Larry Mavety: A True Original

There are lots of great ‘Mav’ stories and many have been retold since Larry Mavety, a junior hockey icon, died in Kingston at age 78 last week. He was an original, one of hockey’s true characters and a legend in junior hockey.

My favorite Mav story happened in 1988, on the night he officially jumped from the rival Belleville Bulls to become the new Coach and GM of the Kingston Raiders. It was truly stunning news at the time.

We were at a downtown Kingston hotel following the announcement with Mav and owner Lou Kazowski that went late into the night. Mav and Kazowski had played together in the minors, so, to stir things up I asked Mav what kind of player was Lou? To paraphrase, Mav said, “Lou was dirty and never finished anything he started. I had to do it for him.”  From there the conversation heated up and eventually a frustrated Kazowski told Mavety he was ‘fired’, just hours after being hired. Things calmed down, a few laughs followed, but it was shades of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.

Kazowski renamed the team the Raiders with the tagline, ‘Real Hockey is Back in Town‘. It lasted one uneventful season, and at the end of the year he threatened to pull the team out of Kingston. That’s when Wren Blair and Bob Attersley bought the club, Mav stayed one more season, quit and went back to Belleville. Eight years later he would return to Kingston when the team was sold to the Springer family marking the beginning of a long relationship.

Mav’s cramped office at the Memorial Centre always had a well stocked fridge and a steady stream of visitors. A ‘Who’s Who’ of hockey, everyone knew Mav and they all loved him. Brian Kilrea, Bert Templeton, former players, NHL scouts were all regulars in Mav’s office for a beer to talk hockey.

Mavety, originally from Woodstock, ON, coached the Bulls when they were a Jr A team in the late 1970s. He recruited an undersized defenseman, 15-year-old Doug Gilmour, who was cut loose by the Kingston Voyageurs. Mav turned Gilmour into a forward and the rest as they say, is history. Gilmour became a scoring star in Cornwall and had a 20-year NHL career that landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Mav’s former players were very loyal, in 2008 Gilmour came full circle when he joined the Frontenacs as coach. Eventually Gilmour became GM, as Mav stepped aside from the day-to-day operations to become an advisor.

My relationship with Mav soured when he went back behind the bench in 2007 after Bruce Cassidy was fired (that worked out okay for Cassidy, who was recently named NHL Coach of the Year). I was hosting the games on CogecoTV and I would interview Mav on the post game show. While he had many media friends, Mav never really enjoyed being interviewed, especially on TV. He would bristle as I fired questions at him every week after another tough loss. Eventually he stopped doing the post game show and we stopped talking, which is how these things go. It wasn’t long before they moved downtown into the new rink and Gilmour was hired, then eventually Mav and I got back on good terms. Looking back on it, I don’t think Mav really wanted to coach again when Cassidy was fired, but did it out of loyalty to the owners.

It couldn’t have been easy being on both sides of the Kingston-Belleville rivalry, especially when Mav had two stints in both cities. He was a favourite target of vocal fans in both rinks and with no glass behind the benches in those days he was never shy about giving it back. He liked to tell the story how one night in Belleville while coaching the Bulls, a vocal fan sitting across the rink was giving it to him all night. At the end of the second period, he tore off his tie and jacket and started running across the big ice surface where he was going to go into the stands after the guy. As he recalled, luckily he never got there before being restrained. Mav had a short fuse, broadcasting the games we always knew Mav was ‘hot’ when the door of the players bench was open and sometimes he had one foot on the ice yelling at an official.

As a coach, Mav was tough on his players but honest to a fault, and most of his players loved him. Former players like Marty McSorley became lifelong friends. In a statement, OHL Commissioner Dave Branch remembered Mav this way, There are many things that he contributed to our game, but most importantly what stands out in my mind is how he took care of his players.”

Mav was gruff with that gravelly voice and his coaching style would intimidate players. It was tough love. I recall one game in Kingston, Mav coaching the Bulls and after an uninspiring shift he sent three forwards coming off the ice directly to the dressing room. I’d never seen that before, or since. They did return the next period. He didn’t win championships, but his teams were always big, tough and physical and it was never an easy two points for the visitors going into Belleville. In the 1980s when the Bulls played Kingston, in both rinks, the seats would be almost full during warmups, anticipating that things could boil over even before puck drop was an indicator it was that intense. These two rivals also played the longest game in OHL and CHL history, a six-hour plus marathon in the 1990 playoffs in Belleville. It went four overtime periods before Ken Rowbotham ended it, Mavety on the losing Kingston side.   

Quietly Mav helped many get a break in hockey. Online posts from people like long time OHL photographer, Aaron Bell, and former play by play caller, Kevin Dean, thanked Mav and spoke glowingly about how he helped them. Dean remembers the fun times on the road, in Barrie they stayed right across from the harness racing track and one night Dean and his broadcast partner, former goalie Steve Rexe, took their 10 dollar meal money and went to the track. Rexey hits a trifecta and instantly turns it into $300. They go back and tell Mav, who immediately wants a piece of the action. So, they head back with Rexey feeding Mav his picks, quickly Mav is down 50 bucks and not happy. According to Dean, on the bus ride all the way home all you could hear was Mavety chewing at Rexey about his terrible pony picks.

Mav helped out the Original Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012 when we were attempting to move downtown into the S & R building. Mav had Dave Branch’s ear and the OHL Commissioner was very interested in partnering with the hall to create an OHL Hall of Fame. Branch invited me to Toronto to pitch the idea to the Board of Governors, Mav was there working the room to generate support, but the proposed deal fell apart when Kingston City Council voted down our funding proposal.

Mav had a great love of country music, especially the old classics. He loved wearing his cowboy boots and we spent a few nights going till ‘plenty after twelve’ at the Rodeo Roadhouse bar. Last call for us was a lot later than for most, and quite often we would hang out with the bands after the show and it meant for some very late, memorable nights.

Kevin Abrams, the long time Commissioner of the Central Junior Hockey League, was given an OHL opportunity by Mav as a scout and assistant coach. Kevin shares this great Mav story from a game at the Quinte Sports Centre, “There was a stoppage in play and I was sorting out a defensive pair matching and Mav gave me a look and beckoned to me with a ‘come here’ finger wag. So I ventured down the bench sure I’d messed up a match or put the wrong guys on. Brooks and Dunn is blasting over the PA during the stoppage, Mav says to me,  “F—k, I love this song” and to this day I think of this moment when I hear Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”

No friendship in hockey was stronger than Mavety’s with Brian Kilrea. Their word was their bond and they completed many deals over a beer that helped both men. They’d been friends since they played for Eddie Shore in Springfield, and coached against each other for decades. Kilrea told the Canadian Press, “Honour and integrity were cornerstones of Mavety’s personality. His players loved him because he was honest with them.”   

As a player Mav was old school, tough as nails. He battled for years through several minor pro leagues and eventually the World Hockey Association, putting up pretty good offensive numbers while taking care of business in his own end. He even famously had a bit part in the iconic hockey movie, ‘Slap Shot’ with Paul Newman. Mav was also a catcher and a very good baseball player, winning Ontario championships for Belleville teams in both junior and senior ball.

His 681 wins and 1,500 games coached put him near the top of the all-time list in the CHL. Its’ too bad we didn’t get that OHL Hall of Fame in Kingston, because Mavety would be in it. He was inducted into the Belleville Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.  Condolences to his wife, Brenda, and family on the loss of a true original.

Mark Potter is a long time Kingston broadcaster, Past President of the Original Hockey Hall of Fame, covered OHL hockey for thirty years and was inducted into the Kingston Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

J.W. ‘Bill’ Fitsell: Hockey’s Recordkeeper Sets Down His Pen at Age 97

75th anniversary OHHOF – 2018

With the sad news of the passing of J.W. ‘Bill” Fitsell at age 97, Kingston and the hockey world has lost its preeminent historian. Bill dedicated his life to chronicling and researching hockey, writing volumes on the early origins of the sport, the greats of the game, and bringing to life many great Kingston hockey stories.

For me I have lost a friend of forty-years, a mentor, great supporter, and a father-like figure who for decades provided guidance and advice while doing a lot of the heavy lifting at the Original Hockey Hall of Fame.

No one contributed more to hockey in Kingston than Fitsell, not even the legendary Captain James T. Sutherland. Known as ‘The Father of Hockey’, Sutherland founded the International Hockey Hall of Fame and started the Memorial Cup among a long list of other achievements.

Bill wrote the book on hockey when he authored, ‘How Hockey Happened’ in 2006. It traced the early origins of the game from the European stick & ball games; bandy and hurley, to the British soldiers who brought the game to Halifax and then later to Kingston. Bill would get prickly when Windsor, Nova Scotia would call itself the birthplace of hockey. He strongly refuted their claim which in his view was based on a book of fiction.

In 2003, I collaborated with Bill on the book, ‘Hockey’s Hub – Three Centuries of Hockey In Kingston’. In the early days of working on the book I suggested we follow the lead of Capt. Sutherland who had claimed hockey started in Kingston. Bill quickly set aside his hometown bias and said emphatically the first organized game was played in Montreal in 1875, eleven years before the first game played on the Kingston harbour.

Hockey’s Hub – 2003

He never talked about his own impressive credentials. It’s a lengthy list that includes being inducted into two sports halls of fame, in his hometown of Lindsay ON and in 2009 honoured by the Kingston & District Sports Hall of Fame. He started the Carr-Harris Cup game in 1986 to formalize and honour the longest-running rivalry in hockey between Queen’s and RMC.  In 1991 he created the Society for International Hockey Research, bringing together hundreds of hockey researchers from around the world to share their work.

A gentle, kind man, Bill had a dry sense of humor and a quick wit. His most memorable joke was delivered in the early years of the Carr-Harris Cup. Queen’s had handed RMC a lopsided loss and he was presenting the MVP awards to each team at the post-game ceremonies. For the MVP from RMC, Bill quipped, “I’d like to acknowledge the trumpet player in the RMC band, he is the only cadet who can play!

Before technology, Bill was famous for always carrying index cards and making notes whenever he heard an interesting hockey fact or anecdote. When Bill wrote ‘Hockey’s Hub’, I told him he had managed to turn hundreds of index cards into a coffee table book that sold 2,000 copies.

One of my fondest memories of Bill happened two years ago at the 75th anniversary celebrations for the Original Hockey Hall of Fame. The day was a great source of pride for our museum, we had the Stanley Cup and the Memorial Cup on hand and I asked Bill to make a few remarks. He prepared a speech but asked me to read it because he wasn’t feeling up to it. At the last minute, at age 95, he decided to deliver it himself. He slowly approached the podium and then proceeded to reach back a couple of decades to deliver a stirring, passionate speech that spoke to his great love of hockey, the Hall of Fame and Kingston. It was the last speech he made to our Hall supporters and it was magnificent.

For decades, Bill was a great resource for hockey fans far and wide who had questions about the history of the game or wanted more information on a hockey artifact. Bill loved the challenge and would meticulously research any question sent his way. With his passing, many have posted online how Bill was so gracious and went above and beyond to answer the inquiries of school-aged kids and complete strangers.

70th anniversary OHHOF – 2013

While he had a great love of hockey his love of family came first. Bill and his wife, Barbara, recently celebrated an amazing 75-years of marriage and they have five daughters; Carole Anne, Diane, Jo-Ann, Gaylan and Jan Marie. As Bill would proudly say, just a goalie shy of icing an all-Fitsell team.

His other great love was the newspaper business. A ‘Navy Man’, although he rarely spoke of it, he had served in the Royal Canadian Navy during WW2 and after the war returned home to Lindsay with no real journalism experience to become a writer/reporter for the local paper.  He later moved to the Gananoque Reporter and ultimately on to the Kingston Whig Standard, where he served as District Editor, features writer and the popular ‘People’ columnist.

For decades Bill was an integral part of the Carr-Harris Cup and Historic Hockey Series. He looked forward to those events each year, keeping detailed records of the games and statistics. He had great fondness for the Carr-Harris family, especially the late Mary Carr-Harris, who would rally the family to support the event. He loved the tradition and he was such a large part of keeping that tradition alive. Those events won’t be the same without him.

In 1961, Bill made his own history when Bobby Orr was discovered by NHL scouts at a bantam tournament in Gananoque ON. He snapped an historic photo of Bobby & his Parry Sound teammates at a local diner. In later years, the legendary Orr would autograph the photo for Bill, one of his many prized hockey possessions. He also had a lifelong passion for the Toronto Maple Leafs, especially admiring Charlie Conacher and the classy Syl Apps Sr.

Bill was a prolific writer, he authored four books and penned countless articles and research papers, much of it done well past his 80th birthday. He lived a full life enjoying good health right up until the last couple of years. He stayed busy and engaged, never running out of projects, just eventually running out of time. Prior to his passing he was putting the finishing touches on his fifth book, ‘The Joy of Hockey Poetry’, a collection of hockey-related poems that I hope will get published.

I will leave the last word to Stephen Smith, a friend of Bill’s, fellow author and historian who wrote in a recent tribute, “In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.”

A huge part of the fabric of Kingston, Bill enriched the lives of so many in the hockey world. He will be missed.

Mark Potter is a long time Kingston broadcaster, Past President of the Original Hockey Hall of Fame and honoured member of the Kingston & District Sports Hall of Fame.