The faces of organizers of the Royal Bank International Hockey Tournament were flush-red with embarrassment in December of 1972.
Global hockey fever still was running high after Team Canada defeated the Soviet Union on Paul Henderson’s last minute goal in September to win the Summit Series.
The powerful Moscow Dynamo club accepted an invitation and Czechoslovakia sent an all-star squad, dubbed the Prague Selects, to face off against Ontario’s best Senior A clubs, with the suits behind the event already counting their cash before the gates opened.
But a game in Galt between the Hornets, who had won the Allan Cup in 1971, and the Czechoslovaks drew only 2,351 fans and just 2,040 showed up to see the Kingston Aces defeat a club from Sweden 9-6 in the same tournament.
What’s amazing, by comparison, is that just eight months earlier the largest crowd in Burlington’s hockey history – 2,300 – had filled every corner of Central Arena to marvel at Wayne Gretzky’s skills playing for the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers at the Golden Horseshoe Tournament. The building seats only 1,700.
Everyone wanted to see the kid wearing the white gloves.
At the age of 11, the 4-4, 70-pound phenom scored nine goals and set up the other three as Brantford trounced the South London Lions Club 12-1. Gretzky finished the tournament with 20 goals in four games, and lit the lamp an incredible 378 times in 85 games over the entire season.
The game was slated for 8 p.m., but people were lined up for tickets at 6.30. The four-day tournament attracted a record attendance of 30,000.
Believe it or not Brantford somehow lost to Oshawa 4-3 in the novice division championship game.
Paul Crowley, director of the tournament in the early years, remembered some opponents were green with envy when they saw young Gretzky zigging and zagging through the whole team.
“I remember when Burlington teams would lose to Brantford, we’d say, ‘He’ll never make it to the NHL. He’s too skinny and too small’,”
Veteran sports scribe Larry Robertson covered the game for The Burlington Gazette.
“The kid left the ice only twice during the game,” he said. “Once to serve a two-minute penalty and the other time to have his skates re-tied.”
Mike Brophy, who went on to a long career at The Hockey News, also was working for the Burlington Gazette at the time.
“From the first time I saw him play hockey it was his vision on the ice that separated him from other players,” Brophy said. “It’s been said a million times, but his father taught him to go where the puck is going, not where it is.
“Anticipating how the play was going to unfold is what made Wayne such a special player. He was the smartest player, and his smarts carried him right to the very top.”
Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, two-time Olympic gold medalist Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars centre Tyler Seguin, a Stanley Cup champion with the Boston Bruins in 2011, also played in the ‘Shoe’ when they were kids.
Don McMillan started covering the tournament for Burlington radio station FM-108 in the 1970s and has been doing play-by-play of the Championship Day games for COGECO-TV for the last 30 years.
“I remember one year parents of the one of the teams got into it during a semifinal game,” he said. “As a result they were barred from the arena for the final game.
“The parents of that team went out and got a big screen TV, set it up outside the arena on a picnic table, we provided the feed and they were able to watch the game that way.”
This year for the first time the tournament, which runs from Dec. 27-30, is welcoming a minor atom (9 years old) team from the city of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which is located in Central Asia and at one time was part of the Soviet Union. Muslims make up 80 per cent of the population.
Competing in the same division will be a Russian club from the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia, the same city that developed Vladimir Tarasenko, a World Junior Championship gold medalist in 2011 and a participant in the last three NHL All-Star Games, representing the St. Louis Blues.