By Bob Duff
Windsor last hosted the Mastercard Memorial Cup in 1981 and it served as a stage for a group of future Hall of Famers.
He’s won the Stanley Cup. He’s been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And yet, when the 1981 Mastercard Memorial Cup is mentioned in conversation, that wry smile of Doug Gilmour’s is quick to appear.
In his mind, that’s where it all started for him, when Gilmour, a first-year player, helped the Cornwall Royals defeat the Kitchener Rangers 5-2 in the championship game for the Canadian Hockey League title at Windsor Arena, scoring the Cup-winning goal.
Gilmour, who also tallied the Stanley Cup winner for the 1988-89 Calgary Flames and Andy Bathgate (1951-52 Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters, 1963-64 Toronto Maple Leafs) are the only players to net deciding goals in a Mastercard Memorial Cup and Stanley Cup final.
For Gilmour, the title with the Royals is where his story as an elite hockey player begins.
“It’s something I’ll never forget, winning my first championship in junior,” said Kingston Frontenacs GM Gilmour recalling that game, and that special club.
Almost immediately, the names started rolling off his tongue. Corrado Micalef in goal. Fred Arthur and Fred Boimistruck on defence. Dale Hawerchuk and Scott Arniel ahead of Gilmour on the depth chart at centre. A gritty winger named Marc Crawford.
“You go back to the memory bank now and you think, ‘Wow, we had a pretty good hockey club,’” Gilmour said.
As a matter of fact, all three teams who earned their way to the Mastercard Memorial Cup tournament that spring – there was no host team entry until 1983 – were quite good.
Each of them suited up a future Hall of Famer.
The tournament welcomed back a defending champion, as the Royals maintained the QMJHL title to earn a return trip to the Memorial Cup. Nine players were back from the 1979-80 champs, but Bob Kilger was in his first season as coach of the Royals.
Among the nine returnees was Hawerchuk, today the coach of the Barrie Colts, who would be selected first overall in the 1981 NHL draft by the Winnipeg Jets, launching an NHL career that would see him score 518 goals and garner 1,409 points in 1,188 games. Hawerchuk won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year after a 103-point season in 1981-82, the youngest player ever to win the award, and in 2001, Hawerchuk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I played two years in Cornwall and we won two Memorial Cups,” Hawerchuk said. “We were fortunate, but we also had people who came to Cornwall and were willing to pay the price and those are the kind of players that you want to develop in junior hockey.
“It doesn´t matter whether they end up in the NHL, they will end up being successful in life.”
Worth noting too was the success that Kilger, a former Oshawa General who played with Bobby Orr, enjoyed after his time behind the Royals bench. The father of retired NHLer Chad Kilger went on to be a federal MP and mayor of Cornwall. Previously to his time with the Royals, Kilger spent a decade as an NHL on-ice official and he would occasionally skate with the club to stay In shape in between assignments.
“I look back at (the win) with a great deal of pride,” said Kilger, who was in his first year as head coach after taking over from Doug Carpenter, who left to coach in the NHL.
“I knew coming in, I was going to rock the boat. I just wanted to reinforce the foundation that Doug had put in place. I wasn’t a strategist but I felt comfortable in guiding people.” The WHL was represented by the Victoria Cougars, who were backstopped to the tournament by Grant Fuhr. A five-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers, Fuhr captured the Vezina Trophy in 1987-88 and won 403 games en route to his enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
In the 1981 WHL final, the Cougars rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Calgary Wranglers to win their first league title, Fuhr outdueling Calgary goalie Mike Vernon in a rivalry that would continue for the next decade after Vernon graduated to the NHL Flames.
Fuhr felt his time in Victoria prepared him to excel as an NHLer. “I got pretty lucky going to Victoria,”Fuhr said. “I think the big thing about Victoria is that it had a big-league atmosphere because at that time, it was the only game in town, so you got to see what the pro game would be like.
“It prepared me for pro hockey because we played a wide-open style in Victoria, just like the Oilers did.”
The surprise team in the 1981 Mastercard Memorial Cup were the OHL champion Kitchener Rangers, who arrived on the big stage one year ahead of schedule.
Brian Bellows, who led the Rangers in scoring with 116 points and who would be the second player chosen in the 1982 NHL draft, was just 16. Jeff Larmer, who also posted 100 points, was 17. Among other key contributors were a trio of 17-year-olds from Canada’s Maritime provinces — goalie Wendell Young, forward Mike Eagles and defenceman Al MacInnis. (In the years before the QMJHL’s presence into Atlantic Canada, young Maritimers often suited up in the OHL.)
MacInnis chalked up Kitchener’s quick success to the inordinate amount of talent on the roster. ‘We had it so easy because we had such a good team,’’ he said.
MacInnis was a 23-season NHLer, a 15-time all-star and in 1988-89, won the Stanley Cup with the same Flames team as Gilmour. In 2007 MacInnis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Once the 1981 championship started, it was a Royals flush. Following the double round-robin portion, Cornwall (3-1) finished atop the standings to earn one spot in the sudden-death final, while Kitchener, after losing its first two games, rebounded to close with a 2-2 mark and grab the second spot in the final. Victoria lost three times after opening with a win over the Rangers and was eliminated.
In the final, with 4,545 fans in attendance, Cornwall grabbed a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Arniel and Roy Russell, but the Rangers rallied and second-period goals by Bellows and Eagles deadlocked the score at 2-2 by the nine-minute mark of the frame.
It was all Royals from there. Arniel intercepted a Kitchener clearing attempt and fed Gilmour for the goal that would prove to be the ultimate Cup-winning tally.
“He was probably the key piece that we picked up in the draft,” Hawerchuk said of Gilmour. “He gave us three good lines.”
Arniel then banged home a rebound to make it 4-2 with 12 seconds left in the period and completed his hat trick with an empty-net goal in the game’s dying moments.
Hawerchuk finished the tournament with a record eight goals and a record-tying 13 points and was named tournament MVP and got his name enshrined on the Stafford Smythe Trophy. Earlier, Hawerchuk had been named Canadian major junior player of the year. Hawerchuk and Windsor’s Taylor Hall (2010) and Nathan MacKinnon (2013) of the Halifax Mooseheads are the only players to be Memorial Cup MVPs and NHL first overall draft picks in the same season.
“He was obviously a tremendous player,” Gilmour said of Hawerchuk. “He was a finesse player and at the same time he competed.”
Though thwarted in the 1981, the Rangers would return a year later and beat Sherbrooke 7-4 in the Mastercard Memorial Cup final.
That Kitchener team suited up a pair of future Hall of Famers, with Scott Stevens joining MacInnis on the Rangers blueline.
Bob Duff is a Windsor-based author and sports reporter.