"It was a time and a place I’ll never forget."
Bud Birch played hockey with Yellowknife’s Con Cougars in the winter of 1961-62. After reading Herb Mathisen’s story “They Just Didn’t Let Up,” in the March issue of Up Here—which chronicles a thrilling comeback by the Con Cougars in the finals against the local “Town” team—Birch decided to share some of his memories with us:
[Note: we have no reason to doubt Bud’s numbers, but we were unable to confirm the league statistics provided below.]
The summer of 1961 was an extremely dry summer in Manitoba. In September, my cousin Alvin and I went to Yellowknife to seek employment for the winter. When we applied at Con and Giant Mine they asked if we played hockey and what position. We also applied at the department of public works. When we were interviewed by Mr. Bruce Angus at the department, he asked how long we wanted to work and we both said six months. (Big mistake.) So with $1.60 per hour plus 33 cents per hour northern allowance, free room and board we thought we had it made.
A few weeks later while attending a Sunday night movie, Ray Merrifield asked if I wanted to play hockey with Con. Practice was on Wednesday. On Monday and Tuesday I went to watch Molson and Giant practise and after seeing how good they were I wondered what I was getting into.
We got off to an excellent start, winning all of our games before Christmas. Shortly after the New Year, Wes Jones left the team. That’s when a young, extremely good skating 15-year-old named Bobby Balsillie joined the team.
All too soon our six months were up and we had to head back to Manitoba.
I played every league game but never played one game in the playoffs, which Molson won.
It bothers me till this day wondering if we could have won had I been able to stay longer. I have never played with a more talented group of players. We won 21 games and only lost 5. Pat Deman won the scoring race with 107 points, the first person to ever reach 100. Pat Balsillie was the best defenceman, and I got the best goalie trophy. Pat Balsillie had played in St. John’s with the Maple Leafs farm team. We had players from the Sudbury Wolves, Kimberly Dynamiters, Trail Smoke Eaters, Medicine Hat Tigers and Notre Dame Hounds.
Ron Sulz was supposed to play with us but ended up with the Molson team. Coffee Bob [Olexin] kept bringing in players every week as the year went on.
Outside of Bobby and Orville Williams joining our team in the middle of the winter, we had the same team we started with.
In February, the Edmonton Junior Oilers came up to play an exhibition game against the Yellowknife All Stars. The arena was packed and Edmonton won by one goal.
It was a time and a place I’ll never forget.