The Fine Art of Goaltending

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup, it was hoisted by 20 players who were born in Ontario – including 12 from Northern Ontario. The rest of the roster came from Quebec (3), Saskatchewan (3), Manitoba and the Maritimes (2 each).

The Stanley Cup winners last year, the Chicago Blackhawks, featured a roster with three players from Ontario. Three more were from Manitoba, and there were one each from British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Québec. Four players were Americans, three were Swedes, two were Slovakians, one was a Czech, and one was Russian.

Art Mousley digests this information. It’s unlikely Art Mousley has ever said two words in his life that he hasn’t thought about before opening his mouth, and he’s going to think about this, and mull this over, before he offers even a comment, let alone an opinion.

Art Mousley is a former Abitibi Eskimo. He was a stalwart goaltender on the team of the 1950s that featured the likes of Gail St. James, Bernie Donovan, Doug Towers, Jack Power, Butch Festarini, Jerry Labelle – there were so many others, so many names that would forever be identified with the foremost hockey brand in Northeastern Ontario – the Abitibi Eskimos.

He’s 80 years old now, is Art Mousley, the one-time Porcupine Combine who backstopped the powerful Junior A club to the brink of a Memorial Cup championship series back in the early 1950s. He’s had a stroke – he’s recovering nicely, and has few problems except the annoyance that he has to take five driving lessons before he can take the required test to get his driver’s license back.

“It was a different time, then, when I played,” he said on a Friday morning at the elegant St. Mary’s Gardens retirement centre in Timmins. “I remember getting the call to come up to Iroquois Falls and join the Eskimos – I played there for five seasons, they got me a job at the mill, so it was a nice and comfortable situation – except I hated the job they got for me. But I was playing a great brand of hockey, my teammates were the best, and the competition was great. The Porcupine Mines League was a first-class Senior A hockey league – and most of the players were guys I either grew up with or at least had been playing with or against for all the time I had been playing hockey. There were fewer pro teams then, and only six NHL teams, and the Senior A leagues in Canada were as good as a lot of the minor pro leagues around today.

”Playing in Europe often presented options for the Senior A player in the Porcupine Mines league – a number of payers spent much of their careers in places like England, Scotland and even Italy, but Art resisted the temptation to join other Porcupine Mines League players like Jimmy Jackson, Ernie Domenico and Gus Galbraith to suit up on the other side of the Atlantic.

He stayed home, he joined the Eskis, he went to work at the mill – and he recalled how he thought he had a tough act to follow, because Abitibi goaltending icon Sully Porter had retired and “those were really big shoes I was going to have to fill.”

On game days, the wives of the players would come to the mill, and they’d go with their husbands – and with their suppers – to the old bandbox of an arena where husband and wife would share their pre-game meal – because Art and the rest of the hockey-playing millworkers wouldn’t have had time to get home for supper and then to the game. Getting there early meant the wives always had the best seats in the arena when the game started,. There were no “seats” as there are in today’s arenas – just long benches. But, says Art, the place was packed for every game.

“I was a saw filer in the mill,” said Art. “I didn’t apply for the job, I applied to play for the Abitibi Eskimos, and the job came along with it. I had to file saws made by the Diston Saw Company – and I hated it. (Art eventually became a radio station executive and an instructor at Northern College of Applied Arts and Technology in South Porcupine.)

His memories of his days as an Eskimo would fill a scrapbook (well, actually, he’s filled several scrapbooks of clippings of his hockey exploits) – among the fond memories are those of his team’s doctor, Dr. Haskins, who recently passed away, and of the radio and television broadcast crews from the old CFCL radio and television – personalities that included Gaston Bergeron and Jean de Villiers.

He couldn’t begin to think of anybody as ‘the best player” he ever played with – it’s understandable, since to be on the ice regularly with the likes of St. James and Labelle, Towers and Donovan, was like being a part of an all-star lineup every night – but he remembers that Mickey McKay might have been the best coach, not only that he ever played for, but that he has ever seen in his hockey career.

The Junior A Eskimos start their 2013-2014 season in a couple of weeks – and Art, although he hasn’t seen them play in some time, wants to wish them well. He recognizes the importance of having local players on the team when it comes to drawing fans – in his day, everybody was local, and the arenas were packed throughout the league. But times have changed, he recognizes.

“There used to be an outdoor rink at in every schoolyard and almost on every block in our Northern Ontario towns,” he said. “That’s what kids did in the winter – they played hockey, they skated, they learned the game early. Today’s kids have different interests, and to me, it’s sad, it’s said to see the game deteriorate like it has.”

The roster of the 1966-67 Toronto Maple Leafs was 100 per cent Canadian – with 40 per cent of the players – from Northern Ontario. The roster of the 2012-2013 Chicago Blackhawks was 45 per cent Canadian – with not a single player from Northern Ontario.

Canadians are reaching the stage where they might one day become a minority in the National Hockey League – as rare, perhaps, as a Stanley Cup – for the Toronto Maple Leafs.