The Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame has being preserving the outstanding sports heritage of our region since we opened our doors to the public in 1978.
Since 1982 we have recognized 173 athletes, 90 builders and 49 teams. On Sept. 28 we will add six more names to the list of honoured members as we welcome in the Class of 2019 at our 38th annual induction dinner and ceremonies.
Historically the idea of honouring our local athletes and builders of sport can be traced back to 1955 and an event organized by a group of volunteers representing the Royal Canadian Legion Central Committee. Originally called the Sportsman’s Dinner, it changed its name to the Sports Celebrity Dinner in 1961, and operated under the sponsorship of the legions for over 40 years.
The first chairman of the dinner was John Carrel with Fred Bragnalo eventually taking over the reins.
In addition to honouring athletes and builders of sport the goal of the committee was also to provide people the chance to listen to some famous sports personalities and raise some money, with the original beneficiary being the Legion Youth Development Program.
That first year saw Jack (Baldy) James named the athlete of the year who was recognized alongside Senior Sportsmen Harry Newell and Charlie Stenback. Celebrities that attended the 1955 dinner included Jeff Heath, Jack Jacobs, Jim Russell and Nels Stewart.
In 1965 the first female athlete was recognized with Anne Lushney being honoured for her accomplishments in golf. The event would also recognize a local Timmy in conjunction with the Kiwanis Club Crippled Children Committee. Speakers at those early dinners came from far and wide and represented a number of sports, including the likes of Bud Grant, Red Storey, Joe Garagiola, Jessie Owens, Bart Starr and Jake Lamotta.
The dinner moved around from the CLE to various legion halls eventually establishing itself at the Ortona branch. As the years progressed a ticket to the event became a hard commodity to come by with waiting lists established year after year. The event was not without its controversies.
Although they recognized female athletes of the year, women could not attend the dinner, which led to some public disapproval.
In addition to the legion youth sport programs, funds raised over the years went to support a number of projects including the hospital Cat Scan fund, upgrades to the Legion Track for the 1981 Canada Summer Games and capital funds to help establish the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
When the legion’s eventually stopped sponsoring the dinner another group of individuals began the Celebrity Sports Dinner which lasted into the mid 2010s and also honoured builders of sport.
I am always pleased to see when communities and sport groups take the imitative to preserve and honour their unique sports history through the establishment of their own sports halls and walls of fame and various recognition programs.
We have assisted a number of them in their set-up and I always enjoy finding out who they honour with each induction class.Lakehead University established their Wall of Fame back in 1996 and on Oct. 5 will welcome their 2019 inductees including athletes Justin BeauParlant, Jylisa Williams, Andy Ritchie, Kelly Williams, the members of the 2001-2002 men’s wrestling team and builder Ron Lappage.
While not a sport specific themed tribute, the Thunder Bay Walk of Fame, which was also established in the late 1990s, is comprised of floor tiles located in Victoriaville Mall and includes a number of athletes and sports administrators. Another recognition program which often includes individuals involved in sport is the City of Thunder Bay’s Citizens of Exceptional Achievement Awards.
In 2007 the Thunder Bay District Golf Association established a Hall of Fame that is located in the clubhouse at Chapple’s golf course. Their inaugural class included Bill Gordon, Ken Britton, Bob Devine and Bill Guy with their 2019 inductees Bill Seagris and Mark Shushack being honoured this week.
The Fort Frances Sports Hall of Fame was established in 2015 and is located in the Memorial Sports Centre.
Their inaugural year welcomed Frank (Ike) Eisenzoph, Brock Madill, Jon Gustafson and the 1960 Fort Frances Canadians and 1989 Muskie football team along with the ten individuals and two teams that had been inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame over the years. On Aug. 20 they held their third induction ceremonies with seven more individuals and two teams being recognized.
Terrace Bay established their Sports Wall of Fame in 2016 and held their first inductions in August of 2017 at which time they unveiled the plaques of 24 athletes, seven builders and five teams at the Terrace Bay Community Centre.
In 2018 seven more individuals and three teams were added to the wall of honour.
The Kenora Sports Hall of Fame welcomed their first slate of inductees last September. The class of 2018 included Dave Van Belleghem, Neil Strain, Shirley Weibe, Gordon Peterson and RoxAnne Daignault who had their plaques added to walls of the Kenora Recreation Centre along with the plaques of the Kenora residents who are in the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
Whether it is for someone’s accomplishments in sport, the arts, culture or business, the honouring of our fellow citizens goes a long way in adding to our sense of community pride, which is something we need now more than ever.
Thanks to all of you who take the time to initiate, nominate, organize and support these recognition programs.
Until next time keep that sports history alive.
Diane Imrie is the executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. Her column runs every second week.