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.
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.
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.