Like myself, you may have noticed the frequency with which the adjective “amazing” was used during the television coverage of the Olympic Games from London. There was an obvious reason for that: there were many, many amazing performances during the two and a half weeks of competitions.
It got me thinking of so many amazing things sports fans have been able to savour through the years. It happens everywhere, from local to professional leagues.
Pictou County is no exception.
Yes, there have been amazing athletes, amazing games and amazing careers right here. It’s part of the wonderful experience of sports.
Focusing on Pictou County brings back a lot of thoughts about amazing things and amazing people. And I don’t hesitate for one moment in choosing what I believe was the most amazing career in these parts.
Let us not forget we have had many talented stars.
Hockey players like Lowell MacDonald, Colin White and Joey MacDonald made it to the NHL. Baseball stars Johnny Clarke and brothers Sid and Clyde Roy had wonderful careers. Hockey goaltending brothers Hughie and Sonny MacDonald, track stars Roy Oliver and Jimmy Hawboldt, and boxers Jackie Hayden and Art Hafey belong in this discussion.
I could go on and on with names. To those I’ve mentioned, and to many others, the word “amazing” can easily apply. All of them did memorable things.
But know what I believe was the most amazing feat in this county and this part of the province?
I offer the hockey career – or better yet, the hockey life – of defenceman Irvine Mackie. Better known, of course, as Tiger Mackie.
Amazing? Write it in capital letters.
What did he do? He simply played hockey a few months short of 80 years! That’s not a misprint; that’s eight decades. Heck, a majority of people don’t live that long.
I’ve written about Mackie so many times through the years – okay, decades – that I can pretty much tell his story without referring to records, articles or other sources.
The last time I talked about him in a column was right here in The Advocate five years ago. The last time I sat down and chatted with him was at his home in Port Hawkesbury in 2001. We talked that day for about three hours and I heard many tales – some heard again, some new – and it was a wonderful afternoon for both of us.
I never saw him again after that day; a year and a half later he died at the age of 89.
Tiger Mackie’s life didn’t start or end in Pictou County. From a hockey perspective, however, his career peaked during his time in New Glasgow.
A native of Stanley Bridge, P.E.I., where he learned the game on outdoor ponds, he came to the county in 1942-43 to take his position on the blueline with the Bombers, a senior team that played out of the old Arena downtown, a team that was one of the best clubs ever assembled hereabouts. He was 30 years old then.
Almost a decade later, senior hockey shifted to the new Stadium in the south end and he was one of the pillars of Rangers clubs that provided great entertainment – and championships – for local fans.
He lived in New Glasgow until the mid-1960s when he moved to Port Hawkesbury. While in the county, Tiger played most of his senior years, later becoming one of the best-known performers in oldtimers hockey. He played, and played, and played some more.
We’ve had, as I mentioned already, players who reached the NHL, but the word “amazing” can be applied even if a person doesn’t make it to the top of his chosen sport.
Playing hockey for 79 years, to me, is quite an achievement.
What sometimes is forgotten about the Tiger Mackie story is that his playing days – and even his life – could have ended when he was just 21.
It was 1935, and he was attending a Boston Bruins training camp.
Here’s how he told me the story:
“Boston Bruins owner Art Ross, when I was leaving camp, shook hands with me. I had a helmet in my left hand that he gave me, and he said, ‘You have your skates, you have your helmet, take them wherever you go.’ He made that very clear.
“That year I played in a Michigan-Ontario league where there were nine teams and each team had a couple of old pros on it. But there was only one helmet and it was on my head. It saved my life. I had my feet swept out from under me in Detroit and my arms were helpless and I went down face first and slammed my head into the ice. I had that helmet Art Ross gave me and if I hadn’t had that on, I would have smashed my skull. I don’t think I would ever have survived.”
Those of us who watched him play for New Glasgow teams remember that he always wore a helmet. On many of the teams he was the only player wearing one. He never forgot what Art Ross told him.
During that last visit with him – just after a heart problem ended his season — he told me how he always loved playing.
“The game is so beautiful and there’s so much competition in it, they can’t discourage me from enjoying playing hockey. It’s a marvellous game. And it’s a game that’s never over until it’s over.”
He didn’t realize it as we talked, but his playing career was over. He wouldn’t be in uniform again. He came that close to an 80-year career. Just 18 months later, he died.
It had truly been an amazing career by an amazing man.
Hugh Townsend, a New Glasgow native and Nova Scotia sports journalist for almost 60 years, can be reached by email at email@example.com