The Day The Music Died…..

​Feb. 3, 1959 is said to the day music died when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper perished in a plane crash. Feb. 14, 1976 could be called the day the dreams of pro lacrosse careers died, at least for a number of Peterborough players. Not the tragedy of the plane crash but on that day the professional National Lacrosse League disbanded putting 150 players out of a job, 30 of which were from Peterborough. Another dozen or so locals were employed in the league as coaches, managers and trainers.

The six-team league, the prequel to the current NLL, lasted just two years. The six teams played out of NHL arenas in Boston, Quebec, Montreal, Philadelphia, Long Island and Washington in the summer months. Crowds were solid and growing during the 1975 season.

Then a number of issues converged that winter; foremost Montreal was losing the use of the Forum because of the upcoming 1976 Olympics. Quebec felt, without the rivalry of Montreal they would struggle, so they withdrew. The Boston Gardens was having major renovations and the owner of Long Island had some financial setbacks. That left two solid franchises; Maryland and Philadelphia with no league.

In its two years of existence, the original NLL brought box lacrosse out of the dark ages for the players. After years of poorly run leagues, a complete lack of governance by the Canadian Lacrosse Association and some questionable dealings by team owners, players flocked to the NLL in 1974.

With NHL rinks, large crowds, respectful treatment by management and fans, a livable wage, first class travel and accommodation, top-of-the-line equipment and daily practices; they were living their dream.

Then it all came crashing down that cold Valentine’s Day.

To make matters worse for the more than 100 players from Ontario, the Ontario Lacrosse Association then banned all of them from playing in the league in the 1976 summer season. After the exodus of players in 1974, the OLA senior league limped along using mainly senior B calibre players. When the NLL folded the OLA saw a chance to punish the players who left even though in the process it ruined their league.

Peterborough refused to re-enter a senior team under those restrictions.

The much more forward-thinking Western Lacrosse Association welcomed their players back and extended an open invitation to any Ontario players wishing to play in British Columbia. A number of Peterborough players accepted the invitation and moved west.

The weakened OLA senior A limped along in the 1976 season with senior B players and was embarrassed in the CLA run Mann Cup final by the west. The bull-headed OLA owners moved into the 1977 season with the ban still in place and were again out-classed in the Mann Cup.

Then a few banned Ontario players appealed to government agencies concerning the way the OLA and CLA were discriminating against them. The possibility of government investigations had the organizations recoiling. The OLA quickly amended the rule.

For the 1978 season, the OLA allowed up to five former pros to play on a senior A team. Some of the Peterborough players who had played in British Columbia during the ban returned and Peterborough re-entered the league as the Red Oaks. They won the OLA title, delightfully sticking it to the OLA owners who had blackballed them, then beat the Victoria Shamrocks in an exciting seven games Mann Cup series in the Memorial Centre.

Is it any wonder these 40 years later many local veteran lacrosse players still have little trust in the OLA or CLA?

Don Barrie is a retired teacher, former Buffalo Sabres scout and a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the Peterborough and District Sports Hall of Fame. His column appears each Saturday in The Examiner.

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