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92-year-old Wally Stanowski, who played in the Memorial Cup junior hockey tournament, back in 1938 is photographed at home in Toronto, Ont. May 24/2011. (Photo by Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail) (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
92-year-old Wally Stanowski, who played in the Memorial Cup junior hockey tournament, back in 1938 is photographed at home in Toronto, Ont. May 24/2011. (Photo by Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail) (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

JAMES MIRTLE

Whirling Dervish makes it back to Memorial Cup Add to ...

Wally Stanowski's first appearance at the Memorial Cup began with a bribe.

The high-flying, 18-year-old defenceman was one of the stars of his team, the St. Boniface Seals, and he received an anonymous letter at his Toronto hotel asking him to throw the game the next night at Maple Leaf Gardens.

And the offer? One hundred dollars.

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Did he accept?

"Oh hell no," Stanowski said. "We won the series."

Needless to say, things have changed rather dramatically with the Memorial Cup in the 73 years since Stanowski and the Seals won it all, bringing a championship home to Winnipeg after beating the Oshawa Generals.

Now 92, Stanowski made his first trip back to the Memorial Cup on Tuesday night, dropping a puck in a ceremonial faceoff before the Saint John Sea Dogs and Kootenay Ice squared off.

It was a perfect moment in terms of connecting the tournament's storied past with its present, with its oldest living former player - himself a Second World War veteran - honoured by the moment.

Memorial Cup organizers had tried to bring Stanowski to the tournament for more than a decade, but conflicts kept coming up.

For one, he had wanted to keep fishing, with an annual trip to just north of Dryden, Ont., preventing him from making it, year after year.

Asked again this time, however, the Whirling Dervish - as he was known during his NHL playing days - was available and couldn't pass the opportunity up.

And after saying yes, vivid memories of his own Memorial Cup experience came creeping back, as he recalled the team's budget ($400 for the entire season) and playing all 60 minutes in every game as one of only two defencemen on the team.

Then a best-of-five series involving two teams, the tournament's deciding game had a record crowd, at that point setting the mark for the biggest audience for a hockey game in Canada.

"The rink held 12,500, seated," Stanowski said, hitting the figures exactly. "We had 15,617 people there. And that was during the Depression, there wasn't a lot of money around. Thirty-eight was still tough times.

"They were hanging all over the place."

After the big win, the celebration was low key, as the Seals played a dice game in their hotel rooms before taking the train home.

"We didn't have any money," he said.

From there, Stanowski went onto NHL success with the Toronto Maple Leafs, becoming one of the league's colourful characters in the 1940s because of his flashy skating (including a few figure skating manoeuvres thrown in for fun) and willingness to rush the puck.

At 22, he won his first Stanley Cup, playing a starring role with the Leafs team that became the first to come back from a 3-0 playoff disadvantage.

Days after winning that Cup, he was called to serve in the Second World War, and his career was interrupted for 2 1/2 years, when he was with the Royal Canadian Air Force (he wanted to be a pilot, but was colour blind and instead helped with training and didn't fight).

After the war, Stanowski won three more Stanley Cups with the Leafs in the next four years. He remains the last surviving member of the 1942 and 1945 Cup-winning teams.

His playing career ended in 1952 in the minors when his skate hit an object on the ice and he crashed into the boards feet first. He badly broke one of his legs when it went through the boards.

Fifty-nine years later, however, Stanowski was able to walk out on his own power to sit at centre ice at the Hershey Centre, marking his first participation in the Memorial Cup since winning it in 1938.

(The pregame spotlight on this night was reserved mostly for NHL legend Ted Lindsay, however, as he received a video tribute and banner in the rafters, because he is a St. Michael's College alumni.)

Stanowski's only memento from the tournament, meanwhile, is a thin, loonie-sized pendant, but the Seals' team photo hangs prominently among his Leafs jerseys and keepsakes in his Toronto basement.

He remains proud to be a Memorial Cup winner, 73 years after the fact.

"It's good to get the recognition," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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