|City||Kenora, Ontario, Canada|
Princess Rink (1894 – 1897)|
Victoria Rink (1897 – 1907)
|1894–1905||Rat Portage Thistles|
|Regular season titles||1902, 1904, 1906, 1907|
The Kenora Thistles, officially the Thistles Hockey Club were an ice hockey team based in Kenora, Ontario, Canada. Founded in 1894, they were originally known as the Rat Portage Thistles (the town changed to Kenora in 1905), and competed for the Stanley Cup four times, in 1903, 1905, and 1907, winning it in January 1907 before subsequently losing that March, and disbanded in 1908. Composed almost entirely of local players, the team is notable for being from the smallest city by population to have won the Stanley Cup, and the only team to win between the introduction of the Cup in 1893 and 1912 to not be from Montreal, Winnipeg, or Ottawa. Four homegrown players and four signed players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, while the Stanley Cup champion team was inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
Though the city of Kenora is in Ontario, the proximity of the city to the province of Manitoba meant that the Thistles competed in Manitoba-based leagues throughout its existence. They joined the Manitoba Hockey Association and played in that league, consistently winning the league championship. Idealized during their existence "as a team of hometown boys who used to play shinny together on the streets of Rat Portage," they were unable to cope with the advent of professionalism in ice hockey during the early 1900s, which combined with economic downturn in 1907 meant the team was unable to sustain its success, and disbanded in 1908. The team name has since been used for multiple senior, minor, and junior teams in Kenora.
- 1 Early years (1894–1903)
- 2 Stanley Cup Challenges, 1903–1905
- 3 Stanley Cup Challenges, January and March 1907
- 4 Demise of the Thistles
- 5 Legacy
- 6 Stanley Cup Challenge Series Results
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Early years (1894–1903)
The Hudson's Bay Company established a factory north of the current city in 1836. They named it Rat Portage, a translation of the Ojibwe language-name for the region: Waszush Onigum, which literally means "the road to the country of the muskrat." Gold was discovered in the region around 1850, and the Canadian Pacific Railway reached the region in 1877, followed by a sawmill in 1880, and the town was incorporated in 1882, originally in the province of Manitoba. Located near the Manitoba-Ontario provincial border, the region was contested between the two provinces until the Privy Council ruled in favour of Ontario in 1884. However the close proximity to Winnipeg (roughly 210 kilometres (130 mi) away) and the rest of Manitoba meant it remained focused towards the west rather than Ontario, where the closest city was Port Arthur (500 kilometres (310 mi)).
With the railroad connecting the town to Central and Eastern Canada, it grew quickly, going from only a few people prior to the railway link, to 5,202 in 1901 and 6,257 by 1908. It grew to support multiple industries, mainly lumber, mining, and fishing, but also milling, power development, and tourism. An ice rink was built in 1886, the Princess Rink. This was replaced in 1897 by the Victoria Rink, which had many more seats (1,000), and a larger ice surface. On May 11, 1905 the town changed its name to Kenora. The new name came from the first letters of the three neighbouring municipalities: Keewatin, Norman, and Rat Portage. The change occurred due to the establishment of a new flour mill in town; sports historian John Wong has suggested that "the capitalists thought the town’s name would not be conducive to the sale of flour."
Formation of the Thistles
The first ice hockey game played in Rat Portage was recorded on February 17, 1893. It was organized by the Hardisty brothers, who had recently moved from Winnipeg to take part in a minor gold rush in the region. A club was formed in 1894 and held a contest for the name; the winning entry, the Thistles, was chosen by Bill Dunsmore, a carpenter with Scottish heritage. The initial funds for the team were donated by George Dewey, one of the wealthiest people in the town; in recognition he was named honorary president of the club. Most of the players were from wealthy families or wealthy themselves, as they had the means to both take time off work to play and cover the considerable expenses associated with ice hockey.
There was no owner of the team or financial backer; instead it was a community effort, with officers elected to make decisions for the club. As a result, the team was strained financially, and would be throughout its existence. In March 1894 the team hosted a benefit concert to raise funds; it provided a success, though a similar attempt the following year did not bring in as much money. Even so, concerts were held consistently until 1903. Notably local businesses never financially supported the club.
Initially the players played amongst themselves, but quickly grew tired of doing so. In 1894 they joined the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association, playing in the second-tier intermediate level. Despite being in Ontario, the Thistles joined a Manitoba league due to their close proximity to the teams in that league. In their first season playing in the Manitoba league they won twelve games, showing they could easily compete at that level.
In January 1896 an important match as held in Kenora, between the senior team and a junior team composed of players aged 12–16. The junior players, many of whom were related to players on the senior team, felt they could compete with the older team, and subsequently won, dominating their opponents. In an 1953 newspaper article on the match Lowry Johnston, who played on the senior team, simply said "They were just too fast for us." A legend developed that the players on the senior team quit hockey after that match, letting the junior players take their place in the Manitoba league. While it may not have been as instantaneous as suggested, many of the players on the junior team would soon join the senior team and held major roles on the Thistles.
Bolstered by the addition of the younger players, the Thistles finished second in the Manitoba intermediate league in 1899–00, and won the league title in 1900–01, easily outscoring their opponents. When they started the 1901–02 season with a lopsided 12–0 victory, the club's executives were concerned, as they felt if the games were not competitive people would not come watch the games, meaning less revenue. Feeling the team could compete in the senior Manitoba Hockey Association, which had two teams that season, both in Winnipeg, the Victorias and the Winnipeg Rowing Club. To prove they could compete, the Thistles played an exhibition match against the Victorias, one of the strongest teams in Canada and a previous winner of the Stanley Cup. The Thistles fared well in the match, but the two Winnipeg teams decided against allowing them to join the league, arguing the Thistles applied too late in the season. Returning to the intermediate league, the Thistles were weakened by injuries to several players and finished in a tie for second overall. In the off-season Tommy Phillips, regarded as one of the players on the Thistles, moved to Montreal in order to attend McGill University.
Prior to the 1902–03 the Thistles were finally admitted to the senior league, along with the Brandon Wheat Cities and the Portage la Prairie Plains. However the two Winnipeg teams were still concerned about the distance to Rat Portage, and opposed their inclusion (and that of Portage la Prairie) would only accept Brandon, who had won the intermediate championship in 1902. Thus the two Winnipeg clubs left the league and formed their own two-team league, Western Canada Hockey League. Playing in the three-team senior league, the Thistles won the championship and thus were able to issue a challenge for the Stanley Cup, held at the time by the Ottawa Hockey Club (also known as the Senators).
Stanley Cup Challenges, 1903–1905
Donated by Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor General of Canada in 1892, the Stanley Cup was given to the top amateur team in Canada, who would accept challenges from other team who won their respective leagues. Initially it was only won by teams from Montreal, Winnipeg, and Ottawa, who held the Cup nearly continuously from 1893, when it was first awarded, until 1912, though teams from other cities had played for the Cup. Ottawa had won the Cup in 1903 after finishing the 1903 Canadian Amateur Hockey League season tied for first with the Montreal Victorias, and played a two-game total-goal series for the league championship and Cup (the Montreal Hockey Club, who were the holders of the Cup, finished third in the league and therefore lost the right to keep it).
The Thistles travelled to Ottawa for the series, which would be two-games and decided on total goals scored. Relatively unknown outside of Manitoba and Western Ontario, there was little coverage in the press regarding them prior to the start of the series. Along with the series coinciding with an opening session of the Canadian Parliament, which was a social affair at the time, meant that the attendance for the games was rather low; while the matches between Ottawa and Montreal, held just days prior, had around 3,000 spectators, the Thistles' games saw 1,500 and then 1,000. Ottawa won the first game 6–2; media summaries suggested that the Thistles were nervous and unprepared for the skill of Ottawa. Ottawa won the second match, and retained the Cup, 4–2, though the Thistles were credited in the press for being vastly improved, though overall lacking "the finer points of the game."
This first challenge for the Stanley Cup had a mixed reaction from the Thistles. Due to the small crowds it was considered a financial loss, with the team losing around $800, a considerable sum for the team. However it was seen as an important step for the team, as it showed they could seriously compete with the best teams in Canada. Team captain Tom Hooper stated that while they "were comparatively inexperienced, and ... consequently a little nervous," they were "not in the least discouraged" and planned to "be better qualified to play them when [they] come after the puck next year."
For the 1903-04 season the Thistles again competed in the Manitoba league, which remained at three teams. However prior to the start of the season the team was invited to join the Western Canada Hockey League, which only consisted of the two Winnipeg clubs; while they had downplayed the Thistles importance previously, they were impressed by the Thistles play during the Stanley Cup challenge, and considered it financially viable to add the team, though the Thistles ultimately remained in the Manitoba league. Brandon won the league championship, giving them the chance to compete for the Cup against Ottawa; the Senators won the series and retained the Cup.
Prior to the 1904–05 season the two leagues merged under the name Manitoba Hockey Association. The Thistles were bolstered with the addition Phillips, who had returned to the town for his dying father, and goaltender Eddie Giroux; the only player not from Rat Portage, Giroux was originally from Toronto and moved both for the chance to play hockey and the promise of a job in the lumber industry. The Thistles easily won the league championship, and once again challenged Ottawa for the Stanley Cup.
Once again played in Ottawa, though in a best-of-three series this time, the Thistles were much more respected in the media compared to 1903, even regarded as "serious contenders for the Cup". Attendance for the series further highlighted the heightened status of the team, with the games having between 3,500 and 4,000 spectators, plus hundreds more waiting outside; there were also thousands across who congregated to hear live telegraph reports from the games. There was also considerable mention of the home-grown nature of the team, which was becoming rare for hockey teams as professionalism was starting to occur in the sport.
The Thistles won the first match 9–3, utilizing a new style of play: while conventional strategy had been for teams to shoot the puck into the opposing end and skate after it (and thereby losing possession of the puck), the Thistles emphasized passing the puck to move it forward; this was aided by their point and cover-point (early names for defencemen) lining up on the ice side-by-side rather than one in front of the other. However Ottawa came back to win the remaining two games, 4–2 and 5–4, again retaining the Cup. Though the Thistles lost the challenge, they were highly praised, with newspapers noting the speed of the players in particular: the Montreal Star claimed the Thistles were "not only the fastest that has ever come from the West in search of the cup, but the fastest that has ever been seen anywhere on ice." After the series, and prior to returning west, the team played exhibition matches in Montreal and Toronto, games which saw thousands of spectators, further showcasing their high regards throughout Canada.
Stanley Cup Challenges, January and March 1907
League play, 1905–1907
The 1905–06 season saw Kenora (as the town had been known since May 11, 1905) easily win the championship. The Winnipeg Rowing Club had been expected to participate, but the club withdrew due to fears the other teams were covertly paying their players, making them professionals: as the Rowing Club were ardent followers of amateurism, and Canadian sporting rules made anyone who played against a professional a professional as well, the club could not take part, and was replaced by the Winnipeg Hockey Club. The other teams in the league denied such accusations, with the Thistles stating it was "ridiculous." Despite these denials, it is quite likely that there were paid players in the league: Lappage has noted that by this point "it was generally recognized that most eastern teams were paying their players, and it would be reasonable to expect that teams of the M.H.L. [the Manitoba league] had to pay their star players to retain their services." Indeed, as early as 1903 offers had been made to players in the league from the International Hockey League (IHL), a league based in Michigan and the first openly professional ice hockey league in the world.
Prior to the start of the 1906–07 season the issue of professionalism again came up for the Manitoba league. While most of the teams in the league felt it should turn professional, the two Winnipeg teams (the Victorias and Winnipeg Hockey League) were against this move and left the league. Though the league was now openly professional, the Thistles continued to remain a homegrown team, despite rumors prior to the season that there would be a major overhaul of the roster.
As champions of the Manitoba league in 1906, Kenora earned the right to challenge for the Stanley Cup again, which was now in the possession of the Montreal Wanderers. However the season had ended too late for the series to be held in 1906, and was thus postponed until January 1907. To accommodate this series, the league faced a dilemma: as the Thistles were a popular team and likely to draw large crowds, the other teams wanted a double round-robin format (two home games, two away games against each team). However the Thistles were against this, and only wanted to play one home and one away game against the others, as they would be gone for nearly a month for their Cup challenge. Ultimately a compromise was reached where the Thistles would play just one home and away game, while the other three teams would play two home and two away. As this would lead to an unbalanced schedule (the Thistles would have just 6 games played while the others 10), scores in the games not including the Thistles would be combined for the purposes of the league standings, so all teams would be credited with six games played.
January 1907 Challenge
On January 12, 1907 the Thistles left for Montreal and the Cup challenge. Taking advantage of the new professionalism of their league, the club hired two players from Brandon: Art Ross and Joe Hall, considered two of the best players in the Manitoba league. It is unclear how much they were paid for the series, but ice hockey historian Eric Zweig has speculated it to be quite substantial (Hall ended up not playing any games for the Thistles). This marked the first time that the Thistles specifically brought in players to play for the team, confirming their status as a professional club. In contrast their opponents, the Wanderers, had five professional players and four amateurs on their roster (the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association, in which the Wanderers played, had allowed professionals for the 1906–07 season, so long as each players' status was defined by the team).
Though the Thistles hired two players, the media again focused on the fact that they were largely all locals, and noted that the Wanderers had hired multiple players, most notably Hod Stuart, who had played previously for a pro team in Pittsburgh. Even so, the consensus was that the Thistles were the favorites to win the Cup. The first game of the two game, total-goal series was held on January 17 in Montreal and Phillips scored all four Kenora goals in a 4–2 victory. The second game, on January 21, saw Phillips record a further three goals, as Kenora won 8–6, giving them a 12–8 series win and the Stanley Cup. As per tradition, the Thistles engraved their name onto the Cup; unlike previous winners they wrote inside the bowl itself, "Thistles of Kenora 12 Wanderers 8 / Montreal Jan 17th & 21st 1907."
Upon their return to Kenora later in January, the Thistles were warmly received. Each of the players were given a commemorative cup by the city at a reception at the Opera House; however the dire financial situation of the team meant that the celebratory banquet charged admission, which was unusual for similar events at the time. There were promising signs though, as the owners of the Victoria Rink, where the team played, stated their intention to build a 4,000 seat replacement, which would dwarf the 1,000 seats the Victoria Rink held; as the team would earn a portion of each ticket sold, it suggested a solution to their financial issues, even if Kenora lacked the population to sustain what would have been the largest arena in Western Canada.
March 1907 Challenge
Almost immediately after winning the Stanley Cup, the Thistles were challenged by the Wanderers, who won the ECAHA championship, for a re-match. However William Foran, one of the Cup trustees, told the Thistles they had to first win the Manitoba league title; the format used for that season (with non-Kenora games being combined so that each team was credited with six games played) meant that Kenora and Brandon finished in a tie for first, so a two game-total goal series was played to decide the league championship; Kenora won both games, 8–6 and then 4–1.
The Thistles also had to sign three new players, as the league season and Cup challenge had seen three of their regular players injured (namely Hooper, McGimsie, and Phillips). Thus Fred Whitcroft, who had been playing in Peterborough, Ontario, was signed for the rest of the season for a reported $700. To further bolster the team for the Cup challenge itself, the Thistles also signed Alf Smith and Harry "Rat" Westwick, both from the Ottawa Hockey Club; each player made their debut in the final game of the league season, and played in the series against Brandon. The latter two signings drew protests from the Wanderers, who argued that as Smith and Westwick had spent the entire season with Ottawa in the ECAHA they should not be eligible for Kenora, as players had to play the full season with their team. The Thistles countered by arguing that the Wanderers themselves had brought in Hod Stuart and Riley Hern back in January. Foran defended the choice to allow Stuart by noting there had been no protest in January and now that both Stuart and Hern spent the season with the Wanderers they were eligible.
A further issue occurred when Foran told the Thistles the series would be played in Winnipeg and not Kenora, owing to the larger arena in Winnipeg and thus greater revenue from tickets, that it would begin one day after the Thistles finished their series with Brandon, and that it would be a three-game best-of series. The Thistles were irate that this, as they wanted to host the series themselves, have a three-day break prior, and only a two-game, total-goal series. After negotiations between the two teams, it was agreed to have a two-game series in Winnipeg, and that Kenora could use both Smith and Westwick.
With the details of the series settled, the first game was held on March 23, which the Wanderers won 7–2. The Thistles won the second match, on March 25, 6–5, but lost the series 12 goals to 8. Reports of the Thistles in the media noted how reliant the team was on their three imported players, and it was noted that the Thistles could no longer properly be portrayed as a homegrown team. Even with the imports, the Thistles time as Stanley Cup champions had ended after two months.
Demise of the Thistles
After winning and subsequently losing the Stanley Cup, the Thistles saw major changes in the team's composition. Prior to the 1907–08 season three players, Billy McGimsie, Roxy Beaudro, and Eddie Geroux all retired, while Tommy Phillips moved to Ottawa after being offered C$1,500 for the season. The team thus brought up four junior players (under twenty), and were not expected to be as competitive as previous versions of the team. This was made apparent after the first game of the season, which the Thistles lost 16–1. The club forfeited the next two games before withdrawing from the league completely, arguing they could no longer compete at that level. They attempted to join the New Ontario Hockey League, which had teams in Port Arthur and Fort William, but were denied. Instead the Thistles played exhibition games for the rest of the season before folding.
The Thistles were unable to compete with the rising professionalism that was developing in ice hockey: as a small town they were unable to build a large enough rink, let alone attract the crowds to fill it, to raise revenues. The promise of a 5,000-seat arena, stated in the wake of the club's Stanley Cup championship, would have been impossible to realize, as it would have required the entire town to attend games in order to sell out. Compounding the issue was a major economic downturn for the region, with mining in particular seeing a major collapse as early as 1905. That this coincided with the establishment of professional ice hockey leagues across Canada at this time (along with the Manitoba league, the ECAHA would turn fully professional in 1907, while the Ontario Professional Hockey League was established the same year, and in 1911 the Pacific Coast Hockey League would start in British Columbia) meant the Thistles had to compete with a multitude of clubs for players, nor the high salaries offered to players. As a result, Wong has suggested that it was "doubtful that the hockey club could compete with clubs from larger cities for the services of top-rate players and still remain financially viable."
Kenora remains the smallest town to ever win the Stanley Cup, and is the smallest town to win a North American major professional championship. The Thistles two months as Stanley Cup champions is also the shortest amount of time one team has possessed the Cup. Four of the homegrown Thistles (Si Griffis, Tom Hooper, Billy McGimsie, and Tommy Phillips) were later elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, while all five of the players signed for their 1907 Cup challenges (Art Ross and Joe Hall from January; Alf Smith, Harry Westwick, and Fred Whitcroft) would also be elected. The January 1907 Stanley Cup champion team was itself elected to the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 1982.
During their existence the Thistles were romanticized in the press "as a team of hometown boys who used to play shinny together on the streets of Rat Portage." That the majority of their success came from players from the town itself was respected. Further, the players remained active in the community outside of hockey: most took up local jobs, while in the summer several played a variety of other sports, notably rowing (Griffis competed at the 1905 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta) and baseball. The team also helped promote Kenora to a wider audience: as a booming town at the turn of the century, town officials were excited for the publicity the Thistles' success brought. Sports historian Stacey L. Lorenz has noted that "Although Kenora’s experience of professional hockey was brief, the Thistles’ early twentieth-century Stanley cup challenges [illustrated] some of the key issues surrounding community identity, town promotion, and the amateur-professional controversy in [that] period."
Since the original team's demise in late 1907, the nickname Thistle has been used for many hockey clubs in Kenora and is currently the nickname of the town's amateur, junior, and senior-level men's teams.
Stanley Cup Challenge Series Results
1903 vs Ottawa Hockey Club
|Date||Winning Team||Score||Losing Team||Location|
|March 12, 1903||Ottawa HC||6–2||Rat Portage Thistles||Dey's Arena|
|March 14, 1903||Ottawa HC||4–2||Rat Portage Thistles|
|Ottawa won best-of-three series, 2–0|
1905 vs Ottawa Hockey Club
|Date||Winning Team||Score||Losing Team||Location|
|March 7, 1905||Rat Portage Thistles||9–3||Ottawa HC||Dey's Arena|
|March 9, 1905||Ottawa HC||4–2||Rat Portage Thistles|
|March 11, 1905||Ottawa HC||5–4||Rat Portage Thistles|
|Ottawa won best-of-three series, 2–1|
January 1907 vs Montreal Wanderers
|Date||Winning Team||Score||Losing Team||Location|
|January 17, 1907||Kenora Thistles||4–2||Montreal Wanderers||Montreal Arena|
|January 21, 1907||Kenora Thistles||8–6||Montreal Wanderers|
|Kenora won total-goal series, 12–8|
January 1907 vs Brandon Wheat Cities
|Date||Winning Team||Score||Losing Team||Location|
|March 16, 1907||Kenora Thistles||8–6||Brandon Wheat Cities||Winnipeg Auditorium|
|March 18, 1907||Kenora Thistles||4–1||Brandon Wheat Cities|
|Kenora won series 2–0|
March 1907 vs Montreal Wanderers
|Date||Winning Team||Score||Losing Team||Location|
|March 23, 1907||Montreal Wanderers||7–2||Kenora Thistles||Winnipeg Auditorium|
|March 25, 1907||Kenora Thistles||6–5||Montreal Wanderers|
|Montreal won total-goal series, 12 goals to 8|
- Wong 2006, p. 177
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2079
- Lappage 1988, p. 79
- Wong 2006, p. 178
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, p. 64
- Wong 2006, p. 190, note 37
- There are conflicting dates for the first game: Wong cites a contemporary newspaper report of the game, while Lappage cites a letter published in 1953. See Wong 2006, p. 177 and Lappage 1988, p. 79, and Wong 2006, p. 187 regarding further details on the discrepancy.
- Lappage 1988, pp. 79–80
- Wong 2006, p. 181
- Wong 2006, p. 185
- Wong 2006, p. 179
- Historian R.S. Lappage notes they won twelve games, but does not mention how many games were in the season; however at the time leagues would play roughly 10–15 games in a season, so the Thistles would have been one of the stronger teams. See Lappage 1988, p. 80
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, p. 11
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, pp. 11–16
- Lappage 1988, p. 80
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, pp. 16–17
- Lappage 1988, pp. 80–81
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- Zweig 2012–2013a, pp. 9–17
- Diamond, Zweig & Duplacey 2003, pp. 15–16
- Diamond, Zweig & Duplacey 2003, pp. 21–23
- Diamond 2000, p. 55
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- Lorenz 2015, p. 2082
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, p. 35
- Wong 2006, p. 183
- Wong 2006, p. 180
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, p. 37
- Zweig 2007
- Two other players, Matt Brown and Si Griffis, were both born in St. Catharines, Ontario and moved to Rat Portage at a young age; Lorenz 2015, p. 2082
- Lappage 1988, p. 83
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2084
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2085
- Lorenz 2015, pp. 2083–2084
- Wong 2006, p. 182
- At the time forward passing was forbidden in ice hockey (Zweig 2007)
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2083
- Zweig 2012, p. 298
- Lappage 1988, p. 86
- Zweig 2012, p. 295
- Lappage 1988, p. 87
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2086
- Zweig 2006, pp. 7–8
- Zweig 2001, p. 18
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2089
- Lappage 1988, p. 89
- Lorenz 2015, pp. 2087–2088
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, pp. 83–96
- Diamond 2000, p. xii
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2090
- Zweig 2001, pp. 17–20
- Lappage 1988, p. 90
- Lappage 1988, pp. 89–90
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2091
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2092
- Coleman 1964, pp. 145–146
- Zweig 2001, p. 20
- Coleman 1964, p. 137
- Lappage 1988, p. 92
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, p. 108
- Kitchen 2008, p. 159
- Lappage 1988, p. 93
- Wong 2006, pp. 184–185
- Danakas & Brignall 2006, p. 111
- Zweig 2001, p. 17
- Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame 2018
- Lappage 1988, p. 94
- Lappage 1988, p. 82
- Lorenz 2015, p. 2098
- Kenora Thistles
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