As Canada’s National Junior Team is embraced by more Canadians each year, it’s hard to believe there was so much pushback in 1981, when the concept was first pitched to the junior league brain trust.
Sherry (Sherwood) Bassin was the one launching the throw.
“There was an extreme amount of resistance because they were going to lose their best players for a month,” he said
The presentation was emotional for Bassin (Seamans, Sask.), who was general manager of the Oshawa Generals. He told the panel he was sending his players to the tournament.
“Then I stood up and asked one of the owners, ‘If they phoned and asked one of your sons to come play for Team Canada, would you let him go?’ Death silence. I said some non-publishable words and left.”
An owner called him three weeks prior to camp to see if he was really sending his players. Bassin emphatically confirmed, “Then ours are going.” The rest of the teams followed suit.
You certainly couldn’t tell the team by its attire: a blazer with a glued-on crest. There was no budget for clothing, but that didn’t stop Bassin. He insisted the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association find the $1,500 they needed for the team jackets.
He carted the players into a school bus and to the wholesale manufacturing area of Winnipeg, Man., to meet up with a friend.
Inside a warehouse, he told the players to pick their jackets. “But they didn’t have 30 jackets of the same colours or type or insignias. We just had all these winter coats - but they were team coats.
The team was scheduled to bus 10 hours to Minneapolis, Minn., after playing the Russians in Winnipeg, but Bassin would have none of it.
“I went to the CAHA and said, we’re not bussing, we’re flying.”
They managed to negotiate a cheap charter, and when the team arrived in Minneapolis, they weren’t even scheduled. Russia and Sweden were set to play at the Metropolitan Sports Center, because they were favoured for the gold medal. Team Canada had to travel another hour and a half to two hours to Rochester, Minn., to a rink that “wasn’t any bigger than a lobby; one of the kids’ rinks” and THEY were playing for the gold against Czechoslovakia.
Pushing the CAHA’s patience again, Bassin declared before the final game, they were going to take the players to a nice steak restaurant.
“Poor old Ron Robison (who was the communications director), every time I wanted something, I’d yell at him to do it. He’d say, ‘I’ll try and do it.’ I’d say, ‘No, no, don’t try, do it. He’d ask, ‘Have you cleared it with the CAHA?’ I’d tell him ‘Yes,’ even though I hadn’t.”
Canada only needed the 3-3 tie to win the gold medal, but there was no national anthem available. The players stood on the blue line, shoulder to shoulder, and sang O Canada. A tradition was born.
“As we’re leaving, one of the (arena attendants) came up to me. There was one phone in the rink in the room where they kept the Zamboni. The attendant brought his lunch in a brown paper bag. He had ripped a piece off and in kind of a crayon - it was a thick print - he hands over this piece of paper off his lunch bag. ‘Some guy by the name of Trudeau called.’ He had no idea who he was. Our prime minister calls and he has no idea.”
The following tournament was in Leningrad, Russia. En route from Helsinki by train, the team was delayed at the border.
“They’d come out with guns pointing at you. I told the players ‘We’re not to use that as an excuse.’ If they delayed us for two hours, we’d tell them, ‘No big deal, we thought we’d be here at six.’ Then we get (to the hotel). We have 33 in our party. They only have reservations for 27. We’ve got to wait and wait in the lobby.”
Prior to arriving in Russia, they had practised in Finland. Their equipment had been confiscated when it arrived.
“We had to go downtown to this warehouse - just like an Elliot Ness movie - one light bulb, a gravel dirt floor, nobody around. There’s all our equipment. We didn’t get that until one in the morning. I wouldn’t give them a lineup until they gave us our equipment. And they had to print programs in those days.”
Today, Bassin owns an Ontario Hockey League team, and sits on the executive of both the Canadian Hockey League and OHL. He also has a 1993 Memorial Cup with Sault Ste. Marie, and has twice won the CHL and OHL Executive of the Year award.
Its humble beginnings of the first few years set a strong emotional path for the almost cult-like following Canada’s National Junior Team has today.
“If you have played, or in any way have participated with Team Canada, until you’ve had that experience, you can’t describe it,” Bassin said. “When you understand and you see it, you feel it.”