PEI well represented at Memorial Cup

Sunaya Sapurji

Somewhere in the attic of Wilbur Cameron's home in Kinkora, a small town in Prince Edward Island, is a scrapbook filled with photos and newspaper clippings. And unlike the book he's meticulously kept for his family's hockey exploits – those of his six children, including Mississauga Majors head coach Dave Cameron, and 15 grandchildren – this one belongs to junior hockey's long-defunct, yet still legendary Charlottetown Islanders.

"Growing up in PEI, the Charlottetown Islanders were it," says Dave Cameron. "If you could ever play for the Charlottetown Islanders – that was a dream."

He says one of highlights of his minor hockey days – playing in the small village of Crapaud, PEI – was when his peewee team was given an invitation to play in a tournament in Charlottetown. The invite came with tickets to see the Islanders in action.

"It was unbelievable," said the now 52-year-old. "I remember just sitting there and watching that game and thinking, 'This is it.' It was huge and this brings back a lot of memories."

Almost 41 years ago, the Islanders were involved in the Memorial Cup playoffs – then a Junior A knockout tournament – back in 1970-71 when it was an interleague series between Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the West, that would determine who would go on to play in the championship final. In the semifinal, the Maritime champion Islanders hosted the Quebec champion Quebec Remparts in a best-of-seven showdown. The Remparts boasted a team stacked with the likes of Guy Lafleur and Andre Savard. According to Lafleur's 1990 biography, "Overtime", the series played at the old Charlottetown Forum was intense with some reported 8,000 fans somehow packing into the arena which held roughly 2,700 seats.

"Fights would breakout before, during and after the games, on the ice and in the stands," writes "Overtime" author Georges-Herbert Germain. "It wasn't unusual for spectators to throw coins, eggs, marbles, apples, boots, and even chairs at opposing players."

The series, rife with xenophobic tension, became so violent the referee ultimately ended the second game of the series with five minutes still left in the game, called the police and "arbitrarily awarded the victory to the Islanders." Savard even spent a few hours in jail as a result of the melee.

"It would be wild," says Cameron of the fights. "It would be safe to say being on the Island that cocktails would have been involved. I think that would be a safe statement to make."

Cameron, 12 at the time of that series, remembers the whole province being consumed by the Islanders who played their final season in 1972 after the old Maritime Junior Hockey League folded.

"I remember reading [about the Remparts]," Cameron says. "Then over the course of the years you'd stumble on the scrapbook and being a real fan of the game of hockey, I remember reading those articles."

The Remparts eventually eliminated the Islanders in six games.

Former NHL GM and coach Doug MacLean, who played briefly for the Islanders in 1971, remembers seeing a display to honour that 1970-71 team when he was inducted into the PEI Sports Hall of Fame.

"I saw the Islanders team there and you always see the Remparts and Guy Lafleur as part of that history," said the Summerside native. "It was a real historic thing to think that one of the greatest players in the game [was playing in Charlottetown]. At that time his reputation was through the roof because he was going to be the next superstar of the Montreal Canadiens.

"Every kid in PEI, it was your dream to play for the Islanders so it was a pretty exciting time in Maritime hockey."

And while they might not have the same cachet as the Islanders back in PEI, this week's Memorial Cup still has its share of hometown pride at stake. Cameron is coaching the Majors, while his fellow Kinkora native Mike Kelly is the GM and associate coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs. Behind the bench for the 'Dogs is former NHLer Gerard Gallant who grew up in Summerside and is also good friends with Cameron.

Hockey, particularly junior hockey, on the Island is still a very big deal.

"It's polarized our little village of Kinkora," says Kelly, 51, of the divided loyalties. "When you're from a small community everyone there wants to see you do well."

How small is their village exactly?

"'Welcome to' and 'you are now leaving' are on the same sign in Kinkora," says Cameron. "It's a small farming community."

Having two coaches from Kinkora, with a population of roughly 350, at junior hockey's biggest tournament along side Gallant is a huge accomplishment for Canada's smallest province.

"It's unique the odds of that happening," says Cameron of being joined by Gallant and Kelly at the Memorial Cup. "It's exciting."

Kelly remembers the Kinkora of his childhood as being a predominantly an Irish-Catholic community, with large families who had lots of boys roughly the same age. He says the village was more like an extended family where everyone played together and looked out for one another.

"It was really a fun environment to grow up in," says Kelly. "One of the byproducts is – and I guess Dave and I are an example – is that when people move on, and it doesn't just have to be in hockey, people follow their successes and they enjoy their successes. There's a sense of pride."

Cameron and Kelly went to high school together and the pair won a provincial hockey championship with Kinkora Regional High School in 1976. Kelly's house was on the outskirts of town, roughly two kilometers from the Camerons so the two, along with their brothers, often played together, regardless of sport. When they were older Cameron ended up playing on a competitive senior men's fast-pitch team with and against Gallant.

"[Gallant] was a heck of a hockey player in the NHL, but still a real humble man," Cameron said. "Mike like most guys that come out of small communities that make a name in hockey, he started at the bottom and scratched his way to the top and preserved. For me it's exciting. It's a case where I was cheering for them but you have to be careful what you cheer for because they're the best team in the Quebec league too right? Deep down in my heart I was cheering for them because I was excited to play them and enjoy this experience with them. There will be a lot of stories and a lot of lies told regardless of the outcome."

Even though the trio of coaches are all in their 50s, a younger generation of Islanders still shares in the deep appreciation for hockey. Saint John defenceman Spencer MacDonald, 18, who was a late callup to the Sea Dogs from the Maritime Hockey League, believes having this many Island natives represented in the tournament shows how important the sport is to their community.

"It's certainly special because it shows the commitment to hockey," says MacDonald, a native of Charlottetown. "Hockey's a way of life there. News travels fast on the Island and people know what's going on here, so it's great that they'll be cheering for everyone."

As for where the loyalties lie back in PEI, Gallant says proportionally, the Sea Dogs should be the favourite among the Island cheerleaders.

"I'd have to say it was two-thirds for me and Mike because there's two of us and only one of Dave," says Gallant.

"Our buddies will just be giving it to one another," adds Cameron. "Then they'll all cheer for me if I win and say they were always with me. If I lose then they'll be with Gerard and Mike. That's the Island way."

Kelly agrees.

"That's exactly right," the Sea Dogs boss says with a laugh. "No one wants to miss out on a party."