Skip to content

PLAYING FIELD: Flyers helped open Swedish floodgates

Star Cup took place 50 years ago this week and included team featuring defenceman Borje Salming, who would soon embark on Hall of Fame career with the Leafs

In between the Colts and the junior Flyers, Barrie’s senior hockey team held significant sway here in the city.

The Barrie Flyers were Eastern Canadian champions 50 years ago and won the Allan Cup two years later in 1974.

A half-century on, the Flyers got some fleeting attention when Swedish legend Börje Salming made his final visit to Toronto last month. The superstar died less than two weeks later and his funeral was held Wednesday in Stockholm.

The Flyers were mentioned during Salming’s emotional visit because they had earned an invite into the Star Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden, by virtue of their Eastern Canadian championship title in 1972.

The tournament took place 50 years ago this week and involved Salming’s team, Brynas, two other Swedish clubs, Frolunda and Vasteras, Czechoslovakia’s Brno and the Soviet Wings, a team which had been USSR runners-up the previous spring behind the famed Red Army.

To give historical context: The Summit Series wrapped up just three months earlier, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson died the day before the Flyers arrived in Sweden, and Franco Harris, who died this week, made the “immaculate reception” in an NFL playoff game four days earlier.

Though not known at the time, the Star Cup was profoundly significant because it was where Maple Leafs scout — and later its GM — Gerry McNamara convinced Salming to sign in Toronto. It launched Salming’s Hall of Fame career and opened the floodgates for Swedish players to come to North America to play in the NHL.

And it all started with a game against the Barrie Flyers.

“‘Mac’ was around a lot and he told us why he was there,” remembered Bob Baird, who played for the Flyers and was familiar with McNamara because the former goalie had played for the Orillia Terriers — who won the Allan Cup in 1973 — and had been added to the Flyers roster for the previous spring’s Allan Cup series, which the Flyers lost to the Spokane Jets in six games.

Now retired from playing and working for the Leafs, McNamara confided in his former teammates.

“We knew who he was looking at: Salming and (Inge) Hammarstrom,” said Baird.

Jim Thompson is a Barrie boy who was playing for the Flyers. His run-in with Salming saw the Swede booted from the game. With time winding down and no one around, McNamara used the occasion to chat with Salming in the bowels of the Gothenburg arena. It was that conversation that set the wheels in motion.

“You could tell how good (Salming) was right away,” said Thompson, looking back. 

"But he was also able to handle the rough stuff when we played the Canadian style against him, just like he did (later) in the NHL," he added. 

The Flyers, who had travel issues and injuries once they got to Europe, generally acquitted themselves well, winning twice and tying another game, but suffered heavy losses to the Soviets and Brynas.

They later played the West German national team, which the Flyers had already beaten a year earlier at the old Barrie Arena on Dunlop Street, in Munich before returning home.

Baird said the loss to Salming’s team started because of a tactical error that would soon become all-too-common — trying to intimidate Salming, only to watch helplessly as he stuck it to the opposition.

“I remember the day before at practice, we thought we were going to show the Swedes,” recalled Baird. “They showed us.”

The Flyers, playing in front of a holiday full house, took two penalties in the first minute and another at the 2:10 mark; Brynas scored twice; Salming set up the first goal; Hammarstrom, who later played 427 NHL games with the Leafs and the St. Louis Blues, scored the next one.

The penalty parade continued and Salming scored early in the second to go up 6-0 on the way to winning 9-1.

The Flyers had opened the tournament against Frolunda, which had future NHL star Willy Lindström on its roster. This time it was the Swedes who took an ill-timed penalty in the final minute. Ron Robinson, the Flyers’ MVP from the season before, scored with 21 seconds left to salvage a 4-4 tie.

Later, Robinson also scored the winner late in the third to defeat Brno, 4-3, the identical score by which the Flyers beat Vasteras in their final game. The loss to Brynas and an earlier defeat to the Soviets meant the Canadian visitors couldn’t win the tournament. They ended up in a tie for third with Frolunda, with the Soviets defeating Salming and Brynas to win it.

Full disclosure: Robinson is my father. My dad, who died in July, rarely talked about the tournament. I only discovered the images accompanied with this story when I was caring for him in his final years. I do recall him mentioning playing Salming, his love for how Swedes cooked eggs, which he would try to replicate on Christmas morning but with little success.

Thompson earned an invitation to the Leafs training camp the following season, Salming’s first in Toronto, but came back home up Highway 400 to play for the Flyers.

The Allan Cup triumph followed in Barrie. In Toronto, the love affair with Salming soon began.

“I think we had a better team the year before (we went to Sweden) than the one that won the Allan Cup,” Thompson remembered, pointing out rule changes had forced lineup adjustments to the club’s core.

Baird, who grew up in Toronto, and Thompson represent the two primary elements of the Flyers: a mix of local players and others from around Ontario who had come to Barrie, often lured with the offer of a job. Just as attractive: not having to endure the long bus rides of minor pro and junior/college hockey.

“A lot of us had been through that and now had jobs, teaching, police officers,” said Baird, who raised two daughters in Barrie and now has five grandchildren, all boys. “We didn’t want to start that all over again.

“I had been in Fort Wayne (Indiana) for three or four years and rode the buses (of the old international league). I had a lot of fun, but I had had enough (of that life). I sent my resumé around to Orillia, Owen Sound and Barrie. I got responses back from all three, but chose Barrie.

“Barrie had such good management: Jim Short, Jim Betram, Bruce Bigelow. The Senior League was a good league. I remember checking up on it with The Hockey News. It was such a good league.”

The Flyers died when senior hockey left town in the late 1970s.

Looking back, the Flyers’ championship seasons of 1972, and especially its Allan Cup triumph of 1974, helped define the high-water mark of hockey in Barrie. The Memorial Cup championships two decades earlier, the 1975 Wrigley Midgets and the Colts 2000 OHL title do as well.

Perhaps most of all, that local connection to Salming and what his arrival down the highway in Toronto would portend for the future of the NHL seem especially poignant.

Special thanks to Georgian College instructor Jason Murphy for his research that helped bring this column to life.

Reader Feedback

Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
Read more