Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bob Attersley, hockey player and politician (1933-2010)

Bob Attersley captained the Whitby Dunlops hockey team. He won a world championship in 1958 and a silver medal at the 1960 Olympics.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 7, 2010

The final match of the 1958 world hockey championship pitted the Soviet Union’s best players against an amateur team from small-town Ontario.

A game to determine global hockey supremacy carried even greater burdens.

For one below-freezing afternoon, the frontline of the Cold War could be found on an outdoor rink at Oslo, Norway.

The Soviet athletes competed for the glory of their motherland, as well the superiority of their leadership’s Communist ideology, while the Whitby Dunlops carried the weight of a nation’s fear it might no longer dominate the sport it bequeathed the world.

All the skaters faced extraordinary pressure.

In the postwar years, the Soviets and Canadians became hockey arch-rivals, the world championship pitting a nuclear power against a club bearing the name of a tire manufacturer on their sweaters.

The outcome was 60 minutes of what the Toronto Telegram described as “a brutal, rugged, at times vicious game.”

It was in this circumstance that Bob Attersley, at age 24, delivered one of the greatest performances by a Canadian player on the international stage. Mr. Attersley belongs in the pantheon of hockey heroes with the likes of Paul Henderson, Darryl Sittler, Mario Lemieux and, most recently, Sidney Crosby, all of whom scored dramatic goals.

He had success on the ice as an amateur, later proved himself in business before enjoying a long political career, eventually serving as the longtime mayor of the city whose name he helped make familiar to hockey fans around the globe.

If his feats were not readily remembered at home, it was perhaps because the stylish centre never played in the National Hockey League.

Robert Alan Attersley carried a lean 165 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame. A broad nose, full lips, and swept-back hair, as well as a confident air, gave him a pugnacious appearance, though he mostly kept his play within the confines of the hockey rule book. He had good hands around the net and was not averse to passing the puck to a teammate in better position.

Born in Oshawa, Ont., he was a product of the automotive city’s minor hockey system. He played two seasons of midget and two more of bantam before lacing up with the junior-B team. He qualified for the Oshawa Generals as a 17-year-old junior-A rookie in 1950-51. His point totals increased each season and, by his third campaign, he recorded 45 goals and 43 assists to lead his team and finish fourth in the league in scoring.

The young centre received the Tilson Memorial Trophy, awarded by sportswriters to the league’s outstanding player. The trophy, sponsored by the Globe and Mail, honoured the memory of Albert (Red) Tilson, a former junior player killed in action at age 20 in 1944 while serving with the Canadian Army in Europe.

The Oshawa arena burned down, so the Generals were dispersed throughout the league. The Guelph Biltmores plucked the centre’s name from a hat and he went on to record 116 points in 59 games.

Mr. Attersley joined the senior Dunlops in 1954 for the first of six high-scoring campaigns. The centre worked at the tire factory when not on the ice.

The Dunnies, as they were also known, won the league title in his first three seasons, then unexpectedly claimed the Allan Cup as amateur champions in 1957 by sweeping the Spokane (Wash.) Flyers in four straight games. Mr. Attersley scored one of the goals in a 5-2 victory in the final game, as the home team delighted 6,259 delirious fans.

The Dunlops, managed by Wren Blair, were selected to represent Canada at the world championship. One of the early announcements from the team was that wives would not be accompanying the players.

“We’re not going overseas on a sightseeing tour,” Mr. Blair said, “but to play hockey with the sole aim of bringing back to Canada the world hockey title.”

Sweden was the defending champ, in a tournament Canadian officials chose to skip, while the Soviets had claimed gold at the Olympics in 1956.

Joan Attersley told a reporter the wives were disappointed, but were resigned to the fact of being hockey widows for two months.

The Dunnies swept a pre-tournament, 14-game exhibition series with games in England, Germany, Norway and Sweden. Whitby outscored the opposition 162-18.

Led by captain Harry Sinden, a defenceman, the Dunlops wore yellow sweaters with black stripes with a touch of red in the logo. Four veined maple leaves formed a half-moon below the neck of the front of the sweater, while five more could be found on the back, which included the word CANADA instead of a player’s name across the shoulders.

The team received a giant telegram signed by hundreds of Canadians back home. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker sent a message. Foster Hewitt arrived to broadcast the game over the radio.

For the deciding game, 11,000 spectators shoehorned into Jordal Amfi Stadium in Oslo, the site of the Winter Olympic tournament six years earlier. The outdoor rink was surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped grandstand. The fans were joined by King Olav, as well as by 120 reporters, a large turnout in those days.

“The tension built and built,” Mr. Attersley told the Globe’s Trent Frayne in 1983. “It was the way they ran the tournament; we played every day. We kept winning and so did the Russians. I don’t know how much sleep the guys got the night before the final. I know I tossed and turned and fretted.”

The Soviets scored in the game’s opening minutes, as the Canadians struggled with penalties. They trailed into almost the final minute of the second period when, at 18:42, Mr. Attersley pushed the puck past Nikolai Puchkov in the Soviet goal.

The teams exchanged goals in the third period. With less than four minutes to play, Attersley scored what would be the game winner. Just 25 seconds later, he fired a shot tipped in for an insurance goal by Bus Gagnon.

The Dunlops celebated at the final whistle by hoisting playing coach Sid Smith onto their shoulders.

The Dunlops had won seven consecutive games in the tournament, scoring 78 goals while goalie Roy Edwards surrendered eight while recording three shutouts.

George Dulmage, sports editor of the Toronto Telegram, admitted to crying as Mr. Sinden stood atop the podium for the playing of “O Canada.” The editor had high praise for the game’s top scorer.

“There was Bob Attersley, the centre, who suddenly you saw skate into the Russian end to combat a still fresh and eager Russian player,” he wrote. “He was bumped but he wouldn’t go down. His legs were like rubber but he was staying with the Russian and fighting him for the puck. Bobby Attersley had already scored two goals to bear out what you had written about him, that here was a player who would be there when all the blue chips were piled on the table.”

The victory was hailed back home as the only acceptable outcome.

“We Canadians are a modest folk, with a due awareness of our own limitations,”opined the Toronto Star. “We do not expect to beat the French at cooking, the Persians at rug-making or the Australians at tennis. But we do, by golly, expect to handle all comers when the game is hockey.”

The Dunlops repeated as Allan Cup champions in 1959, defeating the Vernon (B.C.) Canadians. Whitby declined the opportunity to represent Canada at the 1960 Winter Olympics, to be hosted at Squaw Valley, Calif. Instead, the Kitchener-Waterloo (Ont.) Dutchmen got the nod, bolstering their lineup with Mr. Sinden and the Dunnies top scoring line featuring Mr. Attersley with Fred Etcher and George Samolenko.

The Dutchies’ only loss in the seven-game tournament came at the hands of the host Americans, who won 2-1. Mr. Attersley’s line had a poor game, owing perhaps to his being hobbled by a knee injury.

On the last day, the Canadians once again faced the Soviets, prevailing again, this time by 8-5. Mr. Attersley scored the final goal, having already contributed four assists, his victim once again the unlucky Mr. Puchkov.

The Americans claimed the gold medal, the Canadians taking silver. Mr. Attersley scored six goals and 12 assists in seven games, the second best total on the team.

His rights belonged to the NHL’s Boston Bruins. He tried out twice in camp, but failed to make the Hershey Bears farm team, perhaps owing to his slight stature. At times, his weight dropped as a low as a reported 153 pounds.

The centre spent two productive seasons in the Eastern Professional Hockey League with the Kingston (Ont.) Frontenacs, a Bruins affiliate.

His hockey career ended in 1963 after a season split between the Johnstown (Penn.) Jets and Clinton (N.Y.) Comets. He chose instead to open an eponymous tire shop in Whitby.

He began political career in 1964 with election to county council. A longtime councillor, he served as Whitby mayor from 1980 to 1991.

Five years ago, his No. 15 Dunlops sweater was put on permanent display in the lobby of the Iroquois Park Sports Centre in Whitby.

He was inducted into the Whitby Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

As the Olympics were held in Vancouver, Mr. Attersley visited schools to show off his Olympic silver and world championship gold medals. He was still sore about losing to the Americans a half-century earlier.

“We should have bloody well won the gold medal,” he told the columnist Brian McNair. “You never forget it. Losing to the Americans really hurt.”

Robert Alan Attersley was born on Aug. 13, 1933, at Oshawa, Ont. He died on March 12 at the Rouge Valley Hospital at Ajax, Ont. He was 76. He leaves his wife, the former Joan Evans; a daughter; a son; three grandchildren; and, a sister. He was predeceased by a brother.

The 1958 Whitby Dunlops represented Canada at the world hockey championship at Oslo, Norway.

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