Mohawks were a hockey powerhouse

Local legends gathering for reunion at Friday's Spruce Kings-Rivermen game

As one of the original Prince George Mohawks, Dave Bellamy literally cut his teeth playing intermediate hockey when he was only 16.

Hockey in those days was a lot more violent than it is now. On-ice brawls were regular occurrences and for Bellamy it was quite a jump from high school hockey at PGSS to playing with and against men, some of whom were 25 years his senior.

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“It varied right from 16 to probably 35 or 40 years old, and I lost some teeth right off the bat… from a hockey stick,” said Bellamy. “It was a pretty good whack across the mouth.”

Bellamy, a ‘Hawk mainstay for eight seasons from 1957-65, provoked that hickory swat with an audacious act of thievery against Walter Richardson of the Williams Lake Stampeders.

“I was going in the corner and taking the puck away and he didn’t like that,” said Bellamy.

Richardson was about 10 years older and they didn’t drop the gloves but they never liked each other after that incident.

“We had some good russells in the corner,” said Bellamy, now 78. “I wouldn’t say I was tough but I didn’t mind getting in the mix of things. I was a good skater and I was hard to knock down. Believe it or not, I was one of the faster guys in the league at that time. I could score a few goals and I was a very strong penalty killer.”

Bellamy has been thinking about old times with the Mohawks ever since the Spruce Kings decided to honour the memory of the team with a special ceremony between periods of the game Friday at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena against the Langley Rivermen. The Kings wore throwback Mohawk jerseys which will be auctioned online through the team’s social media channels.

“It’s such a storied franchise,” said Kings general manager Mike Hawes. “They used to fill the Coliseum back then and it was an exciting brand of hockey. We’re going to honour a team that really helped establish what the hockey community is in Prince George.

“Anyone who is involved in the hockey community or even the surrounding area knows somebody who played on the Mohawks and what they meant to this community.”

The Mohawks formed in 1957 as a player-owned team headed by player/coach Ernie Rucks, who skated for the Penticton Vees when they won the world championship in 1955. They became Mohawks at the suggestion of Carl Lilley, the father of ‘Hawks player Bruce Lilley, who had the winning entry in a name-the-team contest.

The Mohawks were part of the four-team North Central Interior Hockey Association (later known as the Cariboo Hockey League), with the Quesnel Kangaroos, Vanderhoof Bears and Williams Lake Stampeders.

The ‘Hawks picked up the mantle started by the Prince George Lumbermen, who called the Prince George Civic Arena home until the roof collapsed, Feb. 3, 1956. The Lumbermen finished their schedule and played their final season the following year on an outdoor rink on the site now cleared for construction of the new downtown swimming pool. The Mohawks used the same rink for part of their inaugural season. Their first game was in Quesnel Dec. 28, 1957 and the following weekend they hosted Williams Lake. After that, they played their home games in opponents’ arenas until the brand-new Prince George Coliseum on March 20, 1958.

The Mohawks were a powerhouse in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s playing in the renamed Cariboo Hockey League for most of their history. They reached their peak in the ‘70s when they won five Coy Cup provincial championships and went on to win the Hardy Cup national intermediate championship on home ice in 1978.

Pat Keough came to Prince George in 1976 as a 21-year-old right winger from Sydney, N.S., joining a ‘Hawks team that had lost the Hardy Cup final the previous spring to the Embrun (Ont.) Panthers in the fifth game of a best-of-five series played at the Coliseum.

Keough, who played junior A in Cape Breton and had a couple seasons of university hockey at St. Mary’s in Halifax, earned a spot on the Mohawks’ top scoring line with Grant Williams and Grant Evans on a team that lost the Coy Cup to the North Shore Hurry Kings.

Back then, the Mohawks were the biggest draw in town and were looked upon as the ultimate goal for local players who came up through the junior ranks with the Spruce Kings. That pipeline of talent produced the likes of John Clarke, Rick Adams and Ken Bueckert.

“My second or third year we played against in Houston and Prince Rupert and that’s when we had the brawl in Houston and had to get the police escort out of town,” said Keough. “The guys that were on the ice were ex-Spruce Kings and they used to get beaten up by the Bell boys (brothers Harry and Hugh) in Houston all the time. So we had a bit of brawl when they were playing with us.” 

The Mohawks had two players – right winger Bob Law and defenceman John Huber – who went on to play pro in the Atlanta Flames’ system. Mohawks trainer Jerry Maloney came to Prince George, where he had family ties, after serving as head trainer for the expansion Kansas City Scouts. He later returned to the NHL as head trainer for the New York Rangers.

“He worked at Sears and he was our trainer and we got treated like gold,” said Keough.

In the 1978 playoffs, the Mohawks rolled to the Cariboo Hockey League title and stayed home to beat the North Shore in the Coy Cup series and topped them again in the Western Canadian championship for the Edmonton Journal Cup to advance to the Hardy Cup, this time against the Campbellton Tigers of New Brunswick.

The Tigers won the first game of the best-of-five final 6-4 but the ‘Hawks won Game 2 8-4 and took a fight-filled Game 3 6-3 in overtime (the teams played a 10-minute OT period). By then it was obvious the teams didn’t like each other and at times the series resembled a real-life version of the movie Slap Shot. The scoreless first period of Game 3 had 25 penalties called and took 55 minutes to complete.

“Their mayor was mad because he thought we were too physical for them,” said Keough. “He wasn’t very happy with the way the refereeing was going.”

Tigers coach Jerry “Red” Ouellette said at the time he got a misleading scouting report on the Mohawks. “We’ve got a lot of guys wearing the marks of Prince George lumber,” said Ouellette. “They said Prince George was a skating team that kept it clean. We got a bunch of bull from the people we talked to.”

Campbellton took a 3-0 lead in the second period and the ‘Hawks tied it in the third period on a goal from Garth Green to force overtime. The Tigers tried to protest that Green used an illegal stick but the officials ruled their call for a measurement came too late after the goal. Keough scored two of the overtime goals and Dwight Bailey fired in the other one to cinch the victory.

In the next edition of the Citizen, sports editor Ron Allerton called the Tigers “crybabies,” and added in his game story, “Dozens of fans said the Tigers have talented players and they’d like to see what kind of game there would be if both teams stuck to hockey and used their sticks to propel the puck, rather than try to re-arrange parts of the body.”

The teams stuck to hockey in the series-deciding Game 4, which ended in a 9-1 Mohawks victory and a full house of about 2,200 erupted as ‘Hawks captain Gord Merritt hoisted the Hardy Cup.

The tradition of Gatorade showers didn’t exist then and the Mohawks had their own way of dousing their coach after winning a championship – tossing him in the shower with his clothes on. Coach Don Wilkie knew what was coming and started stripping off his clothes as he walked off the ice. He told Allerton: “By the time I got to the dressing room I was down to my T-shirt, shorts and socks, so they didn’t bother.”

Wilkie was a former Mohawk player who took over as coach in 1973 and he made sure his players were in tiptop shape, making them do windsprints “wallies” across the width ice for seven minutes at each practice. He enforced a rule that after Christmas they’d have to stop drinking beer after games and his disciplined approach to fitness paid off.

“No team I’ve ever coached worked harder and complained less,” Wilkie said. “They got what they deserved.”

As national champions, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association sent the Mohawks to Japan for a 10-day, six-game tour in February 1979. They played Russia, the Japanese national team and several club teams from Japan, playing in front of crowds of 10,000 and national TV audiences in the millions.

Crowd counts at the Coliseum diminished in the recession of the early ‘80s and several players left the team, which led to the Mohawks folding in 1981. A group of ex-junior players revived ‘Hawks as a senior team in 2010 and 2011 to try to contend for the Allan Cup, but it fizzled after that. 

Among the Mohawks alumni who attended the reception Friday at RMCA are Bellamy, Keough, Merritt, Orv Claffey, Fenton Gale, Dave Wasnick, Dave Wood, Leo Manning, John Clarke, Glen Johnson, Phil Roy, John Engbrecht, Brian Toll, Glen Yelland, Pierre Bergeron and Keough’s son David, now president of the Spruce Kings.

 

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