This is the month that our region would traditionally be celebrating our rich and proud sports heritage with the hosting of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame Annual Induction ceremonies.
Unfortunately, for the first time since 1982, there will be no inductee class entering the hallowed halls. Originally scheduled to take place on Sept. 26 in Thunder Bay’s Valhalla Inn, the organization’s 39th Annual Induction Dinner and Ceremonies have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seeing as we are not able to hold an induction ceremony this year I thought I would take the opportunity to take a look back at the origins of the honouring of our regions finest athletes, builders and teams.
Although officially being in existence since 1977, the dream of a hall of fame began years earlier with funds being set aside from profits from the Royal Canadian Legion Sports Celebrity Dinner. Over the years more and more people became interested in starting an organization to chronicle the region’s proud sports history and in September of 1975 a group got together and formed a Sports Hall of Fame Steering Committee.
On May 7, 1977 the first Annual Meeting of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame was held at the former Red Oak Inn. Through an arrangement with the Lakehead Board of Education, the organization was provided with two rooms on the second floor of the former Twinhaven School, located at 435 Balmoral Street, the current home of Wequedong Lodge.
On Oct. 28, 1978 an official opening was held with dignitaries and the general public on hand to watch the ribbon cutting ceremony take place. Twenty years later, thanks to an agreement with the City of Thunder Bay, the organization relocated to its present facility, the former Fort William Lands and Titles building located at 219 May Street South, beside City Hall.
During its first five years of operation the primary role of the organization was to serve as a sports museum with an ever growing collection of artifacts on display for the visiting public to enjoy, which it continues to do to this day.
At the same time, the organization was also hard at work putting in place the steps that would be required to select and honour individuals from across the region deemed worthy of entry into a hall of fame by developing a comprehensive document of selection regulations.
By 1982 they were ready to begin the induction process and a call for nominations was made to the public. In March of 1982 eight individuals were appointed to serve on the first Selection Committee. The members of that inaugural group included Chairman Cliff Bowles, Helen Reith, Edgar Laprade, Sandy Sargent, Ted Murphy, Ollie Chapman, Ed Morrisette and Bill Salonen.
On May 14, 1982 the committee met and came up with the inaugural slate of inductees from amongst the submitted nominations. Once the slate was selected, plans were put in place to host the very first Induction Ceremonies which were held on September 25th, 1982 at the former Ortona Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion on Dease Street.
Local artist Barb Kuschak was commissioned to do the portraits of the Inductees and MacLean-Hunter was asked to cover the event and show it the following week on their cable channel.
The Class of 1982 was a venereal who’s who of our regional sports heritage covering a number of sports, eras and communities. Nine athletes entered the Hall of Fame that first year including Alex Delvecchio, Jimmy Guy, Barry Kettering, Edgar Laprade, Wilf L’Heureux, Doug Skinner, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Ward and Gordon (Phat) Wilson.
Three individuals were honoured for their contributions as builders of sport including Mike Guzzell, Hiroshi (Rush) Mitani and Frank Sargent.
With such a rich history of success in hockey it was not surprising to see that of the seven teams inducted that first year, six of them represented that sport, with bowling taking up the other team spot. The inaugural class of honoured teams, included the Stanley Cup winning 1907 Kenora Thistles, the 1925, 1926 and 1929 Port Arthur Seniors who captured our first three Allan Cup titles, the 1922 Fort William Great War Vets and 1948 Port Arthur West End Bruins junior hockey clubs who each brought home Memorial Cup titles and the 1975 Northern Ontario Open Mixed 5-Pin bowling team who claimed the world championship title that year.
Elvira A. Dustin is very proud of the fact that she was technically the first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame as she was the first female member of that team called forward that evening.
The night was described as an evening of pomp and ceremony, which it remains to this day. Former CBQ radio personality Terry Morris read the introductory citations for each of the inductees as they made their way onto the stage where they were greeted by Hall of Fame president Ken Cunningham.
Tickets for the event were $35 each which included a dinner followed by the Induction ceremony and a specially written song sung by Nancy Hamilton to the tune of the Frank Sinatra classic, My Way. Greetings were brought by Dryden’s Mayor Tommy S. Jones and on behalf of the host city by Mayor Walter Assef. When recounting that special night, former NHLer and newspaper columnist Pentti Lund noted that people travelled from far and wide to be on hand for their induction. According to Lund, it was Jimmy Ward who travelled the furthest making the trip from his home in Portland.
Since that time over 260 men and woman and close to 50 teams have been honoured for the outstanding accomplishments and contributions to a wide variety of sports.
For a complete list of all of the Inductees and their information check out www.nwosportshalloffame.com If you know of someone who you think is worthy of being considered for induction be sure to submit their nomination as the selection process relies solely upon the submission of nominations from the public. The deadline for receipt of nomination information is Jan. 31, 2021. Hopefully we will be able to safely gather together next September to welcome in the Class of 2021.
Until next time keep that sports history pride alive and stay safe.
Diane Imrie is the executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.