Flin Flon, the town where everybody plays - Macleans.ca

Flin Flon, the town where everybody plays

From the archives in 1958: The lonely Manitoba mining settlement of Flin Flon stunned the sports world by winning a national hockey championship. But that is only part of the story.

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    Flin Flon is a town that teeters on lonely rocks six hundred miles northwest of Winnipeg in the loop of longitude where summer days are almost nightless and winter ones mostly dim. It is a remote town that startled a good many Canadians last spring by producing a largely homegrown hockey team that won the junior championship of all Canada. The victory was the more remarkable because the Flin Flon Bombers defeated the heavily favored Ottawa Canadiens, a team sponsored by the world’s professional champion Montreal Canadiens and lovingly packed by them with some of this country’s best young players.

    While the defeat of the eastern Canadian champions may have astonished most of the hockey experts—it was the first time since 1948 that the western representative had won the national championship — only the most pessimistic fan in Flin Flon was more than mildly surprised. Nestled in the middle of a rocky nowhere, the twelve thousand inhabitants of the area have made the pursuit of sports trophies a year-round avocation in relieving the monotony of their isolation, and they’ve grown accustomed to the pace.

    Ultimate success on a national scale was a matter of time to most people in Flin Flon because they had seen one of their women’s curling rinks win the western Canada championship in 1955, and their junior girls’ basketball team win the Manitoba crown seven times in the last nine years, and the high-school girls win the Manitoba title six times in the last eight years. In hockey, the juniors won the Northern Saskatchewan league championship four times in the last five years, the midgets won the Manitoba championship three times in the last four years, and the juveniles won the Manitoba championship twice in the last three years.

    On a local scale, there was sports of all sorts for all ages. Forty-five adults passed their Red Cross life-saving swimming tests last summer when they could wrest a cubic foot of water away from three hundred youngsters registered in learn-to-swim classes. Kids not old enough or big enough to catch a place among the two hundred and twenty youngsters playing Little League baseball, or on the eight teams (four of boys and four of girls) in the thirteen-and-under softball leagues, played supervised games of volleyball and croquet and soccer on the town’s six playgrounds. Fathers and even mothers coached the eighteen hockey teams in the Tom Thumb and Pee Wee hockey leagues, and four hundred people belonged to the nine-hole golf course incredibly fashioned out of solid rock, huge boulders and dense boggy muskeg. Five thousand people sprawled in the summer sun on a fantastically concocted artificial beach, and sixteen hundred curled in the town’s three rinks. A sixty-three-pound lake trout stretching half an inch under four feet was landed by a girl named Lorraine Hayes four years ago in nearby Lake Athapapuskow (which fishermen abbreviate to Athapap) and during a widely publicized four-day trout festival conducted annually for the last seven years the winning trout has never weighed less than thirty-three pounds. The people who didn’t participate in any of these varied recreations, and perhaps some who did, were heavily involved in a glee club, a camera club, a figure-skating club, a canoe club, an archery club and/or ballet classes.

    Sometimes it’s hard not to play something in Flin Flon. When Doug Dawson, the manager of the champion junior Bombers, moved there as a teen-ager ten years ago he was watching some high-school boys play hockey in the Flin Flon rink. A stranger standing beside him at one end of the rink asked him if he played hockey.

    “Sure,” said Dawson, “I played in Winnipeg.”

    “How long have you been here?” asked the man.

    “Three days,” said Dawson.

    “Well then, why in thunderation aren’t you out there playing now?” roared the man.

    Flin Flon's battered old corrugated-tin rink has been standing since 1935, seven years after

    Flin Flon’s out for trophies all year

    the town was first settled. The Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company, which now employs three thousand men and thereby dominates the town, began to bring in hockey players in ’35 to give diversion to the townspeople. Wellknown Winnipeg hockey players Buddy Simpson. Ray Enright. Gordie Hayes. C'lilT Workman and Buddy Hammond moved north to take jobs and play hockey. Wally Warnick and Slim Holdaway went there from Brandon, and Sid Abel, later a star centre for the Detroit Red Wings and coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, joined the Bombers from Melville, Sask.

    These were the original Bombers, a name that acquired hockey fame in the west in the old Saskatchewan Senior Hockey league. Buddy Simpson, now Conservative member of parliament for the Churchill constituency, recalls that he received forty-two cents an hour and w'orked in the mill fifty-six hours a week, which produced a weekly pay cheque of $23.52. He was married and unemployed in the mid-thirties, as were most of the players who went to Flin Flon even before a road was through from The Pas, a hundred miles south. Teams traveled by train on a spur line of the Canadian National Railways. The routes to Winnipeg or Regina or Saskatoon still wind so circuitously around the literally thousands of rock-bound lakes of northern Manitoba that the journey to any one of them requires at least tw'enty hours, including connecting-line stopovers.

    Hockey teams have covered that route every winter since 1935. Eight years ago the emphasis swung from senior to junior hockey, with last season being the most successful in the town’s history. It reached its glorious culmination when three games of the Dominion junior final were played in the shabby old rink. This was a monumental undertaking, since the rink seats only 1,145 people and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association asked for a guarantee of forty-five hundred dollars a game when the Bombers made application for home games.

    Ordinarily all seats are sold for seventy-five cents each for league games. To raise the required forty-five hundred dollars, the club boosted prices to three dollars for reserved seats and for standing room as well. The town w'as in a frenzy of excitement four days before the opening game. Every seat had been sold when it occurred to Pinkie Davie, the manager of the town’s Community Club, which administrates all children’s activities, that there would be no room in the rink for the kids. He consulted Buddy Simpson, then an HBM&S company official. They organized a crew of workmen who set to work to knock one end out of the rink. When this was completed, long rows of two-by-four planks were set up at the open end of the rink to form temporary bleachers from which the kids of Flin Flon could see the Memorial Cup

    “The people in Flin Flon have come to know that the highly improbable is entirely possible”

    Meanwhile, the Ottawa Canadiens had arrived in Winnipeg on a Sunday and were practicing there before traveling to Flin Flon for the opening game on the following Wednesday. Thirty-six hours before game time queues began to form outside the Flin Flon rink for the dollarfifty standing-room accommodation. Finally game time arrived—but the Canadiens didn’t. They didn’t reach Flin Flon, in fact, until Thursday. There'd been a confusion about dates and venue, said their coach and manager, Sam Pollock; there'd been talk the series would start in Winnipeg.

    That started the series off on a high note of acrimony. The mild-mannered Buddy Simpson said that Pollock ought to be thrown out of hockey for life. The stirred-up fans felt the same way. When the first game finally was played, two days late, the jammed crowd in the little rink hooted and hollered at Pollock as the Bombers won. In the second game the Bombers led 3-to-2 with two minutes to play, but Canadiens piled in two goals in the last ninety seconds to win, 4 to 3. The third game played in Flin Flon was won by Canadiens, so that the teams entrained for Regina to complete the series with the Canadiens leading, two games to one.

    The giddy crescendo was reached when the Bombers won two of the next three games, forcing a seventh and deciding game on May 8. In Flin Flon that night a music festival was in progress in the Hapnot school auditorium. Rev. Douglas Rupp, the lean quietly composed pastor of the Northminster United Church and president of the Music Festival Association, interspersed his remarks between the music competitions with bulletins from Regina. At ten-thirty the festival's imported adjudicator was delivering his critique when Rev. Rupp came bounding down the aisle. "We won! We won!" he cried, and shouts rent the auditorium while the adjudicator stared in amazement.

    Outside, people began honking the horns of their automobiles and the din swelled and echoed across the rocky hills on which the town undulates. Bernice Barrett, a school teacher from Ontario, says she thought it was the end of the world. “I never had much interest in hockey before I came here,” she says, "but this time you couldn’t escape the charged atmosphere. It swept you up and carried you along. When they won, it set off a chain reaction, like the stroke of twelve on New Year’s Eve.”

    Mixed with the normal exhilaration of the victory itself was irrepressible pride in the fact that eight players were born or raised in Flin Flon and had climbed up through pee wee. bantam, midget and juvenile ranks to the junior Bombers right in the tumbledown rink at the edge of town. That’s a unique progression nowadays when professional clubs move accomplished young players to teams they sponsor and on which the players can be developed in the pro team's system and pattern. These days most junior hockey stars maintain contact with their families only with the co-operation of the postman. In Flin Flon the fans had been watching Captain Teddy Hampson, who scored the winning goal in the deciding game, from the day his mother had registered him with Pinkie Davie at the Community Club.

    Three other Bombers, Mel Pearson, Carl Forster and George Konik, were the sons of underground miners. Forster’s father, in fact, was five thousand feet underground the night his son was playing for the national championship. Ron Hutchison’s dad was a boilermaker and Duane Rupp’s father a laborer. Most of the people in Flin Flon could remember the winter Ken Willey had first played in the Tom Thumb league, and there weren't many people in town who didn’t know that Mel Pearson’s mother and Ken Willey’s mother were sisters.

    Ambassadors in maroon

    Most of the other players were the products of a week-long tryout camp held every mid-September in the Flin Flon rink. The club advertises its school in small-town newspapers in Manitoba, and players who make the grade with coach Bobby Kirk, a former New York Rangers forward, are given jobs with HBM&S Co. If their work is satisfactory they qualify for advancement like any other employee. The players practice every morning and work at the plant every afternoon. They play a fifty-fivegame schedule, thirty at home, in a league that includes Estevan, Prince Albert. Regina, Melville and Saskatoon.

    On road trips the Bombers are ambassadors for Flin Flon: the club supplies each player with maroon flannel jackets and grey flannel trousers for ofT-the-ice wear and players are instructed never to appear in public without a white shirt and maroon knitted tie. They were wearing these natty clothes at a Memorial Cup victory dinner in Jubilee Hall as they returned in triumph from Regina when three hundred and eighty Flin Flon citizens paid five dollars a plate to honor them.

    This was the climax of something more than a mere sports victory. “When our team won,” philosophized Lou Parres, a consulting geologist who has lived in Flin Flon for ten years, “it was a reflection of the determination and the esprit de corps of the people who live here. Those are qualities of our isolation. To most people in this country it was highly improbable that Flin Flon would win. The people in this town have come to know that the highly improbable is entirely possible. Look at the town itself.”

    Flin Flon is an improbable town. Its street lights are never turned off. Many of the houses have no cellars and arc built on stilts. Most of the sidewalks are built on sewers, boxed in and insulated with sawdust. Every night the whole foundation of the town shakes slightly as dynamite charges are set off in the mines a mile below the surface through solid rock. In June it’s light enough to play golf at midnight north of 54 degrees where Flin Flon sits straddling the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, and in December it’s necessary to turn on the lights of an automobile to navigate the winding climbing streets at four in the afternoon.

    The lights are left burning because the city engineers discovered that when they were turned off in winter, the cold weather weakened the filament. Constant turning on and off burned out the lights. Since electricity is extremely cheap in a country of numerous lakes and rivers, it was found to be less expensive simply to keep the lights burning.

    Similarly, it was found cheaper to build a house with no excavation because the surface was solid rock. So most people put their furnace room and basement storeroom on the ground floor and their living quarters on the second floor, although in newer areas of the town some basements have been excavated. The original water and sewer pipes were laid on top of the ground for the same reason—a rock foundation. The pipej were boxed in and insulated, and were used as sidewalks. These gradually are disappearing as trenches are being blasted in the rocks to accommodate the water mains and sewer pipes.

    The company, which has a payroll of about twelve million dollars a year, with an average wage of forty-seven hundred. is the life blood of the community but in some respects it is a blight, too. Smelter smoke containing sulphuric-acid fumes pours endlessly from a tall spire of a chimney that dominates the town and is a landmark for airplanes fifty miles around. When the atmospheric pressure is low and the wind is right, the smoke floats across the town and it can burn out lawns and kill plants overnight. Consequently, practically no one has a lawn in Flin Flon.

    Resort in the wilderness

    On the other hand, the company created out of complete wilderness an unbelievable summer resort and golf course for the residents. The beach forms a horseshoe around one arm of Phantom Lake, a mile southeast of the town. The lake is bordered by a hundred yards of soft fine sand which in turn has a twohundred-yard border of grass nestled under birch and poplar trees, far enough removed from the company’s smoke stack to escape the deadly fumes. The beach was literally created. The company sent a fleet of trucks sixteen miles north of Flin Flon to a sand pit and the trucks transported hundreds of thousands of yards of sand to the edge of the lake in early spring. The sand was dumped across deep stretches of ice and snow. When spring came and the ice melted, the sand settled at ground level, dried out in the sun and formed the beach. Tons of sand are transported every spring to the water’s edge and the beach refurbished. The operation must be conducted in spring because in the words of Howard McIntosh, assistant to the general manager, “the trucks would sink out of sight in the bog if we waited for the spring thaw.”

    The company operates greenhouses near Phantom Lake in which growth is started in March and then transplanted on June 15 to provide gardens of flowers and plants around the beach area. Music from the local radio station floats out of speakers hidden in the trees. There are docks and slides and boathouses and bathhouses and locker rooms and a dance pavilion, all painted sparkling red and white. Shallow areas are roped off for small children, and there are diving boards in the deeper sections. There are softball diamonds and tennis courts, and there’s a camping area with an ice-house and stoves and lockers at which a family can throw up a tent and camp for two weeks for fifty cents. All the other facilities at Phantom Lake are free.

    The nine-hole golf course is another phenomenon. It was fashioned out of rock and muskeg. The course, a couple of miles from the plant, now has greens of Washington bent grass, and fairways of Kentucky bluegrass. Howard McIntosh, the company spokesman, says that "as long as you use a commercial fertilizer in the proper proportion, you can grow grass on damned near anything,” and Flin Flon’s golf course is the living proof. It took three years to build, presented drainage problems as the engineers endeavored to follow ravines in the rock outcroppings to clear the muskeg, and turned up thousands of tons of stones and boulders which potential golfers helped clear in work parties armed with rakes and shovels and their bare hands. A pump at nearby Phantom Lake feeds a pipeline that winds across the course to supply water for the fairways and greens. A rambling two-story clubhouse provides locker-room, dining and recreation facilities, and membership dues total $32.50 for a married couple, $25.00 for a single man and $7.50 for juniors. This goes toward upkeep and improvements; the company covers all deficits.

    The company provides things like the golf course and the summer resort. Howard McIntosh explained in a recent tour of the area, “to keep the people happy.”

    "We're pretty remote,” he amplified. “There can be monotony. But if the people are happy, the work gets done.”

    There was nothing but harsh rock and muskeg and hundreds of lakes in the Flin Flon area until thirty years ago when the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company was formed to operate a property discovered in January of 1915 by a pioneer prospector named Tom Creighton. Creighton named the town. While he was exploring the area with a group of prospectors he came upon a tattered book called The Sunless City in which the hero, one Flintabatty Flonatin, descended through a bottomless lake to a subterranean world where gold was the common metal. When Creighton made his discovery he reportedly told his friends that he felt like Flintabatty Flonatin. “I’m going to call my find Flin Flon,” he announced.

    It was a frontier town when the mine began to be developed in December 1927, with tent homes and saloons and gambling rooms and ladies of pleasure, a town whose main street oozed dirty water from its muskeg. Jack Freedman came soon after. A small voluble cigar-chewing man of sixty-eight, Freedman was a newsie on the CNR when the spur line first reached Flin Flon. Now he owns a confectionery store and newsstand with a slanting floor on the main street called the Fall In because, as he explains, “you’ve got to practically do that to get in the joint.” He has a large blackboard outside his premises on which he chalks daily homilies upbraiding the town council or censuring the mayor or applauding the hockey team. “Everybody kowtows to the company, including the council,” explains Freedman. “I speak my mind.”

    To a visitor in Flin Flon, it seems that most people speak their minds. They’re obviously aware of their isolation because when they speak of taking a trip they always use the word “out.” But, at the same time, they have far more time for such extracurricular activities as curling or golf. Saul Nathanson, the manager of the Rex Theatre, one of the two movie houses in town, has left Flin Flon five times but he’s always returned. “I’ve lived in Saskatoon, Edmonton, L.loydminster, Dawson Creek and Calgary, but I’ve always come back,” he says. “You feel you're part of something here. For example, we all felt we were personally connected with the Bombers as they made their way toward the Memorial Cup. It really wasn’t the Bombers; it was us showing the country what we can do.” ★

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