A hop, skip and a jump down highway 40 from Chatham, lies the tough, little town of Wallaceburg. Population of 10,010. Wallaceburg has the only lacrosse association in Chatham-Kent and is the mecca of lacrosse in Southwestern Ontario.
This is the story of the 1987 Peewee B Wallaceburg Griffins; A skilled, tough and rag-tag undersized group of misfits who went an undefeated 28-0 on their way to a provincial title.
To this day, many consider the team to be THE GREATEST GRIFFIN TEAM OF ALL TIME.
“THE GRIFFIN G.O.A.T.S”
G.O.A.T. – “Greatest Of All Time”
Early Summer Struggles
At seven years-old, hockey had already become my favorite sport, but I was struggling to find my niche in the summer. When the ice came out of the rink, I started my youth summers playing soccer but was soured by the sport when in my very first season. I was playing on a house league team called “The Reds” with all my closest buddies. Perry Pappas and Josh Greenberg are just two of the names that I recall, both budding soccer stars. Our team had a few more dominant players to start the year. I remember the only friend of mine who wasn’t on the team was Ed Novacco, who was running the show for Midas Touch.
Rumours started to swirl around the neighborhood that the parents were complaining that The Reds were too stacked and that the league needed to spread the talent to other teams in the league.
I wasn’t very good at soccer, so I wasn’t too concerned, but I will never forget when I was playing in the front yard of my house and my mom yelled out to me to come inside for a minute. She told me that I had been moved from The Reds and would be playing for Seven Seas from now on. I was pissed off that I wasn’t going to be playing with my friends anymore. Traded at seven years-old, I soured on soccer on that day, and moved to minor baseball the following summer.
Minor baseball was fun and I enjoyed the sport of baseball, but it was a little bit static and stationary for a twitchy, fidgety, energetic kid like myself and I was still searching for my right fit in the summer.
Through hockey in the winter, I had made a couple of other friends. Friends who were two of the most athletic and toughest kids I had been around; Shane McGivern and Kevin Barnard. They spent their summers in Wallaceburg playing lacrosse.
Summers With Shane and the Barnard Boys
Kevin and Shane had been playing lacrosse for a few years now, and since Chatham did not have lacrosse, I heard that Wallaceburg was where they played. Well, through some conversations between parents it was decided that I would give it a try, and I will never forget Shane and I going to the McNaughton Ave Public School to throw the ball against the wall and get some basic lacrosse stick skills. From that point on, after hockey finished, I was very much handed off to the McGivern’s for the summer, and in 1984 at eleven years-old, I started learning and playing the game of lacrosse. Kevin played one more season along with his two brothers Kris and Korey before they switched to Chatham Minor Baseball. All exceptionally skilled and tough, if the three brothers would have stayed in lacrosse, there is no telling how good this team would have become.
Shane practiced with me before the season started and he was already a great player and I started to hear about his older cousins Randy and Rob, who were leading the Wallaceburg teams a few years ahead of us. A few weeks of throwing the ball around, and it was time to head out to the first practice. I was nervous as hell about the new sport, new town and new guys to meet, but I was relieved that because there weren’t enough guys, there was no real tryout to make the team. I was already on the team, even though I had never played the sport.
I thought you had to be tough to play hockey. You had to be that much tougher to play lacrosse.
My first introduction to the town of Wallaceburg was at the first practice at the Wallaceburg Arena and it was an awakening for a kid from a strict Catholic, Japanese-Canadian upbringing. I always thought Chatham was a tough little town, but quickly learned that in that department, it had absolutely nothing on Wallaceburg.
I met the guys and realized quickly that because I was friends with Shane and Kevin, I had instant respect from all the guys who were already on the team. I wasn’t very good, but no one ever told me that as I tried to learn quickly to cradle, catch and shoot, never mind cross-check, stick-check and trap, or all the key elements of defending a player. These guys were tough and rough around the edges, but they were cool and hilarious, just like the boys on my hockey team in Chatham. This won’t be all that bad at all, especially if I can actually become good at the game.
I was introduced to guys like Dan Toms, Mike Tinning, Conrad Baines, Jimmy Stanley, Mike Goetz and Wade Mackesy, and I completely crashed the McGivern family gatherings in Wallaceburg, where I met Shane’s cousin Ian and his Uncle Mike, who would later be the leader of our greatest accomplishments. These guys were gems. Absolutely right up my alley. Tough, cool, mischievous and competitive as hell. It was the start of a bond that would remain for life.
The Knight Brothers
I was a very competitive kid, and it was tough for me to not be one of the best guys out there like I seemed to be in hockey. I had to find out who was the best so I could watch and learn from them. It was clear right away that along with my buddy Shane, the best player on our team was a tiny guy, smaller than me in fact, named Todd Knight. Lacrosse is a tough, two-way sport, but in terms of flat-out offensive skill, Knight was the guy to watch. He had the best shot fakes I’ve ever seen in lacrosse. Guys would turn and look for the ball, while Todd would waltz right through them and snipe one on net. I was also introduced to his older brother Jamie. A couple of years older than we were, we all looked up to him because not only was he a fantastic player, he was a leader on his team. I remember his team had Jamie and the Irwin brothers, who were very good players, but the team was always short on players so different guys from our team would be asked to play up to help fill out the roster. He always welcomed the young guys with open arms and helped us all get better, win or lose on the floor.
To me, The Knight brothers were the guys to follow in lacrosse in Wallaceburg with the McGivern’s not too far behind. Jamie remains heavily involved in Wallaceburg lacrosse today, teaching, coaching and running year round skills camps and clinics through his company Leave Your Mark Lacrosse in the Chatham-Kent area. The Knight parents, the late Jimmy Knight and Todd’s mom Bernice became parents for the players on the team and were integral in any success that we had. Sometimes, the off the floor matters, and key to our success was the dedication of the parents. Frank and Laura McGivern, Andy and Susan Stanley and Tom Tinning among others.
THE WALLACEBURG GRIFFINS
It wasn’t all good when I suited up to play my first game for the Wallaceburg Lacrosse Association as I quickly learned that our colours were a shitty brown, orange and white mix that I had never seen together before. Fashion aside, I also had no clue what our team name meant as we were called the Griffins.
“I played junior with a lot of guys who knew our minor team and our colours. They called us A&W Rootbeers, because of our colours.”
I joined the team in atom and they had already won a Ontario title in novice. The team was very skilled, tough, and well coached by Bill McArthur. Bill’s son Brad was on the team, and went on to a very successful lacrosse career. Even though there was a mix of Wallaceburg and Chatham boys, the guys all got along extremely well. The first year I played we beat everyone in zone play and I was able to develop very quickly. Due to the novice title we were placed in A for the provincials and got beat out in the tourney quarters by a big, strong team from Brampton. We were already a strong team that could compete in A, just not beat the top three or four teams in the province. At the time, due to Wallaceburg’s population and a lack of a real ranking system, we were relegated back to B the following year, where we continued to dominate almost every team we played.
In lacrosse, Wallaceburg always combined the minor and major aged players. The core players of this team returned year after year but we were always the best team in the major year as our team got injected with even more skill from the younger year of players. Wade Mackesy and Ian McGivern were exceptional players, but we only had them every major year. In 1987, we also added Randy Renaud, the best player from the Windsor team that we had played against for years. Randy was easily on the level of the very best players in the area, and quite possibly the best player around.
Ian’s dad Mike was our coach for the major seasons as well and with him behind the bench along with help from Frank McGivern and our long time trainers Andy Stanley and Dave Hearn, our team became special. In 1987, the major peewee year, with most of us fourteen and the thirteen year old’s like Ian and Wade, we were ready for our most memorable season. It all started from the top with us.
“We were so well coached with Bill McArthur, and coach McGivern and in lacrosse in general. If you remember, we kinda sucked in hockey (Wallaceburg) and it was because we had brutal coaching. In lacrosse we had excellent, dedicated coaches and our teams were great.”
The opinion seemed to be unanimous;
“We lost everything in hockey and we won everything in lacrosse and I always wondered why because we had the same guys and athletes. I realize now, it was the difference in coaching.”
“I think it was the coaching for sure. Mike McGivern was the great coach that we never really had in hockey, plus some of the guys weren’t the best skaters around. We could run like hell, but not skate and that made a difference as well. We would have busted through the arena wall if the coach asked us to, we just didn’t have very good skill teachers”
The point and morale of the story so far is to try to show that special teams do not just happen overnight. They are built over time and experience and many different pieces are needed in order to become great. You win, you lose, you battle and you bruise, and before you know it……
The Undefeated Season
As mentioned earlier, Jamie Knight was a great minor, junior and senior player in the 80’s and 90’s and is still heavily involved in Wallaceburg Minor Lacrosse. His brother Todd was the heart of this team and Jamie had a front row seat to this incredible season, and a very accurate take on what made it great;
“The perfect season was built over time…..scoring goals for that age was never a problem but adding grit and toughness is what put this team over the top…….it was a group that was always blessed with good coaching…Bill McArthur set the framework then the McGivern’s fine tuned…..success followed this group early as I believe they won in novice as well….the Barnard boys were excellent laxers as well, imagine them on this squad….wow. So much talent and athleticism but more than anything was the closeness, love and respect for each other….add in a very committed parent group and you have a recipe for success.”
In The Zone
As always, the season started with some zone games and we regularly travelled to Sarnia and London. In our first seven zone games we beat those two teams by a combined score of 79-7 and this was an early turning point, and why our coach, the late Mike McGivern is so respected and remembered for this special season;
“I remember coach saying to us after the zone games, “well we aren’t going to get many competitive teams to come here and play us, so let’s go up north way and see what we can do there.”
The coaches and parents made a dedicated decision to spend the money and time to get us to better competition that season. It was something we craved. Wanted. Needed in order to move forward and not backward in our skills and focus.
We sought out the best teams out there and the early rumour of that season was that a team from Owen Sound was favoured, planned and poised to be the best B team in the province. They had already started fund-raising for the Nationals in plans that they would get there and they were hosting a tournament early that year. Owen Sound here we come.
We had guys with classic mullet hair do’s, the guys from Chatham and a few from Wallaceburg rocked them pretty well, but we also had Dan Toms and Mike Goetz who had heavy metal hair do’s like early Jon Bon Jovi and Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler. I vaguely remember car-pooling to Owen Sound with Mike Goetz hanging his head out the window like a dog the whole way, his hair blowing back in the fierce wind. Teams laughed at us, a lot of times as we entered arena’s and ran on the floor with the rag tag look that we had. We didn’t care. They wouldn’t be laughing for long.
We also had the unique tradition of running on the floor behind our Griffins flag (shown here in this article) with Jim Stanley’s little brother Mike carrying it out and leading us on the floor. Other teams tried to adopt this ritual, however Mikey always put an end to that quickly by beating up the opposing flag boy, once he was caught using the actual flag pole to lay the boots to one boy.
Owen Sound Who?
We were cranked up to play this tournament only to be slightly deflated to learn that our first game would be against Sarnia, a team we were very familiar with already from our zone play. Todd Knight remembers;
“I remember coach saying to us before the game, ‘ok boys I don’t really know how they are running this tournament so goals for and against could be a factor. Go ahead and let it go boys. Let’s go get ’em.” Well after the first period we were up 14-0 so coach says to us in the scrum, ‘ok boys I think we can relax a bit now ok.'”
The final score of the game was 27-0. Yes we ran up the score. In looking at old articles with scores and highlights it seemed to me that we ran it up a lot in those years and I wonder what would happen if a team was doing that today;
“They would never let that happen. They would stop keeping score before the end of it.”
“They actually have a ranking system in minor lacrosse now so that could never happen.”
We beat Elora 14-0 in the second round robin game and then it was time for our showdown against the host Owen Sound. We had been hearing about them and how they were the favorites to win the provincials. They certainly had no clue who we were and were expecting us to be a blip on their quest to a host tourney title.
We beat the team that was being crowned 17-4. The score was reflective of the game as we dominated from the first ball.
It was a dominant win but a bit of a downer in the fact that we had still not met a team on our level. A team that could test us and push us to the limit. The Griffins moved on to the semis and finals where we outscored Orangeville and Guelph, two major players in provincial lacrosse by a combined score of 26-5.
Later that June, we entered the Burlington tournament because they were winning a lot of games in the GTA area. Todd Knight remembers;
“They matched us up with the host early Saturday morning and we had our graduation the night before. Maybe they knew and thought it would help them out. We were all out so late the night before and I still thank Mr. Tinning to this day for piling us all in his van and driving us there.”
It was quite an experience going to a tournament in the GTA. The big city folk were quite shocked at the Motley Crew walking in to their arena.
“I remember people laughing at us as we walked in with our hair and our rag-tag clothes, and then with our uniforms, they totally thought we were a joke but I played with a lot of the players on those teams in junior and they knew us. They remembered our uniforms and Goetzy’s hair. They remembered we killed them and always asked me why the hell we were in B?”
Todd Knight recalls;
“We beat Burlington like 9-5 because we were so tired but then we played them again in the final and smoked them 13-2. Yeah we were laughed at until we got on the floor and the games started. People were starting to see that this team with the funky brown uniforms was for real.
After Burlington and before the provincials our team was hitting on all cylinders. Shane and I had just come off a Ontario hockey title in Chatham and our teammate Paul Tewkesbury had come out that season to join our team. We had a few one season wonders that year with Paul, Adam Pauwels and Mark Berry.
The Best of The Best
I always thought Shane was our best all around player. The combination of skill and strength, just like on the ice. Todd Knight was our most skilled and best scorer, and in my opinion the best lacrosse player I ever played with. Mike Tinning was the biggest guy on our team and the rest of us were considered really small. We had “small” guys like Mike Goetz though, a tough as nails tank. One of my favorite teammates during that time was no question Danny Toms. I thought I was a pretty tough customer growing up, but when I met guys like Tomsy and Tinning, I understood that there was a different level of toughness out there.
In the year after this magical season we had a different coach and Tomsy was the architect of one of our favorite dressing room moments;
“We didn’t like the new coach because he was no Mike McGivern and Tomsy and him didn’t see eye to eye at all. We were struggling a bit and coach calls a meeting at practice and is like ‘boys we really need something here. We need something what do we need?’ and Tomsy pipes up and says ‘I know what we need, a new coach.’ All the while the case of beer he brought to practice is sitting under his bag.”
Our coaches used to have to tell Tomsy to pass the ball at the point because he would just stand there and stare at the guy pounding his arm with cross-checks. He would smile and laugh and never lose the ball while the guy across from him tried his hardest to break his arm between the elbow and the shoulder. Tomsy loved it.
When I brought the ball up, I would only take a couple of shots on the arm before quickly distributing the ball. I feared I would lose the ball and the shots also did damage, I admired his craziness. He was also a great scorer, but if he had buried only half of the breakaway’s he got with his great speed, he would be the GOAT and not Todd Knight like I say to this day.
“We always had one and done players coming in from Chatham. Tewks was one and Adam Pauwels and your cousin Chris. Mark Barry and guys like that. We didn’t have enough guys each year so it always helped us. Turns out, most of the guys were great and fit right in.
My cousin Chris Wakabayashi was strong and could run like the wind and he picked up the game very quickly in his year on the team. He had a habit of running goalies. Didn’t like them at all.
As legend has it, Tomsy started the one and only all out bench clearing brawl we had in our years together against Six Nations when we were fifteen, although Mike Tinning will dispute who started it and I don’t question him.
“Well it’s tough to say because he was taking the draw and me and the other guy beside me started right off the draw, then Tomsy started going off.”
Only Tomsy would think that brawling Six Nations would be fun. By the way, our guys kicked their asses, only one of our guys took some minor damage. Tomsy and Tinning took on a couple of guys each, I handled my guy well. I head locked him and threw him over my hip to the floor, landing in side control. I didn’t want to give up my position so I held him down while he threw punches at the back of my head. The fight ended when my dad ran on the floor and grabbed me, because parents were coming on the floor. He got a good picture of it though…..
There was a secret to our teams in the major year when we were coached by Mike McGivern. A real key to why we stomped a lot of teams so badly. His son Ian McGivern was the player that I played and clicked with most on the floor and he remembers we clicked as well;
“You were on corner and I was on crease and Shane was at point on our line. I remember we would say to each other OK my turn to score. Your turn to score, now Shane’s turn to score. You would come off the corner and draw two guys every time and then flip your signature behind the back pass to me wide open. I loved playing with you and Shane.”
Ian is the one who shared the secret to our success;
“My dad’s biggest thing was always fore-check the other team. pressure them. All out all the time, but he only let certain guys on the team do it. On our team, the main fore-checkers were Shane and Tomsy and would you want one of them two coming in trying to hit you and take the ball away? They would just run in and nail the guys and take the ball. They would throw it to Todd and we would score.”
TWO SPORTS – TWO PROVINCIAL TITLES
I wanted another provincial title. I was constantly bugging Shane about it, reminding him of the feat we could accomplish. Shane always humoured me and Tewkesbury was right on board as well. Bo Jackson was all over the news for being a two sport athlete but Bo didn’t know hockey or lacrosse and we were on a mission.
I’ll skip the details of our tournament in Sarnia, a tune up for the up coming provincials, but we won all three round robin games by such a lopsided score that the tournament organizers decided to make the finals a game with us against an all-star team from the other three teams in the tourney to try and make it more competitive.
We won 25-3…
and it was off to the provincials to face the very best teams in Ontario.
At the provincial championships in St. Catherines , we started off the tourney by beating Guelph 17-4, then Toronto Beaches 16-6. I was always excited to play the GTA teams because these were where the best players in the province were playing. A lot of these players played A lacrosse too in their lives. I always thought we should be in A but would have to go too far to play that level. We beat Guelph again 17-7 to head in to the semi finals the next day.
“I played with a lot of those Guelph players in junior and they all played A lacrosse all their lives, They said we were the best team that they had ever played and that there is no way we should have been in B. We could have won A easily.”
“We could have won A let alone winning B and going undefeated the way we did. The Owen Sound team that we beat that year went to Nationals and won the thing so really we were the best B team in the nation”
We beat lacrosse powerhouse Whitby 11-3 in the semis and played West Metro Toronto in the finals. The scouting report came out at the time;
“The West Metro team was a detention centre team, like a bunch of troubled youth guys and were undefeated. They hadn’t been held to less than 10 goals for in any game that season.”
We Beat West Metro 16-5 to take the provincial B title.
“The game was so heated that in the closing ceremonies we were both lined up on the lines and they were calling across to us to have a fight. They wanted to rumble and I was looking at our guys knowing that they weren’t gonna back down.”
We finished the season with a 28-0 record, and only one team had come within five goals of us in a game.
You remember things like that season as being special. You remember a team like that, but I often wondered if the other guys felt the same way. After finishing my lacrosse career a couple of seasons after in ’89, I lost touch with most of the guys for over 20 years, until the invention of social media helped us get back in touch.
This past December (2017), Facebook blew up with the news that our team had been chosen for induction into the Wallaceburg Sports Hall Of Fame. I received the official letter in the mail shortly after and on January 27th, 2018 we reunited at the HOF induction ceremony. Former NHL defenceman Al Iafrate was the guest speaker in a fantastic evening.
It was incredible to be recognized and inducted with the boys and alongside other inductees like golfer Steve Tooshkeng and super athlete Earl Haggerty, who is a friend of the Wakabayashi family . We are together forever in the Wallaceburg Sports Hall of Fame. We stand recognized as one of the best lacrosse teams in Wallaceburg’s rich history. I couldn’t be more proud, and in my opinion we are;
THE GRIFFIN GOATS
This story is dedicated to our coaches Mike McGivern, Frank McGivern and Andy Stanley. May they rest in peace.
*Hall Of Fame photos courtesy and special thanks to Mike and Kathy Tinning and family. All quotes were obtained first hand. Special thank you to Todd and Bernice Knight for providing most of the information for this story.