With the conclusion of this year's NHL playoffs drawing near, and as hockey fans eagerly await the crowning of a new champion, the question wafted easily into a recent sports chat between friends.
Has anyone from Midland ever won the Stanley Cup? The simple answer is 'yes'. There are actually two men who were born in the northern Simcoe County town who also have their names on the Cup.
Both John Muckler and Peter Millar were part of the great Edmonton Oiler clubs of the 1980s that captured four out of five Stanley Cups from 1984 to 1988. They never scored a goal or made a goaltending save for the Oilers, but each man, in their distinct roles, helped create one of the true NHL dynasties.
As an assistant coach, Muckler was regarded as the “right-hand man” to Edmonton bench boss Glen Sather.
Said Wayne Gretzky: “(Muckler) was tough, strict, but more importantly fair, and he helped lay the groundwork to make our team more accountable to each other, which propelled us to become champions.”
Before the 1989-90 season, Sather decided to concentrate solely on his general manager's duties and named Muckler the head coach of the Oilers. And that following spring, minus Gretzky (No. 99 had been dealt to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988), the Midland native would guide Edmonton to the franchise's fifth Cup title.
The multiple wins must have been the ultimate satisfaction for a hockey lifer such as Muckler.
He'd previously toiled for many seasons in the low minor leagues across the 1950s and '60s, playing defence and coaching, and now he'd reached the top of the sport. Perhaps when he sipped champagne from Lord Stanley's mug, Muckler thought back to his rough-and-tumble days guarding the blue line with the Long Island Ducks of the Eastern Hockey League — two of his teammates on the Ducks were the legendary John Brophy and former Midland Intermediate Flyer ace Buzz Deschamps. If he did, then the drinks had to taste sweeter.
Trace a certain band on the Stanley Cup, and you'll find immortalized in silver the collective names of Edmonton's 1984 and '85, and 1987 and '88 champion Oilers.
Surrounding John Muckler's name are those of the team's Hall of Fame players: Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, et al.
But if you look a little closer, near the bottom of each panel will be the engraving, “P. Millar, Athletic Therapist.”
For 10 years, going back to Edmonton's World Hockey Association days in 1979, Peter Millar provided the Oilers with vital off-ice support on their training staff and, of course, shared in their quartet of championships. His four Stanley Cups are second only to Muckler's Midland-best total of five.
“It was kind of a blur at the time it was all happening,” said Millar. “But I knew I was part of something special and part of something that was bigger than myself."
Known for his knowledge and skills, Millar would experience the high of international hockey during the decade, as well.
In 1984, the Midlander was again celebrating with the Edmonton core of Gretzky, Messier and company. This time, his league-wide reputation earned him the athletic therapist position for the winning Team Canada entry at that year's Canada Cup tournament.
Millar wasn't around in 1990 when the Oilers last hoisted the Stanley Cup. By then, he'd left Edmonton and followed Gretzky to L.A. where he worked as the Kings' longtime equipment manager, and became renowned for his definitive signature on NHL jerseys.
In 1996, Millar was one of the inaugural inductees of the Midland Sports Hall of Fame. Twenty-four years later, the Hockey Hall of Fame at Toronto recognized him with a plaque on the Wall of Honour of the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society/Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers (PHATS/SPHEM) group, as a member of the induction class of 2020.
Surprisingly, Muckler, who passed away in January 2021, has never been honoured by either of those organizations. Needless to say, his record is impressive. In addition to the prior success he enjoyed with Edmonton, Muckler also carved out a lengthy front-office career in the NHL. He was the head coach, GM or director of hockey operations for several other big-league clubs, including the Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.
On the local level, it's a little-known fact that the future Stanley Cup winner spent the early part of his life in Midland.
Muckler was growing up a west-sider until his parents, George and Rhoda (nee Bath), moved the family to southwestern Ontario when he was a small boy, eventually settling in Paris.
It was there that Muckler played minor hockey and began developing his talent on the ice. Ironically, in 1949, the 15-year-old Muckler had been the star centre the Midland Sheet Metal A's needed to stop to push past the Paris Comets and capture the Provincial Midget 'B' championship.
Like Muckler, Millar loved hockey, too, and took up the game at a young age, but for him, that meant skating in the Midland Little NHL.
His teenage years saw the student play football and basketball at Midland Penetanguishene District High School, and Millar would again perform on the same squads after he transferred to Brampton's Central Peel Secondary School.
Millar then went on to pursue a career in sports medicine during the 1970s, first graduating from post-secondary programs at Laurentian University in Sudbury and Oakville's Sheridan College, before becoming a hockey trainer for junior, semi- and minor-pro teams.
No Midland-born player in the NHL has ever come home a Stanley Cup champion.
A pair of legends, Owen Sound's Hap Day and Roy Conacher of Toronto, did win Cups and carried connections to the town through parts of their playing careers. But Day captained the Leafs' first Stanley Cup team in 1932, long after he lived in Port McNicoll and wore Midland's hockey colours; while Conacher, who in 1949 purchased a house on Russell Street, had already been victorious with the 1939 and '41 Boston Bruins, and was in his final years as a Chicago Black Hawk.
One can only imagine how it might be here when some fellow Midlander matches the feats of Muckler and Millar and gets their own name on the Cup. A ride on a fire truck down King Street for the hometown hero would be the tradition. Then how about a public celebration at the waterfront or Little Lake Park?
Speeches, autographs and the chance to have your picture taken up close beside what many people consider is “the greatest trophy" in all of sports.
”Something to look forward to."
Thomas Paradis is a local writer and sports historian based in Midland.