell says, his team was escorted out of St-Henri’s Gadbois Arena by police.
“The rivalry we had with St-Henri was unlike anything I’d ever seen, I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but they were just as tough as us and it made us crazy,” he said. “We were always warned about bench-clearing brawls, the refs and our coaches would tell us to cool it. But then one of your teammates would be in trouble and someone would say, ‘Screw it’ and jump in to help them. It was inevitable.”
Perhaps it’s the claustrophobic geography of southwest Montreal that bred such stirring rivalries between nearby neighbourhoods.
The Point, for instance, is hemmed in by man-made boundaries. The Lachine Canal cuts off the district’s northwest flank, creating a shallow moat that wards off marauding children from the warehouses that line St-Henri, Little Burgundy and Griffintown.
To the east, the vast Canadian National Railway yards loop around Wellington St. — its rusted steel fences, machine shops and freight trains blocking locals from accessing the nearby riverbank.
Finally, there is that elevated span of highway connecting downtown Montreal to the Champlain Bridge. The structure — a mound of dirt, grass and concrete— stands between The Point and Verdun. It is the last piece of a border that isolates Point St-Charles from the rest of Montreal.
From the moment they were erected, these borders, it would seem, had a dual effect.
On one hand, they helped foster a sense of nationhood in Point St-Charles. The neighbourhood had its own grocery stores and movie theatre, there were social clubs like the United Irish Society, a half-dozen churches and nearly twice as many taverns. The Point even developed its own dialect—someone acting crazy was “whacked” or “daft,” boys and men were often referred to as “lads” and there is a sort of Irish-French hybrid pronunciation of placenames (LeBer Park, for instance, is often pronounced Lee-Burr Park).
There was a game on every street, on every corner, in every laneway. You just had to pick up a stick from the snowbank and jump in. — Kevin Figsby
The people who lived within its boundaries were largely English-speaking descendants of poor Irish Catholic immigrants. But there were also Polish Catholics, Irish Protestants, Italians and a large Francophone community — who, though they may have spoken a different language, shared in local rites and traditions such as Leo’s Boys.
“We had some Francophones from our side of The Point who barely spoke English. But when Leo’s Boys played the French-speaking teams like St-Henri and that, and there was a bench-clearing brawl, the Francophones on our team were every bit as Irish as we were,” O’Donnell said. “Same goes for the Italians and the Polish kids. We were all Leo’s Boys.”
Perhaps there was one great equalizer in The Point — virtually everyone was poor, or as former Leo’s Boy Howie Myers put it, “One paycheque away from having nothing.”
In those days, the kids’s parents, often both parents, worked in the nearby textile mills, at the docks, in the CN machine shops. They were rarely afforded anything resembling job security.
O’Donnell’s mother — who raised six children — worked at the General Foods plant and had to resign every time she gave birth.
“She would work until the last possible minute, until she was just about to give birth,” O’Donnell said. “Then she would have to re-apply for her job when she wanted to return. There was no maternity leave, she had no rights. She kept losing her seniority and having to ask for her job back. She could have retired a lot younger if they’d treated her fairly, but that’s the world a lot of us lived in.”
The other effect of the neighbourhood’s rigid boundaries is that they limited the amount of useable public space. With the post-war baby boom at its zenith in the 1960s, Kevin Figsby said the streets were overrun with children.
During midwinter days, Figsby’s father would send him around the corner to buy heating oil for the family home. Figsby, not quite a teenager yet, dragged a sled along because the oilcan was too heavy to carry across the snow. Almost every trip, however, was sidetracked by an impromptu hockey match.
“There was a game on every street, on every corner, in every laneway. You just had to pick up a stick from the snowbank and jump in,” said Figsby, a former Leo’s Boy and now the head coach of Concordia University’s men’s hockey team. “So sometimes those trips to get heating oil took a few hours instead of a few minutes.”
Of all the pickup games in every alley and corner of The Point, few were more coveted than the one in Ash Park. During the ’60s and ’70s, the outdoor rink was one of only two refrigerated ice surfaces in Montreal.
The ice was hard, smooth and perfectly level even after rain or sleet would batter the other rinks in Point St-Charles.
“God knows where they got the money for the artificial rink, I don’t know if the boys in The Point threatened somebody at city hall,” said O’Donnell. “Because the ice was good, the rink was always crowded. We learned to play in limited space, in confined quarters. There might be five or six games going on at the same time. Some might be going the full length of the rink, some might be going sideways and some might be going diagonally.”
Hockey, like so many team sports, is a game about space. Attackers want to break away from the pack, to find some sheet of open ice for just long enough to get a quality shot at the net. Defenders seek to narrow that space, to close in on their opponents, press them against the boards in hopes of forcing a panicked reaction out of an otherwise calm player.
It can be hard enough for players to find that open ice on a standard size rink, with nine other skaters in the mix. But in Ash Park, with as many as 30 kids playing at once, children learned to embrace the suffocating elements of the game.
“Those outdoor games made us used to congestion, to banging guys against the boards and coming away with the puck,” O’Donnell said. “These were full-contact games, by the way. We hit hard, the older kids hit us hard, but you certainly didn’t want to be the one to bring a helmet or to bring equipment with you. You didn’t want to look weak.”
In those days, only the Leo’s Boys “A” programs — the elite youth teams — competed indoors at the tiny St-Charles Arena on Grand Trunk St. Every lower tier played at Ash Park, hoping that enough strong performances would cause the “A” level coaches to notice them, giving them a shot at playing games in arenas against St-Charles, St-Henri or the Ville Émard Hurricanes — the latter of which produced players including Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, former Canadien J.J. Daigneault and Canadiens general managerMarc Bergevin.
“Leo’s Boys was the centre of our lives; we would go to the arena to see a friend’s brother play and stick around for more hockey after that,” Figsby said. “So to be able to play for the “A” team. That’s something you wore like a badge. It was a great honour … The culture of the southwest, the working-class mentality made us insanely competitive. Some of our coaches weren’t that knowledgeable about the game, but the compete level they instilled in us was incredible.”
Said Johnston: “We played to win. Not too many of us backed down. … Every kid in the neighbourhood wanted to wear that jersey. It made you proud to be from Point St-Charles at a time when a lot of people had nasty things to say about the area.”
Raising the money
When he was in charge of Leo’s Boys, Neil Myers’s living room doubled as a stockpile for discarded skates, sticks, helmets and pads of every size and description.
It wasn’t as though he had room to spare. Myers, his wife and their four children lived in a three-bedroom apartment on Charon St. But Myers, a truck driver by trade, crammed the equipment into his home anyway. He collected it because children whose families couldn’t afford to buy equipment knew they could depend on his pile of hockey gear. All they had to do was knock on Myers’s door, no questions asked.
“We didn’t judge the families who had no money because we knew we were all one paycheque away from ending up there too,” said Howie Myers, Neil’s son. “There wasn’t a set cost to be in Leo’s Boys. You gave what you could and if that meant you couldn’t give anything, we found a way to make it work.”
“Pay what you can” was the ethos of Leo’s Boys since the Mell family founded it in 1951.
Joe Mell was a figure of near mythic proportions in The Point. He served in the Special Forces during the Korean War, graduated from McGill University, he’d been a procedures analyst at Canadian Pacific railroad, a car salesman, a failed candidate for political office and the owner of Mell Motors Registered — a used-car lot on Bridge St.
His most enduring legacy, however, will be that he shepherded Leo’s Boys, during its early years, into a local sports dynasty, putting together football and baseball teams as well as hockey leagues. The Mell family named the sports club after of Joe’s brother Leo Mell, who died of leukemia in the 1950s.
But even with the Mells’ financial backing, Leo’s Boys drew much of its funding from the hordes of Point children who hustled for every nickel and dime. Kevin Figsby remembers spending hours outside the Autostade stadium during Alouettes football games.
“If there was an event at the Autostade or a hockey game at the Forum, you better believe we were out there raising money,” said Figsby. “We did it all: we sold chocolate, we held can drives, we sold coupon books.”
Said Myers, “They would also hold bingos and lottos that may not have been 100-per-cent legal. We did what we had to back then.”
Perhaps because outsiders viewed the neighbourhood as a working-class slum, O’Donnell says, it was a point of pride to outfit the neighbourhood’s hockey teams with professional-looking uniforms.
This, of course, included the green, white and gold hockey sweaters, matching socks but also the little extras: jackets, tuques and scarves adorned in the Leo’s Boys logo — a three-leaf clover.
When they left The Point to play away games, Johnston recalls, the children had their hair combed, wore their Sunday best and proudly sported the neighbourhood’s colours — along with its high expectations.
But just getting enough money to pay for that bus trip and buy those jerseys and jackets was, in itself, a small feat of magic.
“The guys who got us our jackets, they were hustlers, they could make things happen,” O’Donnell said. “Some nights we’d get the jackets the night before we left for the Boxing Day tournament. The guys would say ‘Don’t worry, they’re coming.’ But these guys are wheeling and dealing, looking for donors, looking for sponsors, trying to shake guys down. ‘Come on, these kids need jackets.’
“We’d be calling the coaches and they’d say, ‘You’ll get the jackets, just stop calling.’ Then, on Christmas Eve, we’d get the call: ‘Come to the boys’ club, your jackets are in! Try them on.’ ”
A changing neighbourhood
By the 1990s, minor hockey in Quebec had evolved passed the days when it was one neighbourhood’s kids vs. another’s.
Gradually, Leo’s Boys were phased out and replaced by district teams, organized under the supervision of city employees.
By then, the neighbourhood, too, had undergone drastic changes. At the height of its population boom in the 1950s, there were about 30,000 people packed into Point St-Charles.
But as Canada’s manufacturing sector underwent dramatic changes, a great exodus from the city began.
The Northern Electric plant was one of the first to go down in 1974, taking 4,700 jobs with it. Then the Redpath Sugar refinery moved to Toronto two years later. A terrible domino effect was underway and as plants and foundries continued to close, entire sections of The Point were nearly wiped off the map.
Fast-forward to the late 1980s and there only about 13,000 people left in the neighbourhood. Over the past decade, there’s been something of a resurgence in the area, with new condo developments springing up where warehouses and shops used to be. The gentrifiers have brought with them a new tax base for the city, businesses on Centre St. — where entire blocks of real-estate were boarded up just a few years ago — and renewed energy to the community.
There are still subsidized housing projects, apartment co-ops and community outreach groups, but it seems almost impossible to imagine the neighbourhood banding together now as it once did to outfit a small army of children for organized sports.
“People have always been saying the neighbourhood is changing, I remember during Expo ’67 when they expropriated the shacks in Goose Village, near the Victoria Bridge, our parents generation used to say, ‘The Point is changing, they’re letting all these new people in,’ ” Johnston said.
“Of course it continues to change, a lot of the people we grew up with are in the West Island, on the South Shore or in Ontario now… But we all look back—we even run into people from back then, from the Leo’s Boys—and we’ll never forget. There were a lot of great memories.”