The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
To most people who have passed the milepost of middle age, and to more than a few younger ones as well, the phrase “hockey riot” immediately produces images of the famous spree in Montreal in March 1955, following the suspension of Canadiens star forward Maurice Richard.
Wellington County had its own hockey riot, three years earlier. Although it produced only a few minor injuries and little in the way of property damage, the incident brought unwelcome province-wide publicity to the village of Arthur and to the Western Ontario Hockey Association.
The early 1950s brought a cyclical peak in the popularity of hockey in north Wellington. The Arthur Intermediate team played in a league with teams based in all four directions: Fergus, Orangeville, Mount Forest, Durham and Palmerston. The proximity of the teams produced some intense rivalries and strong fan interest.
The riot occurred when a handful of Arthur fans became overwrought at the fate of their favourites.
Arthur began its January 1952 schedule with back-to-back games against Palmerston. Arthur took the first, played in Palmerston on Jan. 4, by a 5-4 score. Three days later, in Arthur, the Palmerston team got its revenge by a score of 13-2.
These games set a pattern of occasional wins and more frequent humiliating losses that soon had Arthur fans frustrated and angry.
A week later, Arthur visited the Mount Forest Red Men. For the first two periods it looked like another rout. Mount Forest led 10-0 at the end of 40 minutes. Arthur clicked into gear in the final period, scoring five unanswered goals, but it was too little too late.
The Mount Forest-Arthur rivalry was one of the stronger ones in the league. This game drew a full house of noisy fans, and the play became increasingly rough as the game progressed. There were a couple of scuffles among the players, one resulting in a minor injury to an Arthur player.
Arthur played its next three games at home to a packed arena of loud, agitated boosters. Fergus took the first one, winning 5-4 after a 10-minute overtime period. On Jan. 21, it was also a close game against Orangeville until the closing minutes. Arthur led 4-3 as the third period began. Then Orangeville let loose a barrage, scoring five goals in 12 minutes. The team left town in a hurry, to the accompaniment of howls and jeers from the more vocal Arthur partisans.
On Jan. 28 the detested Red Men returned from Mount Forest. Fans – most from Arthur – packed the arena, and hooted as Mount Forest racked up a 5-0 lead in the first period. Despite the intense feeling in the arena, this began as one of the cleanest games of the season, with only two minor penalties in the first 20 minutes.
Arthur closed the gap in the second period, scoring twice in the first six minutes.
A couple of minutes later, “Hap” McLellan of Mount Forest received a penalty for slashing Ken Elliot of Arthur. Despite a nasty cut, Elliot immediately became embroiled in a scuffle with Tom Lloyd of the Red Men.
Accounts of what happened next are varied and contradictory. Feelings escalated when an Arthur supporter leaned over the boards and shouted a string of profane invective and threats into the face of Tom Lloyd.
The noisiest and most restive of the Arthur supporters sat in a section near the penalty box. A group of them converged on the box, threatening the errant player and also Ross McLellan, who served as the penalty box timekeeper that night. He was the mayor of Mount Forest, and president of the hockey club.
Meanwhile, other fans broke down two sections of the boards and flooded onto the ice to join the general melee that had by now erupted between the teams. The situation escalated further when some Mount Forest fans clambered over the boards and onto the ice.
With the help of some Mount Forest fans, coach Floyd Rae managed to get his players into the safety of the dressing room and to barricade the door. The officials, meanwhile, called the OPP in Mount Forest for assistance. Constable Tindall, Arthur’s single police officer, was present, but he was powerless to gain control of the arena.
The referee then placed a call to WOAA officials in Wingham. They instructed him to award the game to Mount Forest if order could not be restored quickly.
Back in the dressing room, coach Rae told his players to change into their street clothes. He had no intention of finishing the game without assurances that order could be maintained. All the while, Arthur fans hooted outside the door.
The OPP had a half dozen constables at the arena within a few minutes. Hopelessly outnumbered, they concentrated on getting the Red Men out of their dressing room and into their vehicles, a task they accomplished not without difficulty.
Arthur fans continued to taunt them as the players quickly headed north and out of sight. The bitterly cold weather discouraged outdoor incidents. The temperature dropped to -28C (-18F on the old scale) that night.
Their anger vented, the crowd soon drifted home. Surprisingly, there was little damage or vandalism done in the arena, other than the two demolished sections of boards at the side of the ice surface. Injuries seemed to be restricted to blackened eyes and thick lips.
Not wanting to rekindle tempers, the OPP made no arrests. They encouraged the crowd to disperse and go home.
An account of the affair got onto the Canadian Press wire service, and into most of the daily papers in Ontario. Some papers published other versions as well, exaggerating the extent of the damage and injuries.
Mount Forest Mayor Ross McLellan reportedly had a badly cut lip. There was a story that he was spitting out loose teeth after the penalty box confrontation. The mayor later refuted both reports.
The executive of the Western Ontario Athletic Association called an immediate special meeting to deal with the Arthur affair. Members were livid. Hockey violence seemed to be on the increase. The WOAA wanted to dispel the reputation for violence and loutish behaviour. Some wanted to expel Arthur from the league instantly.
In the end, the WOAA passed a resolution that required Arthur to provide adequate police protection to control the crowd at future games, and that “Any incident in the Arthur arena detrimental to hockey, brought to the attention of the league executive will mean the Arthur arena will be closed for all organized hockey immediately.” The WOAA also required Arthur to put barricades around the penalty box to separate it from fans.
An amendment to the resolution, calling for the immediate expulsion of Arthur, lost by one vote. It was that of the Mount Forest delegate, Ross McLellan, who argued strongly in favour of Arthur. He deplored the publicity being given to the incident, and assured anyone who would listen that no ill will existed between the teams.
“I think the Arthur players are the nicest bunch we ever met,” he said.
Inspector Frank Scott of the Mount Forest OPP detachment agreed to assign two officers to the Arthur arena for future games, with reinforcements on call should they be needed.
The arena turned out to be a boring police assignment for the rest of the season. The fans, perhaps realizing the leadership of a couple of hotheads had inflamed them, toned down their support. Some stopped coming out to games altogether, perhaps fearing another ugly incident.
The effect on the morale of the Arthur players was more dramatic. They lost their next two games by lopsided margins, 16-4 to Durham and 18-5 to Fergus.
Mayor McLellan continued to pour oil on the troubled waters. He organized a goodwill exhibition game between the rivals on Feb. 9 in Mount Forest. Unfortunately, few fans were interested, and it was poorly attended. Arthur lost 10-5, but some of their players did not come. It was a snowy night, so road conditions probably contributed to the meagre turnout of players and fans.
The whole affair was an unfortunate incident in the history of organized hockey in Wellington. It occupied public attention to a far greater extent than is the case today. Hockey was then the big thing in town. To watch a game meant bundling up to sit on icy bleachers, invariably in a natural-ice arena, not slouching with feet on a coffee table to click through the channels.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 11, 2002.