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Answering the bell: A look at senior hockey tough guys

Dan Cormier (left) is shown here with Dave Matte during the retirement of their jerseys in Corner Brook in 2011.
Dan Cormier (left) is shown here with Dave Matte during the retirement of their jerseys in Corner Brook in 2011. - -File photo

The hit looked innocent enough.

Port aux Basques Mariners’ winger Serge Roberge bumped Corner Brook Royals forward Dan Cormier along the boards in the Royals end during the early stages of the 1987 senior hockey season.

The pair had scuffled before in major junior when Cormier played for Laval and Mario for Quebec City.

Years later, Cormier was clearing the puck in Port aux Basques and Mario was just finishing his check.

Things didn’t last that way for long.

The pair exchanged words, Mario delivered a stick to Cormier’s midsection and they were off. The gloves flew and they grabbed for each other. Mario got his right hand free first and landed a flurry of straights and uppercuts before Cormier retaliated with rights of his own.

In all, the fight lasted for close to seven minutes and went to centre ice and back into the Royals zone.

All the while, fans in the ferry town cheered, climbed the glass and clapped for their gladiators.

“It was good hockey, a rough league and people loved it,” said Cormier from his home in New Brunswick.

This is a story about the tough guy and a province’s love affair with watching two men punch each other while wearing hockey skates.

I started thinking about why senior hockey fans — especially the older ones — talked so fondly of the days when each game featured a fight or two.

I mean, they loved the goals, but they really loved the fights.

With that in mind, I posed a question on social media about the toughest they’ve ever seen do it.

I got a list that piqued my interest enough for me to find out more.

That’s what this is. A look at the tough guy and how people reacted to them.

Now, back to the program.

Cormier played four years in Corner Brook with the Royals. He remembers live chickens being thrown on the ice, crazy fans and having to tie his gear down in every rink he went into.

Every night there was someone new and he had respect for anyone who challenged him.

But, he could play the game too and took pride in doing both.

“That was the style of game back then,” said Cormier. “They were all tough back then.”

Cormier and Mario weren’t the only two who were known for throwing fists in the old senior hockey league. There was Steve Gallant, Kevin Morrison, Tim Brantner, Jeff Leverman, Stan Hennigar, Gus Greco, Sheldon Currie, Hayward Young, Gord Gallant and others.

In later years, the likes of Darren Langdon, Brad Lewis, Greg Hoffe, David Victor and Shane Gamberg quenched the fans’ bloodlust for violence. 

Since the re-imagining of the West Coast Senior Hockey League in 2017, there has been one constant whispered in every corner of every rink in the league.

“It’s not like it was,” you’ll hear one guy say to his buddy along the rail of the Corner Brook Civic Centre. It might as well have been the Dome in Stephenville as it’s hard to imagine that line not getting use along the rail in the rink. As well as any other on the circuit for that matter.

Chances are, that sentiment extends farther than Deer Lake to Harbour Grace, St. John’s, Grand Falls-Windsor, Gander and elsewhere.

The “was” they’re referring to are the days of Cormier, Currie, the Roberges and the old Newfoundland Senior Hockey League.

They’re referring to the Slapshot-esque way the league conducted itself in its earliest incarnations when the chances of seeing a donnybrook excited fans just as much, if not more, than a pretty goal.

It begs the question, what made the tough guy so popular?

One would think the skill guys would be the tops of any conversation, but fans who watched it like chatting about the old days when every team had two or three tough guys.

Whoever held the title of the toughest depended on who you spoke with. The Corner Brook guys put Cormier at the top, while the Port aux Basques fans probably have Mario.

Maybe Tim Brantner is the king if you’re a Stephenville Jets fan.

Either way, in Newfoundland senior hockey, the tough guy rules all.

Joe Lane of Port aux Basques figures one of the best senior hockey league fight he’s ever seen was never in regular season.
It doesn’t appear on any scoresheet and there were no penalties handed out.

The bout occurred during a Port aux Basques Mariners practice in the late ’80s.

Famed on-ice pugilist Mario Roberge was player-coach then with the Mariners at the time and was putting his players through their paces at the old Bruce Arena when Walter (Sonny) Sodke took some liberties with Ron Chyzowski.

An older brother of Dave Chyzowski, Ron only played one year in Port aux Basques and put up 113 points that season. He went on to a pro career that included stops in the American Hockey League with the Sherbrooke Canadiens and teams in Europe.

If there was a man on the ice who wasn’t supposed to get hit during practice, it was Ron.

Still, Sonny must’ve decided to rough him up a bit for one reason or another.

In front of 200-300 fans — even practice was a hot ticket back then — Roberge’s instincts took over and he stepped in to straighten the Edmonton-bred Sodke out the only way he knew how — by dropping the gloves.

A bruiser in his own right, Sodke had racked up 101 penalty minutes while playing defence with the Brandon Wheat Kings a couple of years prior, but he was no match for the what some call the senior hockey heavyweight champion.

As the story goes, the two squared off and threw punches that would make you wince for close to six minutes before Roberg took the contest.

“The Roberges,” mused Lane, his voice whimsical as he remembered the days when the Bruce was jammed and there was a waiting list for seasons tickets.

In the ’90s, he would coach the senior Mariners. “They made it exciting. Every team had a tough guy and they entertained.”

I never took in much senior hockey when I lived in Harbour Grace or Bay Roberts for that matter.

I don’t hold any special memories of when the Southern Shore Breakers would come to town to face the hometown CeeBees at the S.W. Moores Memorial Stadium, but I always heard the stories.

Stories of wild nights in Harbour Grace and Mobile alike. These stories always involved bench brawls on the Southern Shore, line brawls in the CeeBees’ barn and Gamberg throwing hands with Donnie Gosse.

People really loved the fights.

When I transitioned to the west coast, I heard the same things about crazy nights in Corner Brook, Port aux Basques and elsewhere.

The tough guys became larger and fiercer with each re-telling of tales of their throw-downs. They got bigger, the fights got longer, but the passion of which people speak about them rarely changed.

“The fans had a passion for it,” said McCarthy. “They wanted to see (the tough guys) doing their jobs.

“When a fight broke out, everything went nuts. Fans had passion for a fight."

Five years after serving as player-coach with the Port aux Basques Mariners, Mario Roberge went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens. He is widely considered one of the toughest to lace them up in Newfoundland senior hockey.
Five years after serving as player-coach with the Port aux Basques Mariners, Mario Roberge went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens. He is widely considered one of the toughest to lace them up in Newfoundland senior hockey.

*****This article was edited to fix incorrect information************

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