Friday, December 14, 2007

From peaches and beaches to world beaters

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail

Nov. 28, 2007


Dick Warwick buried a brother last month. He buried a sister in July and another sister a year ago next month.

He might say he was worried about grief becoming a habit if only he had more siblings to lose.

Nine of 10 Warwick children of a great sporting family are gone.

“I'm the only one left,” Dick, 79, said at his home in the Saanichton neighbourhood, near Victoria. The thought gave him pause. “You know, five of us are in the hall of fame in Saskatchewan.”

Claude was a boxer. Millie played baseball professionally in the United States in a circuit made famous by the Hollywood movie A League of Their Own. Grant and Billy were tough forwards in the National Hockey League.

Dick was never in the NHL, but he lured his brothers to the Okanagan Valley in the 1950s, where they operated a popular restaurant and helped transform a local hockey team from a squad of amateurs into world beaters.

They learned their toughness on the Saskatchewan prairie. Their parents, who hailed from Quebec's Eastern Townships, travelled west after the Great War, during which their father broke colts for military service. They had farms at Sintaluta and Indian Head, but lost the land during the Depression and were forced into the city. Their father went from driving a tractor to driving a truck.

Dick Warwick was the baby in a brood with five sisters (Embyl, Isma, Jean, Wilda, Millie) and four brothers (Archie, Claude, Grant, Billy).

“It was tough times,” he said. “There was no money at all. But my parents worked hard and we never missed a meal.”

They lived across the street from a large field that the city flooded each winter. The boys learned to stickhandle with broken sticks scavenged from the local junior team, nailed together and covered in tape. Skates were shared among the boys and Dick can remember his mother spending 15 cents to buy him a second-hand pair.

“We played every sport there was to be played. It kept us out of trouble.”

Hockey also encouraged the lads in an exploration of the pugilistic arts. In 1941, Claude took the Dominion amateur featherweight title, overcoming a hard-hitting local favourite at a tournament in Vancouver.

Claude joined the navy as a boxing instructor that summer. He was pressed into service with the Regina Navy football team and scored his team's only touchdown against Winnipeg in the 1942 Western final.

He was stationed in Nova Scotia near the end of the Second World War when the bus in which he was a passenger was struck by a train near Sydney. He suffered a concussion, was taken to hospital in Montreal, and lingered for two weeks before dying four days before what was to have been his wedding day.

Then the oldest son, Archie, a flight lieutenant in the air force, had a nervous breakdown after crash landing while towing a glider. After recuperating, he had a long career as an engineer.

Meanwhile, Grant, who was nicknamed Nobby, was named the NHL's rookie of the year for scoring 16 goals with the New York Rangers during the 1941-42 season. Grant enjoyed eight seasons in the NHL. Billy joined him for two brief call-ups with the Rangers, although most of his career was spent in the minors.

Dick never made the NHL. In those days, there were more seats in the House of Commons than jobs in the top league. Still, there was a market for the Warwicks' hard-crashing, take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs style. In 1948, Dick turned down a chance to play professionally at Wembley. “They made a big offer,” he said. “I'd have been the dukes of dukes.” Instead, he wound up playing in Nanaimo, then moved on to Penticton in the beautiful Okanagan Valley.

The town, whose population was about 12,000 in the mid-1950s, was known for its peaches and its beaches. The senior amateur hockey club even took its nickname from three varieties of peaches grown in the bountiful valley – Vedette, Valiant and Veteran.

The Vees had more aspirations than talent in Dick's first season with the club. It was not until he lured his brothers to British Columbia – fans even passed the hat to raise $1,300 to gain Grant's release from Buffalo – that the team had enough scoring punch to challenge for the Dominion title.

Away from the ice, the brothers operated Warwick's Commodore Cafe (“Where sportsmen meet”) across the street from the post office. Dick liked to order a sirloin, or T-bone steak. (He was also partial to a pretty cashier named Pam, to whom he has been married for 53 years.) The restaurant was a popular gathering place for local sports fans.

In 1953-54, with Grant as the playing coach, the Vees won the Okanagan league. They then defeated the Nelson Maple Leafs for the B.C. championship and the flashy Winnipeg Maroons for the Western title, before upsetting the Sudbury Wolves for the Allan Cup as senior champions. The Vees were then selected to represent Canada at the world championships to be played in West Germany the following March.

The little town went crazy. A local singer recorded a song urging her team on to victory.

The Vees were placed in the unenviable position of having to reclaim Canada's reputation as a hockey power after the Soviets had knocked off a team from Toronto the previous year.

The Vees crushed the Americans 12-1 with Billy scoring six goals. In the game against Czechoslovakia, Billy Warwick twice tied the score for Canada before the Penticton team won, 5-3.

The Warwick brothers were ardent anti-Communists, and before the showdown against the Soviet Union, Grant told the players that if they lost they might as well move to China.

A few thousand Canadian soldiers stationed nearby attended the game at Krefeld, West Germany, which was broadcast by Foster Hewitt to a large radio audience back home.

“They were dirty buggers, I'll tell you,” Dick said of the Soviet players.

The Soviets relied on a scientific rather than a spontaneous style of puck movement.

“They had a certain pattern of coming out of their own end,” Dick said. “We adapted to it and then we took command.”

The Canadians won 5-0 with Billy scoring two goals and Ivan McLelland getting the shutout. (The goalie gave up just six goals in eight games.) After the game, he told Mr. Hewitt and his Canadian audience that victory over the Soviets felt better than winning the Stanley Cup.

The team returned home with a beautiful silver trophy. The brothers put it on display in their restaurant. It was supposed to be returned to competition, but Dick remembers Billy hated the idea of surrendering it.

“He said, ‘Hell, we worked hard for that trophy. We're keeping it.' ”A silver-plated replica was ordered and was sent to Europe the next year with the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen.

The Warwicks kept their secret for years.

A year ago, there were four surviving siblings. Millie died in Edmonton last December. Wilda died in Winnipeg in July. Billy died in the Alberta capital last month. Now, there is only Dick left from his generation of Warwicks. He knows where the trophy is but he's not saying.

The Vees' triumph came seven months after the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. Preceded by Percy Williams' two gold medals at the 1928 Summer Olympics and followed by the world hockey championship won by the Trail Smoke Eaters in 1961 and Nancy Greene's Olympic skiing medals seven years later, the Vees put the province on the world's sporting map, a status to be confirmed in 26½ months with the opening of the 2010 Winter Games.

Mr. Warwick is hoping he'll be invited. If so, he might have a piece of silverware to show off.

2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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