By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 21, 2011
His left leg encased in a plaster cast, Fred Etcher had to skip the biggest hockey game of his life.
He stood on crutches as he prepared to address his teammates in a dressing room near an outdoor rink at Oslo, Norway.
A broken bone in his ankle had failed to heal in time for the 1958 world championships. The tournament’s final game pitted the Soviet Union versus Canada’s representatives, a squad of amateurs from small-town Ontario.
The Whitby Dunlops carried the name of a sponsor, a tire manufacturer, on their sweaters. They claimed the senior amateur championship in Canada months earlier, earning the right to represent the country at the upcoming world championships.
As the players prepared for a one-game showdown against the Soviets, telegrams urging them on to victory sent by fans back home were read aloud.
Then, Mr. Etcher stepped up to wish his teammates good luck. In the midst of his exhortation, he broke down.
Even an athlete who could not play succumbed to the great pressures of representing Canada against a foe seen as the embodiment of evil. The Dunlops “were carrying the worries of the world on their shoulders and they played as if the world had a bulldozer on top of it,” the sportswriter Milt Dunnell told readers of the Toronto Star.
Etcher, who has died, aged 79, traveled overseas with the team, his cast painted in the Dunlops’ distinctive black-and-yellow livery. (Earlier, when a Soviet team embarked on a goodwill tour of Canada, the forward Veniamin Alexandrov signed the cast as a gesture of friendship.) Though he could not play, Etcher became a familiar figure at the outdoor rink as he outshouted all fans in cheering on his teammates.
The town of Whitby paused as the final game of the world championship was played. Even though her husband was not skating, his wife listened attentively at home in Whitby, radios tuned to Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play call of the world championship game. She turned on a set in both her bedroom and parlour, so she would not miss any action as she nervously paced between the two rooms.
The Dunnies prevailed at Jordal Amfi Stadium, coming from behind to defeat the Soviets 4-2, setting off wild scenes back home, including an impromptu parade of cars and the burning of an effigy of a Soviet hockey player.
Etcher, a 180-pound left-winger, had a reputation as a smooth skater with a lethal shot. He had heavy-lidded eyes, a hint of a widow’s peak, and combed the brow of his short-cropped hair straight back in the fashion of Bing Crosby. A member of the Dunlops’ top line, along with Bob Attersley (obituary, April 7, 2010) and George Samolenko, he also handled penalty-killing duties, his superior skating allowing him to rag the puck.
A devout Mormon, who remained active in his church throughout his life, Etcher opposed playing hockey on the sabbath.
On occasion, sportswriters would note his religious affiliation, such as during the 1957 Memorial Cup, when he scored what would prove to be the wining goal in the decisive game. An American newspaper reported that Etcher’s shots “seemed to have almost divine guidance.”
Frederick Keith Etcher was born on Aug. 23, 1932, the first of six children — three boys and three girls — to Nellie and Keith Etcher.
He was still a teenager when he led the Oshawa Bees to the junior-B championship and a league scoring title in 1951. He moved up a rank to the Oshawa Generals for two seasons before his scoring prowess helped the Oshawa Truckmen claim the senior-B title in 1954.
|A rare Fred Etcher hockey card.|
In 1960, the Kitchener-Waterloo (Ont.) Dutchmen were asked to represent Canada in the hockey tournament to be held during the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, Calif. The Dutchmen were hoping to make up for the ignominy of failing to win the gold medal in 1956, only the second time the Canadian squad had not been triumphant.
The Dutchies supplemented their roster with Whitby players such as defenceman Harry Sinden and the Attersley-Etcher-Samolenko line.
Etcher had two goals and an assist in Canada’s opening game against Sweden, a 5-2 victory, then added a hat-trick and four assists in a 19-1 shellacking of hapless Japan.
Against West Germany, Etcher opened the scoring with two quick goals, later adding three assists, as Canada cruised to a 12-0 victory. He recorded a lone assist when Canada shut out Czechoslovakia, 4-0.
The Canadians’ first serious challenge came against the Americans. Just 10 seconds into the game, Etcher had a clear shot at Jack McCartan in the American goal, but failed to score. The underdogs jumped to a 2-0 lead before the Canadians scored with less than seven minutes left. McCartan turned away all attacks, then, with 20 seconds left on the clock, Attersley raced into the American end with Etcher alongside and but one defenceman between them. Attersley’s pass was knocked away by the desperate defender. Seconds later, as the game ended, the Americans piled on top of their goalie in a delirious pyramid of happiness.
The next morning, the Globe and Mail’s front page featured a photograph of the winning goal being scored with Etcher an unhappy witness to the scene.
The top line, including Etcher, put on a “shoddy performance,” according to the Star.
The Canadians went on to again defeat the Swedes, as well as the Soviets, to gain the silver medal, a prize of little consolation in a land that expected nothing less than gold.
Etcher led all scorers in the Olympic tournament with 21 points in seven games, a record that has now stood for more than a half-century.
In the fall of 1960, Etcher signed as a playing coach for the Uxbridge (Ont.) Black Hawks, an intermediate amateur team who he helped win several consecutive titles.
In summer, Etcher played fastpitch softball, most notably as a slugging first baseman with a high batting average for the Oshawa Tony’s of the Toronto Beaches League.
Etcher spent his working life with General Motors, where he retired as an industrial engineer.
Etcher has been inducted into both the Oshawa and Whitby sports halls of fame.
He died on Nov. 25 at University Hospital at London, Ont. He is survived by his wife, Mary Jane; four adult children; seven grandchildren; a brother; and, a sister. He was predeceased by a brother and two sisters.