For many, the story of the Rockland Nationals is forever etched in time.
Gerry Leroux knows that first-hand. The latest reminder came during a recent visit to the hospital.
“Are you the Gerry Leroux from the Nationals?” a young doctor asked him. “I remember going to watch you in Rockland.”
It’s been more than 30 years since Leroux donned the red Maple Leaf crested jersey of the Nationals, but for the fans that followed the team in that miraculous 1975-76 season, the memories remain as fresh as ever. The same goes for the players who did the unthinkable and brought a national Junior A championship to Rockland, then home to about 4,000 people.
Leroux – the MVP of the championship run – would go on the play in the OHL and spend several seasons in minor-pro leagues in the U.S. and Europe. But few memories matched that magical run with the Nationals in 1976 when he was a 17-year-old rookie getting his first taste of junior hockey.
“It was unreal,” he says.
The story of the Nationals began with a steal of a deal. In 1973, the Hull Festivals decided to make the jump from the Central Junior A Hockey League (CJHL) to the Major Junior league in Quebec. With the Major Junior franchise approved, Jean-Marc Lalonde bought the dormant Junior A franchise in Hull – players and all – for $1 and moved it to his hometown of Rockland, east of Ottawa.
The Rockland Nationals joined the CJHL in 1973-74. By the third season, 1975-76, the team had developed into a contender under the direction of head coach Bryan Murray, known to hockey fans today as the general manager and head coach of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators.
After winning the league championship, the Nationals began their quest for the Centennial Cup (now the RBC Cup) with a seven-game series against the Ontario champion Guelph Platers. After losing the first two games at home and Game 3 on the road, it looked like the Nationals’ season was finished. There was even talk of taking the ice out at the Rockland arena.
“I told them not to shut down (the ice). We would get back,” recalls Lalonde, who was also mayor of Rockland at the time.
It’s a good thing the ice stayed in, as the Nationals fought back to win the series in seven games.
Bursting with confidence, the club then went on to play and beat a team from Lac-Megantic, QC, in five games. From there, it was a date with the Charlottetown Islanders in the Eastern Canadian championship. The Nationals were flying high, and so were the fans – enough of them to fill two 40-seat planes on charter flights to Charlottetown.
“People were borrowing money from the bank to follow the team,” Lalonde says.
The trip was well worth it as Rockland beat the Maritimes’ best Junior A team in four straight games.
At last, the Nationals would play for the national championship and they were about to meet the equally well-travelled Spruce Grove Mets, the champions of the west out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Crowds of 1,700 jammed into the Rockland arena to see the action. Those who couldn’t get in made a point of calling to get the latest scores. Extra seats were built in the arena to accommodate the crowds.
Fans were in for an entertaining series filled with good hockey and plenty of rough stuff. Before one of the contests, a brawl broke out during the pre-game warm-up. The officials didn’t even have time to get their skates on before taking to the ice to break up the melee.
“We had some good brawls and it was different, the hockey,” recalls Leroux of the championship series, which the Nationals won in five games.
Ironically, the success the Nationals achieved also contributed to their downfall. For a franchise still in its infancy, travelling across the country to compete in the national play-downs proved to be an expensive undertaking.
“Lots of money,” was how Lalonde put it.
The team only survived one more season before calling it quits in 1977. It was an unfortunate ending to a story that produced a crowning achievement for both Rockland and the CJHL. To this day, Rockland remains the only CJHL team to win the national title.
In the aftermath of the Nationals’ demise, league officials had many questions to sort out. The biggest of all – how could a team that won the national championship go bankrupt? Eventually, the CJHL lobbied the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to change the national playoff structure to prevent other teams from suffering the same fate as the Nationals. The result was the national round-robin tournament format in use today.
“The format has made Junior A more viable financially in the east,” says CJHL commissioner Kevin Abrams.
The story does have a happy ending for Rockland. In 1987, the Nationals were reborn as a Junior C hockey team, and there’s been talk of rejoining the CJHL. Lalonde, who now serves Rockland in the Ontario legislature as the MPP for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, said he’s willing to invest his own money in the venture. Abrams said there have been general inquiries on the subject, but nothing is set in stone.
For now though, the focus is on this year’s RBC Cup and the wait to see if another CJHL team will join the 1975-76 Nationals as national champions.
“Hopefully the drought ends this year,” says Abrams.