It will come as no surprise to those people who know me well that I have played ice hockey for more than 60 years. I was almost born with skates on and my Canadian upbringing has a lot to do with that. My mother and grandmother were not ice hockey fans, which to most Torontonians is hard to grasp. If you’re Toronto-born, as I was, you generally bleed blue and white, the colours of the famed Toronto Maple Leafs. But they encouraged my passion from a young age.
Fast forward to my move to Australia in 1968, and the prospect of being scouted for the NHL pros was a flame not yet fully extinguished as I scanned the telephone book for “hockey” teams in Sydney. I was excited to find more than 30 clubs listed … the only problem was none of them were ice hockey, but rather field hockey. While I did find an ice rink, of sorts, in which to pursue my dreams, it was a bitter disappointment. No matter … I enjoyed my time, made friendships which last to this day, and kept the dream alive.
Fast even further forward to 1976-77 when I was a police reporter at the Toronto Sun, and as a new daily tabloid shaking the Toronto Star’s and Globe and Mail’s dominance of the city’s newspaper consumption, we used every device in the book to hook into our new readers’ interests and passions. Ice hockey was one of them.
The Toronto Sun hockey team’s community engagement strategy meant that not only did I get to play hockey during work hours against local community teams, but I got to buddy up with City Editor Les Pyette, daily columnist Mark Bonokoski and feature writer extraordinaire Peter Young, including a game at Maple Leaf Gardens in which Eddie Shack skated with us. For a 20-something reporter, these were executive suite relationships I could not have made anywhere else.
So when I returned down under in late 1978, with the Drug Grannies wire story firmly pasted in my “to do” list, little did I expect ice hockey would play any role. It did, and it didn’t: let me explain.
Neither Vera (Toddie) Hays nor Florice (Beezie) Bessire wanted anything to do with journalists after the notoriety they’d gained at the local media’s expense during their 1978 trial . When I first tried to befriend them in order to write a story about their first year behind bars, they rebuffed me. But when I wrote to them and told them a bit of my story — which included that I was a Canadian-born journalist who played ice hockey — they seemed to mellow. I was a risk they could handle.
And so until their freedom was secured in 1983, I juggled not only playing in the nascent National Ice Hockey League with the Sydney All-Stars (1980, 1981), but also filling the (voluntary) roles of national secretary of the Australian Ice Hockey Federation, delegate to the International Ice Hockey Federation, and play-by-play TV commentator for ABC-TV’s ‘Slapshot’ ice hockey series featuring teams from Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and South Australia. I made time in between games, practises, travel, overseas meetings and TV broadcasts to make weekly trips to the jail for visits with Toddie and Beezie who after all had no family or real friends in Australia. Sport — including ice hockey, sutures, missing teeth and crutches — was a regular topic for discussion.
To round off this post, I started out by saying there would not be many who know me well who would not be surprised to learn I have played ice hockey for more than 60 years. In fact, I have a game with the Canberra Senators in a few days’ time, and then in a few weeks’ time, we travel to our first oldtimers tournament since March 2020 when COVID closed down most of our fun and games. That tournament is in Melbourne, a few days after ‘Betrayed’ hits bookshelves in Australia. I haven’t seen the tournament schedule yet but I am sure there’ll be early morning and late night games, as always.
Who said anything about “skating on thin ice”?