Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ode to a hockey mom extraordinaire

Smithers was a finalist in the 2007 Hockeyville competition. The town's video featured Mary Watson, who had two of her six sons play in the National Hockey League. BELOW RIGHT: Joe Watson. BELOW LEFT: Jimmy Watson.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 31, 2010


The multitudes gathered at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Smithers to bid farewell to a hockey mom.

Prayers were offered and hosannas sung. More than 200 came to the church for a memorial service on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Counted among the mourners were all six of Mary Watson’s sons.

Two of them — Joe, the oldest, and Jimmy, from the middle of the litter — told stories.

There was the time when 14-year-old Joe was checked hard into the boards at the Smithers arena. They didn’t wear helmets in those days and the boards at the rink didn’t have glass. His mom shocked the rival player by reaching over and grabbing the kid by the hair. “No one touches my boy,” she told him.

Then there was the time, many years later, when Jimmy was running the bases in a ball game only to fall down in a dusty heap. Convinced he’d been tripped by the second baseman, Mary Watson marched onto the field to confront the alleged culprit, all the while waving her oversized orange purse. That Jimmy was a grown man not unfamiliar with settling his own disputes — with fisticuffs, if necessary — mattered to her not a whit.

It was entirely appropriate that one of the readings from the morning mass the day of the service had been Psalm 18 — “I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till I destroyed them.”

Where there could have been weeping, there was instead laughter.

“It was sad,” said Jerry Watson, at 43 the youngest son, “but it was a nice, comfortable memorial.”

Mary Watson was a fierce advocate for her sons. She saw her eldest go from playing pond hockey with frozen horse droppings all the way to the National Hockey League. He became a stalwart on the blue-line for the Philadelphia Flyers, where he would be joined a few seasons later by Jimmy.

The brothers won a pair of Stanley Cups together as members of a team immortalized as the Broad Street Bullies, a nickname stemming from the street on which the arena was located and for the scofflaw behaviour of the tenants.

Smithers is a long way from Prince George, never mind the bright lights of a metropolis like Philadelphia.

The Watson brothers brought with them to the NHL a small-town innocence. They were tough, honest lads from the Canadian hinterland not much given to sophistication. Joe Watson, a high school dropout, was skating for the Boston Bruins when drafted by the expansion club in Philadelphia, a city he could not find on the map.

Back in 1974, Joe was preparing for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals when the telephone rang. The father whose name he carried was on the line.

“I’m here,” Joe Watson Sr. said.

“What do you mean, ‘I’m here’?” replied Joe Watson Jr.

“I’m in Philadelphia. At the airport.The thing is, I don’t have any money.”

His father, a logger in summer and butcher in winter, had traveled by bus for 33 hours from Smithers to Vancouver to Denver, where he caught a flight to Philly, landing just two hours before the puck was to drop. He didn’t have a ticket to the sold-out game.

“He was still wearing his overalls, all covered in cowshit,” the son recalled yesterday (Tuesday). “It was crazy.”

The son called the team’s owner, who arranged for the father to be his guest in the luxury seats, where he hobnobbed with Mayor Frank Rizzo and the singer Kate Smith, who belted out “God Bless America” before the start of the game.

The Watson brothers celebrated their first championship with their father that night.
After the defencemen won their second Cup a year later, a reporter spotted the half-dressed pair in a small room at the rear of the Flyers’ tumultuous dressing room.

Joe placed a long-distance call to the modest wood-frame house a continent away in which he had grown up.

“The best team won, mom, the best team won,” he told her.

“Here’s Jimmy, okay, ma?”

He handed the phone to his little brother.

“Hi, mammy,” Jimmy said. “What a game. Did you watch it all?”

The daughter of Croatian immigrants, who left the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a new life as farmers in the new world, Mary Yelich rode her horse seven miles to school in spring and fall. In the dead of winter, she and her brother boarded with a family closer to the school.

After marriage, she raised her boys in a four-room house on Broadway Avenue behind the Royal Bank on Main Street. Their first winter there was grim, as the home lacked insulation and the family huddled around a pot-bellied stove.

Her boys grew strong on borscht and cabbage rolls, sometimes filled with moose meat. To bring in extra money, she worked for decades as a waitress at the Northern Star Cafe, just around the corner from the family home.

In 1954, a community group bought a wartime aircraft hanger at Terrace Airport. It was hauled to Smithers and turned into a rink. Mary Watson was one of the volunteers who pounded nails on the project. The rink didn’t even get artificial ice until 1963.

Even after the last of her boys had packed off to play junior hockey in Alberta, Mary returned to the rink. She watched children of all ages play, from novices to bantam. The kids called her Grandma Watson.

Three years ago, she was interviewed as part of the Hockeyville television series. She was credited with sending her two boys and seven other “Smithereens,” as they were called, into the NHL. They held a special day for her at the rink, during which she was shown a portrait to hang in the arena alongside those Joe and Jimmy.

Her padded seat in the last row of the rink had a patch on it. “Reserved for Mary Watson,” it read, her name in script. When she became too ill to attend games, the patch was removed. Her daughter-in-law Noralie sewed it onto a pillow, which was presented to her on her 87th birthday. She died a week later.

Catching up with Smithers' first family of hockey

Mary Watson died on March 19. She is survived by her six sons, aged from 66 to 43, and by her ex-husband. Joe Sr., 93, from whom she was divorced, has dementia and lives in a care facility.

Today, Joe Jr. is a senior account executive in the Philadelphia Flyers’ advertising sales department; Fred operates the old Yelich farmstead outside Smithers; Stephan is a waiter at the Northern Star Cafe; Jimmy is co-owner of the IceWorks skating complex at Aston, Penn.; Glen is coach and general manager of the Quesnel Millionaires junior team; and, Jerry is an equipment operator at the West Fraser sawmill.

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