In the study of Bill Fitsell's Kingston apartment, there are several framed photos of hockey through the years, including a stunning one of three youngsters skating on crystal-clear Lake Ontario ice, enjoying the game as it should be played.
Yet the eye quickly goes to a simple photo of a group of 13-year-olds drinking pop in a Gananoque restaurant after a match there in March 1961. It's what is written on the photo that holds the key. "To my friend Bill. Good luck always. Bobby Orr."
On that Easter weekend in 1961, a squad from Parry Sound traveled to Gananoque for the provincial bantam semifinals. A couple of scouts from the Boston Bruins made the trip to check out Gan stars Rick Eaton and Doug Higgins.
By the end of the game, the 13-year-old blond kid from Parry Sound had dazzled the crowd and the Boston crew, cruising from his position on the blue line to pepper Gan goalie Glen Grue with shots. Legendary Bruins coach Milt Schmidt told his colleagues: "Forget Eaton and Higgins, we'll take that Orr kid!" Orr went on to join the Boston affiliate Oshawa Generals and eventually the Bruins - and the rest is history.
Fitsell, who will celebrate his 96th birthday this summer, remains engaged in his research and is still recognized as one of the foremost hockey historians in Canada and worldwide. His dedication is extraordinary - in 1991 he was one of the founders and the first President of the Society for International Hockey Research, which supports research into the history of the game. His ties to Kingston's International Hockey Hall of Fame (now the Original Hockey Hall of Fame) go back to the 1960s - he is currently the hall's historian and previously served as President and a longtime director. Fitsell has traveled across North America for hockey history meetings and to share his expertise about the great game.
Colleague Ed Grenda, who served as secretary on the society's inaugural board, calls Fitsell "the grand old man of hockey research."
"He's a meticulous and thorough hockey historian," says Grenda. "His research has been used by many individuals who are working on the history of the early development of the game."
Indeed, Fitsell has carefully studied the origins and development of hockey and authored four books on the sport:
- Hockey's Captains, Colonels and Kings (the Kingstonians who played vital roles in the development of the game)
- Hockey's Hub: Three Centuries of Hockey in Kingston (local hockey stories, authored with Mark Potter)
- How Hockey Happened (the roots of hockey, from the native gigahawat game to European shinty matches)
- Capt. James T. Sutherland: The Grand Old Man of Hockey (the Kingston man's relentless campaign to establish a hockey hall of fame)
In recent years, Fitsell has been forced to slow down a bit and can no longer travel to out-of-town meetings. Nevertheless, he is plunging ahead with his fifth hockey tome - this one about poetry called "Hockey's Lines: Victory in Verse." This brings us back to Bobby Orr's incredible weekend in Gananoque, which became the subject of a local poem four decades later. (See below for the poem).
It may surprise some that poetry has long been a key staple of the sport, used to celebrate great players and teams. "During the early part of the 20th Century, if your team won a championship someone in town would write a poem about each of the seven players, which was the number of players on a team then," Fitsell recalled recently.
Some of the poems are dashed off by amateurs in the euphoria of celebration. Others are the thoughtful writings of award-winning poets. Kingston poet Steven Heighton, winner of the Governor General's Award for Poetry, famously wrote "Night skaters, Skeleton Park" about shinny games in the Kingston park.
While Fitsell has lived in Kingston for more than 50 years, he grew up in Lindsay, near Peterborough. His parents owned a home with a double lot - during the winter the extra lot was turned into a neighbourhood rink. Every day school would let out at 4:10 pm and minutes later Fitsell and his friends would be on the rink, skating to breakaways and pretending to be in the Stanley Cup finals.
Fitsell is an honoured member of his hometown Lindsay Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame.
When the Second World War broke out in Europe, he was still too young to serve. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1942 when he became of age, serving in Halifax and other cities before his ship was sent overseas to the English Channel during the D-Day invasion in 1944.
The RCN offered sailors a chance to play hockey when they were not on duty. In those days, the navy supplied the equipment (except for skates), which you shared with other teams. "You would put on the gear that had just been used in the previous game and it was wet, cold and smelled bad," Fitsell recalls.
After the war, Fitsell spent four decades as a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist, first with the Gananoque Reporter and then the Whig-Standard.
As a dedicated hockey fan, he was curious about the origin of the game. Capt. Sutherland was constantly promoting Kingston as the sport's birthplace, leveraging this to have the NHL build the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Limestone City.
"Sometimes the facts don't line up," Fitsell says. "Capt. Sutherland had his views about how hockey started in Kingston but I was able to refute that." In fact, he showed that the first Kingston game in 1886 between Queen's and RMC was played 11 years after the initial indoor match played in Montreal.
In his book about Capt. Sutherland, Fitsell is firm that Sutherland was wrong, but is gracious and diplomatic about the vital role he played in promoting hockey across North America. "He was an incredible ambassador for the game - he devoted his entire life to hockey."
Occasionally, his work has resulted in a brush with the elites. In 2009, the Society decided to place a grave marker in Ottawa for James Creighton, a notable early hockey pioneer. For the ceremony, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also a hockey historian and author, gave Fitsell a lift to the cemetery and they chatted about their shared love of the sport.
A lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, Fitsell has watched his team capture 11 Stanley Cups over the years, although they've been a little scarce recently. He still recalls that after the Leafs won the Cup in 1932, the squad came to Lindsay for an exhibition game in 1935, when he was just 13 years old. Among the Leafs taking part was his favourite player from that Cup-winning team, Charlie Conacher, nicknamed the Big Bomber for his size, powerful shot and ability to score.
"I liked him because he was a right winger and I was a right winger - without his shot," he says with a laugh.