Forty years ago, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry burst onto movie screens, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Chicago Black Hawks four games to three to win the Stanley Cup, and John Lennon recorded his hit single, “Imagine.”
That year, 1971, also saw the Elmira Sugar Kings drop the puck on their first season. Based on the response from their 40th anniversary last weekend, the town’s passion for its Junior B hockey club has never waned in the four decades since.
Nearly 70 Kings alumni players returned to their hockey roots last Saturday and Sunday to celebrate their time as members of the Elmira squad. Over the course of the weekend, they were joined by hundreds of fans.
Saturday featured an alumni tournament which gave former teammates the opportunity to lace them up together for another chance at hockey glory, in the form of a memorial plaque named in honour of long-time Kings director Bob Waters.
Sunday included an all-you-can-eat breakfast at the Legion and a 2 p.m. regular season match between the Sugar Kings and the Brantford Golden Eagles.
The Kings boast seven NHL players to their credit – four of which returned for the 40th last weekend – and scores of others who have gone on to other national and international successes.
The list of players included in the alumni tournament wasn’t limited to the more recent alumni, either.
Three of the original members of that first team – Graham Snyder, Paul Fletcher, and Chuck Hunter – donned the Kings jersey once again.
“I think I was the oldest guy out there yesterday,” laughed Hunter during breakfast on Sunday. “They brought me over from Kitchener originally to help kill penalties and to add some toughness.
“I’ve had a great time this weekend.”
The opening ceremonies Jan. 22 also included Bill Clemens and Dr. Claude Forler, the two remaining members of the eight-man board of directors from the first season. Jerry Forler, the team’s first coach and general manager, and Ken Seiling, the first assistant coach, also participated in the ceremonial opening faceoff.
“The number of players that came back really spoke volumes of what they thought about their time with the Sugar Kings. So it was a great success,” said Seiling.
Forler, decades removed from any direct involvement with the team, was also quite pleased to be involved in the celebration as well.
“I enjoyed it. It doesn’t happen every day, does it? Forty years has gone pretty fast,” he smiled.
Forler doesn’t get to many Kings games these days – after 35 years of coaching nonstop, he tries to watch his grandchildren play hockey whenever he can, instead – but he still follows the team closely and is happy with the management decisions being made around the team, including the hiring of the current coach, Geoff Haddaway.
“I’ve been really impressed with him as a coach and as a person,” Forler noted.
Haddaway was humbled to be included in the anniversary. He has spent four years in Elmira as the team’s head coach, enjoying his fair share of success, including a league championship in 2007-08, but this weekend really served as a reminder of what the Kings mean to the people of Elmira.
“It was done by a bunch of volunteers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and seek nothing more than the smiles and enjoyment of the people who are involved, and that’s what is so terrific about the Elmira Sugar Kings, and I don’t know where else you can find that.”
And while the weekend may have ended on a sour note – the current crop of Kings lost their Sunday afternoon matchup to Brantford 5-1 – it was just one loss compared to the 40 years of memories, championships, and the friendships that have been forged in those familiar green and gold Elmira Sugar Kings jerseys.