50 years of memorable moments in local sports

November 2020

It feels like a century ago that we kicked off a new year and new decade. In this year of COVID-19 it is easy to forget that when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2020 it ushered in what was to be a year full of special celebrations to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the City of Thunder Bay. Given that the majority of the planned activities for the City’s 50th birthday party had to be cancelled, I thought it would be nice to close out this year by reminding ourselves just how much Thunder Bay has to be proud of in the world of sports since becoming a City back in 1970.

When we began planning for ways in which to celebrate the City’s 50th we put our thinking caps on to come up with some of the memorable moments from our sporting past. Needless to say the list was pretty extensive, and too numerous for this article, but I thought I would highlight some of them.

Perhaps the best example of a team being born out of amalgamation were the Thunder Bay Twins who were formed as the result of the joining together of the Fort William Senior Beavers and the Port Arthur Senior Bearcats. Icing a squad for the 1970-71 USHL 40-game season, they adopted the team colours of green and gold which were selected to match the City of Thunder Bay’s new look. When the puck was dropped on October 16th, 1970 in front of over 2,100 fans at the Fort William Gardens, it marked the official start of the Thunder Bay Twins hockey dynasty. During their heyday the Fort William Gardens would be full to the rafters as the team provided many exciting moments for local hockey fans having won a total of 5 Allan Cup titles (1975, 1984, 1985, 1988 and 1989) as Canadian Senior Hockey champions.

The number of NHL players who developed their hockey skills on the rinks of Thunder Bay since 1970 is quite remarkable. Not only have over 50 of them made it to the big leagues, some of them have also earned the chance to experience that memorable moment of hoisting the holy grail of hockey, the Stanley Cup, including: Lee Fogolin Jr (1984,1985-Edmonton Oilers), Tony Hrkac (1999-Dallas Stars), Eric Staal (2006-Carolina Hurricanes), Jordan Staal (2009-Pittsburgh Penguins), Patrick Sharp (2010, 2013, 2015-Chicago Blackhawks), Matt Murray (2016, 2017-Pittsburgh Penguins) and Robert Bortuzzo (2019-St. Louis Blues).

Thunder Bay’s dominance in the hockey arena has also been represented by a number of individuals who have donned the maple leaf at Olympic Winter Games, many of whom returned home with medals including, Kevin Dahl (1992-silver), Greg Johnson (1994-silver), Katie Weatherston (2006–gold), Eric Staal (2010-gold), Haley Irwin (2010, 2014-gold, 2018-silver) and Patrick Sharp (2014-gold).

Thunder Bay athletes have also returned home from Olympic Summer Games with medals. The most successful of all of them was Curt Harnett who became the first athlete from Thunder Bay to win an individual medal at an Olympic Games, bringing home a silver medal from the 1984 Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. He went on to claim bronze medals at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics and earn multiple podium finishes in World Cup, World Championships, Pan American and Commonwealth Games. In his retirement he served as the chef de mission for Team Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games and the 2016 Olympic Summer Games. In 2008 Thunder Bay’s Olympic pride was kept alive when Liam Parsons rowed his way to a bronze medal as a member of Canada’s Lightweight Men’s 4 crew in Beijing.

Our Paralympic medal haul started off with Magella Belanger who participated successfully in athletics winning a silver medal in Toronto in 1976 and gold in 1980 in Arnhem, Netherlands. Andrea Cole started the new century off right, claiming gold and silver medals in swimming at the 2000 Paralympic Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, and kept it going when she added bronze and silver medals in 2004 in Athens, Greece. Multi-sport athlete Robbi Weldon competed in para-nordic skiing in 2010 and 2014 and cycled her way to a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympic Summer Games in London, making a return trip in 2016 to the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The success of curlers representing Thunder Bay has spanned five decades, multiple disciplines and has included national and world titles. Starting it all off was skip Bill Tetley along with Rick Lang, Bill Hodgson Jr. and Peter Hnatiw who brought home Thunder Bay’s first Brier in 1975 as national men’s curling champions. Legendary skip Al Hackner and his rink of Rick Lang, Bob Nicol, Bruce Kennedy and fifth man Al Fiskar claimed the 1982 Brier title and our first world curling title as 1982 Air Canada Silver Broom champions. Hackner and Lang returned to the Brier and world supremacy in 1985, along with Ian Tetley and Pat Perroud. In 1988 skip Heather Houston and her rink of Lorraine Lang, Diane Adams, Tracy Kennedy and fifth Gloria Taylor claimed Thunder Bay’s first Canadian Women’s curling title. Repeating as Scott Tournament of Hearts champions in 1989 they went on to win our first women’s world curling crown that year.

The 1980s also saw another memory that is shared by thousands of Thunder Bay citizens who were involved in the hosting of the 1981 Canada Summer Games. The event took place in August of that year and saw mascot Choklit Moose welcome 3,600 athletes from across the nation to compete in 17 different sports. The opening ceremonies were held at the Fort William Stadium and featured the awakening of Nanabijou with a 1,000-voice choir of school children and 400 colourful dancers.

Our ski hills have also provided a number of great memories and produced some of our nation’s top skiers including 3-time Olympic ski-jumper Steve Collins and one of the original Crazy Canucks, Dave Irwin. In 1995 Thunder Bay made history as the first Canadian city to ever host the Nordic World Ski Championships marking only the second time the event was ever held outside of Europe. Hosted at Big Thunder, the competition featured the world’s top athletes in cross-country, jumping and nordic-combined skiing. Our tradition of hosting great events has carried on to this day, as was evident this past February when our amazing volunteers staged the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games.

As I mentioned at the outset, this article just touches the surface of the amazing moments that have taken place over the past half century throughout the sports community of our great City. Congratulations to all of our athletes who have represented us with pride and thanks to the coaches, volunteers and organizers who have made it all happen. Happy 50th birthday Thunder Bay and here’s to many more memorable moments to come. Stay safe everyone.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at dimrie@tbaytel.net

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