The Lost Season – The Story of The’89-’90 Blenheim Blades
THIS IS THE STORY OF MY ROOKIE SEASON WITH THE 1989-1990 BLENHEIM BLADES.
A team of hockey cast-offs forever bonded by one of the worst seasons in junior hockey history.
Heading into the 1989 Great Lakes Junior season the pecking order of Kent County teams was pretty easy to predict.
The league itself was witnessing the beginning stages of a dynasty in the Belle River Canadiens. The Canadiens had won the league title the previous season and were heavy favorites to go back to back.
The Kent County teams were all in the other division and Ron Caron’s Walpole Island Hawks had lost to the Candiens in the finals and were predicted to be a powerhouse again. Led by the likes of Ed Fiala, Shane O’Donahue, Scott Erickson, and Kevin Sabourin, the Hawks had sent me an invite to camp but I knew I was a longshot to make that team.
The Wallaceburg Lakers were affiliated with the Chatham MicMacs that season and coached by the highly respected Ivan Warriner. I had played for Ivan in the summer and had a shot to make the Lakers but I knew that many import players on the bubble with the MicMacs would quickly fill that roster and push guys like me out. They had my buddy Dave Vellinga, Chad Imeson, Jordan Boyle, Kevin Jackson and infamous tough guy, Brian Dewagner
The Dresden Jr. Kings were a veteran team on par with the Lakers, filled with size and toughness. They had skilled, tough players like Jake Hanson, Jeff Vandermeersh, Jimmy Walker and Derek Fox. The Jr. Kings were coached by George Sherman who was a family friend of the Wakabayashi’s and I had known him for years. He had approached me at a summer tournament so I knew I might have a shot there.
It was pretty common knowledge in the fall of ’89 that the Blenheim Blades were in transition. They weren’t going to win very much and had gotten bullied out of local rinks in previous seasons. You might want to think twice about going out there my Dad said as I weighed which camp to attend. As a minor hockey player who was coming from a winning team, I was wired to want to win and wanted to play on the best team I could.
For many reasons, good and bad, on and off the ice, it turned out to be a season I will never forget.
My Musical Camps
I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT BAND CAMP HERE. THIS HEADING IS A PLAY ON THE FACT THAT IN ’89 I JUMPED FROM CAMP TO CAMP TO CAMP UNTIL I LANDED WITH A TEAM AT THE VERY LAST SECOND
The narrative on my ’89 tryout experience is biased based on my own personal account and beliefs. Of course, that is part of the beauty of writing, the writer gets to tell the story the way the writer saw or experienced it.
I picked Walpole Island as the team I flat out wanted to play for. They were going to be the best team in the league out of the teams around Chatham. The Hawks had a lot of players that I felt I would mesh and excel with like Sabourin, Erickson, O’Donahue, Browning, Norris, Fiala and my buddy and main man Kevin Barnard was 100% going to be on the team so at least I would have a buddy out there.
I didn’t necessarily think I was a Ron Caron type of player but I knew I was good enough to make the team. I attended the first few night sessions of camp and was doing just fine in all aspects. Camp was getting down to the stretch and I remember Ron Caron calling myself, Brady Blain and my pal Matt Haley into the dressing room after a session.
I have one 16 card left and it’s close between the three of you. I want to see you guys battle it out.
I have never been one to shy away from a challenge but due to being the smallest guy in camp, my psyche was quite fragile The fact that Brady Blain was in the room with me made my decision for me. He was better, bigger and younger than me. I never went back to Hawks camp. Neither did Haley.
The next camp I attended was based on friendship and at the urging of my buddy Jeff Fancy. He had already been attending but we went out to Kings camp together and in my first ice session there all the veteran players like Jake Hanson, Tim Cox and Derek Fox were all skating by me and going “buzz buzz buzz” in my ear. “You are gonna get it good rook” they were spouting to me in reference to the hazing ritual of shaving rookies heads. I responded, “I gotta make this team first” in which they all responded;
Pssh you are a lock to make this team
That made me feel pretty good and confident in that camp and quite frankly, I was the best player out there for most of it. I was trying harder than everyone. The 16-year old cards were being signed left right and center and I started to grow worried. My buddies Matt Haley and Jason Vandernaalt signed and quickly joined underage stars Ryan Coristine and Nate Sewell on the team. When was I going to be signed? I’m skating circles around these guys. Where was I going to fit in on this club?
Those questions were soon answered when George Sherman called me into his office. In a bitter sweet irony, George told me that he had one 16 card left and he needed a goalie badly. “Sorry Wak.”
I got beat out by my best buddy for the last 16 card in Dresden. We drove out to camp together and were excited to sign and play together. Those are the breaks in the local junior ranks.
I had to suck it up. No offence to any of the players that Dresden signed, as mentioned, a couple of them are my buddies but of course, I felt like I was a much better player than the other guys signed. In fact, a few of the 16-year olds they signed either left or were released shortly after the start of the season.
It was late in the game but off to Ivan Warriner’s Wallaceburg Laker camp.
Laker camp was already well underway but there were still a ton of bodies out there. Half of the guys I knew from around Chatham and Wallaceburg and the other half I didn’t because they were all imported to play for the Chatham MicMacs. In the one session I attended they had me on defence in the scrimmage and Ivan didn’t even acknowledge that I was there.
They had already signed five 16-year old cards. I knew all the guys they had already signed and my friends Dave Vellinga, Shane McGivern and Paul Tewkesbury were already on the team. Adam Pauwels and underage stars Shadd Smith and Dave Williams were also signed to 16 cards. None of the staff or management said anything to me in that session and it was definitely looking like I was too late to be a Laker.
The next day, I was contacted by phone and asked to join Blenheim to play an exhibition game in Dresden the following night.
First Game in Junior
I knew I wasn’t going to make that Laker team and there were only days left of tryouts. I wasn’t in the MicMacs’ plans and therefore I wasn’t in Ivan’s so I staked my last chance to play junior at 16 on a last resort, last place club and an exhibition game against the Dresden Jr. Kings, a team I had been cut from days ago. Time to lock this thing up.
My first impression of the Blades was pretty cool as I knew a bunch of the guys in the dressing room before the game. Ritch Schaafsma and Scott Bacik were there and I had played with them in the summer. I knew John Lynch, Todd Karnas and Tim Sanford from attending and working at Golden Acres Hockey School throughout my childhood. Young defenceman Chris Thomas was there and he and I were friends and had just played together at the under 17 camp.. I also remember a very warm welcome from the manager Kevin Drewery. Kevin would turn out to be the cement, nails and glue that held that season together. Just a really good guy who cared a lot about the Blades.
I knew I was on my last legs of opportunity to play junior that year and had to have a game. Not much time or any teams left to mess around with this thing.
Before the game, Kevin handed me #7 but Ritch Schaafsma quickly came over to me with a jersey in hand.
“Hey Wak I’ll trade you. I have always been #7. Do you care what number you are?” I didn’t care and I certainly had no sentimentality to #7 so we switched jerseys.
I wore #10 for the first time in my life.
I don’t remember many details about the game but I do remember we won something like 9-6 or 10-7. It was a surprise to everyone that we won the game and in a complete shocker, I picked up seven assists. It was one of the finest games of hockey I had or have ever played and that is why I remember it. One of those rare games when every play you make ends up in the back of the net. I didn’t get any goals but I had a direct hand in seven of them.
I have a few good memories about that game. Kevin took out the briefcase and put it on the bench and I signed a card right there right when you did.
Ryan Johnston fought Jake Hanson that night and he comes back to the bench with an instant black eye. I remember he looked at me and said, “why didn’t somebody tell me that was Jake Hanson.”
I also remember telling my buddy Ryan Kelly who was with the MicMacs that we had a little guy in camp who should be on your team.
What a cool compliment to hear some 30+ years later. Sterling was a huge part of the fun of that season but he left the team and went to Alvinston sometime in December.
The Hanson-Johnston tilt was the first real scrap I had witnessed and it opened my eyes to the Great Lakes Junior C. I wasn’t worried though. I knew I could handle myself.
I don’t think I got a chance to get my gear off in the dressing room before Kevin put a card in front of my face. I happily signed my name on the card on the bench in the Dresden visitors dressing room.
I became a Blenheim Blade
Brief Blades History
The Blenheim Blades were formed in 1965 and were originally called the Golden Blades. They remained the Golden Blades until 1974 before they shortened the name to just Blades. Some of the most notable names that have played for the Blades are Ryan Jones, Todd Warriner, Matt Martin, Chris Allen and Bob Gryp.
The original 1965 team has many cases of six degrees of separation from myself and the Wakabayashi family.
I have written and spoken about Ivan Warriner and his son Todd on many occasions on this site and Ivan was a player on the original Golden Blades. Original players Bev Haviland, Richard Rumble and Gord Pugh all played hockey with my uncles Herb and Mel and my dad Don. Jim McNear was on the ’65 Golden Blades and I later played on the Blades with his nephew Bob Jr. Gary Robertson coached my brother Dave when he played with Gary’s son Paul in minor hockey.
A few years before I joined the team, my brother was a backup goalie with the Blades and I went out to watch all of his games. I can’t recall the exact year (maybe ’86 or ’87) but I remember the Blades top players such as John Bacik, Tom Peel, Chris Vanneck, Steve Debrouwer and Jon Batten.
Border Cities to Great Lakes
The Wakabayashi house was always filled with tales of the Border Cities Jr B league. Growing up in the 80’s, I always thought that it would have been pretty cool to play in the Border Cites Jr. B League. In 1968, the Golden Blades joined the Border Cities Jr. B League and then in 1971, the Border Cities league became the Great Lakes Junior C so in a round about way, my dad, two uncles, brother and myself all played in the same league. My cousin Chris also had a cup of coffee in the league in ’91-’92 and in the 2001-2002 season, my younger cousin Kyle Nishizaki lit up the league with Dresden. It’s cool to have generations of family history in a junior league. I’m sure many Chatham-Kent families can boast the same thing.
The very first coach of the Blenheim Golden Blades was a tall, distinguished-voiced gentleman by the name of Dave Baldwin.
The coach of the 1989-90 Blades team that I had just signed my rookie season for 24 years later, was none other than Dave Baldwin.
The Red Blazer
Coach Baldwin and I hit it off instantly. I will never forget his first real words to me after I joined the team.
Young man, I coached both your uncles in hockey and in baseball and you remind me a lot of them.
As you will see in this story if you choose to continue reading, this was an extremely difficult season of hockey. We were a disaster on the ice and I was not used to losing but on a personal note for me, it was extremely enjoyable to play for Coach Baldwin. He was an older man at the time and would sometimes run practice from a wooden chair because of his wonky back. He also wore gardening gloves instead of hockey gloves.
Some of his drills were crazy and impossible to apply to a game, like flipping the puck up and over from directly behind the net to a forward who would baseball swing it from the slot. Or how he argued with me to win face-offs by smacking my heel down on the top edge of the puck so it would shoot straight back between my legs instead of tie up techniques.
Coach Baldwin would often yell the wrong names on the bench;
Coach would look at teammates Jason Vandernaalt and Ryan Reid on the bench and tap them to go next; “Ryan and Reid you guys are up!” he would yell.
His trademark was his bright red Blenheim Blades blazer jacket that he wore, without fail, to each and every game we played. I’ll never forget the pep talk he gave us about fifteen games into the season when it was already clear early in the season that we would be in way tough to make the playoffs. He paced around the room as he spoke;
This community is starving for a playoff team and I think you guys can be the ones to do it. They want a playoff team so bad do you know what they have said they are gonna do if we make the playoffs? They are gonna buy each and every one of you new red blazers!
To which Vandernaalt turned to me and whispered;
We’re getting trucks.?…
I could not hold my laughter in and neither could many of the other guys. Coach wasn’t too pleased at me for that one. He was such a fine man and I had some great talks with him through that tough season. I was saddened a few years back when I heard of Coach Baldwin’s passing (RIP).
Coach Baldwin told us when we won it all. The town was going to buy us all red blazers
There is a running joke about the Toronto Maple Leafs and the relationship between Pat Burns and Doug Gilmour in 1993. The secret to the coach’s success was that no matter the situation, no matter the time of the game, Pat would just yell “Dougie Go!” and Gilmour would fly over the boards to make things right.
That is how I felt in my first year with the Blades. Coach Baldwin sent Tim Sanford and I over the boards time and time again. He also moved me to center for the first time in my life. I wasn’t very good compared to the top players in that league that year, but I loved learning the ropes the hard way.
I’ll never forget The Red Blazer.
We were ready to kick off the season and I was quite surprised by a couple of things that happened right at the beginning of the season.
The first thing was that the coaches named our leadership group. Tim Sanford was named captain of the team and Todd Karnas and I were named the alternates. I was quite honoured to be named an alternate captain as a 16-year old rookie but I was completely surprised as well.
Tim Sanford and Todd Karnas would have been my choices as well but as I looked around the room before our first game and saw the three of us with the letters on, I knew we were going to be in for a tough go. Tim was a 17-year old second year player and a top player in the league, that was fine and dandy, but in 1989, to have two rookie 16-year olds as leaders in the Great Lakes Junior C league was not a recipe for success.
The second thing that surprised me was that after the tough start we had to the season, the management group called me in to the office and told me that they wanted some new players and asked me if I knew anyone who I thought could help us.
I called up three or four guys I knew were available, Jason Vandernaalt, who had just left Dresden, Ryan Reid, Christian Vesnaver and I think OLOF (Our Lady Of Fatima) friend Kirk Earley. They all joined our team shortly after.
Long season short, we finished the season with 1 win, 37 losses and 2 overtime losses. The toughest part of that season was that we won our only game, in overtime, in the THIRD game of the season on a goal by Tim Sanford.
I think you’re right. We won one game 6-5 in OT. Quite the claim to fame, scoring all the game winners that year!
That’s right. We started the season 1-2 and then proceeded to go the remainder of the season 0-35-2. Winless in 37 games of hockey. I was coming from a team that had always won everything and I admit, I was not a happy camper very much during games. It was extremely frustrating getting our asses kicked time and time again.
The coaches didn’t have many answers for a roster like ours and so early on in the season we all shifted and conceded to the on ice debacle and decided our main goal was to have as much fun as we could.
I joined the team 8 games in so I didn’t even get to enjoy the one win. Assistant coach Ken “Benny” Green had the best jokes in the dressing room when we were getting our asses kicked and I remember coach Baldwin running practice from a chair with a bad back.
About ten games in to the season we had our rookie party and it turned out to be a night to remember for the good and the bad. My parents were away for the weekend so I was home alone and I picked up the Chatham boys in the old white T-Bird and headed out to the property of our manager Doug and teammate Dale Stewart. Mild drinking and head shaving were on the menu and when my turn came, veteran Julian Belanger took the shears and shaved all my hair off my head except for a tuft of bangs at the front.
Playing minor hockey in Chatham, I looked up to the 1971 born players for my entire life. They won all kinds of games, went to Sweden one year and also went to the Quebec Peewee Tournament, arguably the most famous hockey tournament in the world. Both Julian Belanger and Christian Vesnaver were on that team. It was a highlight to be on a team with them and we had a lot of fun. I was saddened to hear that Julian passed away a few years back. Julian, Dave Falkins, Rob Schaafsma and Brent Case were the old veterans and the fun finders on that team.
Our other veterans were great guys, real characters like Chris Sterling, Don Watts, Jason Toll, Kirk Earley, Darcy McCutcheon, Ryan Johnston, Dale Stewart. Underage star Tim Bacik was one of our goalies along with Rob Schaafsma and Tyler Hebblethwaite. Early in the season we picked up a defenceman from Sweden who was staying in Chatham. His name was Anders Ericksson and he fit in with our team perfectly.
It was quite odd though, our younger players were the most talented and real producers. Schaafsma, Bacik, Lynch, Sanford, Karnas and Thomas. We were a young group trying hard to lead this team in the right direction in some of the toughest rinks in Southern Ontario. Hockey in the 90’s was much different than it is today.
In 1989, the league was much about fighting and toughness, and Billy Bowden was our huckleberry. He was our only real heavyweight though, and we got bullied out of many of the rinks that season.
Veteran Brent Case had a great toe-to-toe with league tough guy Colin McGowan from Clearwater, but most times, we came out on the wrong end of the pugilistic stick.
I thought it was 0-40-1. Didn’t think we had a win. I know Dave Baldwin and Benny G coached.
If I remember I joined the team after the win so how about that. I remember you called me to come out. The record was not good but I remember it as great season, my final one at that too. My knee was toast and I remember the ice packs after the games. But I have great memories of the guys on that team.
I remember Julian Belanger (RIP) scored on our own net (on my brother Rob). He was trying to ring it around the boards from the corner
And those awful haircuts from the rookie party.
The actual evening party was planned for Chris Maarhuis’ place on Park Ave in Chatham. Maarhuis is an absolute beauty who loved and lived by his music. He has to be the best air instrument player I have ever seen and Kent County has a lot of them.
One memory for the boys driving from Chatham to Blenheim for games and practice. We would typically car pool and often Dwight was driving that white car with the horrible wheel alignment. But what I remember most was Chris Maarhuis changing the damn radio station every 30 seconds. We would do the 15 minute drive to the rink and Maarhius would have us listening to 30 songs!
Maarhuis knew how to party and was a smaller player who had a really good shot. He was potting some goals for us early in that season. I’ll never forget the sickening sound in the Blenheim Arena when he broke his leg that year. It was a blow to our team as we were really lacking in guys who could put the puck in the net.
The party was in full swing when the neighbour called the cops and the party got completely busted up. I was home alone, so I wasn’t just going to scoot back home by myself. I asked a few of the Chatham guys and some girls if they wanted to come and hang out.
Next thing I know, the entire team and many others are storming my parent’s house on 78 Northland Dr. This is not good, I thought to myself, but I let it happen for the sake of winning hockey games and team bonding. Plus, I wasn’t going to be able to kick everybody out anyway without calling the cops.
We partied and we partied hard all night. It was pretty cool party with all kinds of people drinking and having fun, with no incidents or real problems other than noise. From what I saw when everyone left, my house was the same and completely intact. I cleaned up like crazy and then let it air out before my parents came home the next day.
The instant my mom walked in the door she freaked out. She just knew something had gone on and when she saw my ridiculous haircut, she was beside herself. We had a family wedding to go to the next weekend in Peterborough so she made me shave off the bangs and just go buzz cut
Obviously the bonding at the party didn’t work because our team continued to stink out the Great Lakes Junior C League. Night after night. Game after game we got our asses handed to us in that season. We really became a tale of two teams. On the ice we were a disastrous mess, but off the ice we had little pockets of guys with a lot of chemistry and we hung out a lot and partied many weekends.
We got one win boys. Couldn’t tell you who it was against but we did get one. My favorite story from that year is when Rob Schaafsma was in net and decided he wanted to fight someone and me as a 15-year old 150 lbs scrawny beanpole of a defenseman has dinner at the Schaafsma house and has their dad tell me if I don’t protect my goalie next time he will kick my ass next time he sees me.
All those Belle River and Walpole guys we’re 19-21-years old. Man did I get my ass kicked a lot that year.
Year In Review
Playing for the Blades that year sometimes felt like a travelling circus or playing for the Washington Generals. (the team that plays against the Harlem Globetrotters) When the dust settled on the season a couple personal accomplishments created a lasting memory for me.
I finished the rookie season with 31 points in 40 games and lost the team scoring title by one point to our captain Tim Sanford. After playing minor hockey for years, it was the first time that my stats were really tracked and they weren’t too bad considering it was my first season and we were really bad.
I was named Rookie of the Year at the Blades year end awards which qualified me for the league awards which took place in Walpole Island. In a most memorable and cool moment, four of the five players that were up for Rookie of the Year that year were buddies from my minor hockey team. Jeff Fancy, Paul Tewkesbury, Kevin Barnard and myself were all at the awards that night.
Tewkesbury won the award but I’m pretty sure he still knows that I am better than he is.
The Blades Today
Through current Blades President Matthew Frain I learned that some of my teammates from that team went on to be involved in the Blades organization years after this unforgettable season.
Tim Sanford would go on to be the coach, head trainer and team doctor from 2000-2007.
Scott Bacik was the Blades assistant coach from 2007-2009 and Chris Thomas an assistant from 2009-2011.
The Blades organization is still running strong today some 30+ years after I played. They run a very strong community program and keep in good touch with their alumni. I am in frequent contact with team President Frain via social media and keep my eye open for the Blades community events such as the Annual Golf Tournament, Steak Night, Student Night and the Alumni Games.
Even though I was part of one of the worst seasons in the history of the franchise, I will always be an involved proud Blenheim Blade Alumni.
*All Quotes Obtained First Hand via Facebook
Special thank you to the following contributors:
Ritch Schaafsma, Ryan Reid, Chris Thomas, Christian Vesnaver, Tim Sanford, John Lynch, Matthew Frain and Chris Sterling.