My having written thousands of sports columns in my career, you might assume there is no subject too difficult to address.
That, however, isn’t the case.
Not unlike anyone else, I sometimes struggle for the right words when it comes to paying tribute to a person who has passed on.
It could be a family member, a close friend, a neighbour, a sports person I knew, someone I’ve chatted with one-on-one.
Often, in such cases, I search, search some more, write and rewrite until I’m satisfied with my comments.
Take this past weekend.
I had just submitted this week’s column when a phone caller informed me that Pictou County’s sports community had suffered another loss.
This time my thoughts went back to the very beginning of my newspaper career at the Evening News.
That’s so far back that a whole generation of Pictonians probably knew Don (Ducky) MacLean, not as a hockey player with the New Glasgow Rangers, but as the operator of the Tartan Blade Barbershop in the Highland Square Mall.
On the other hand, I knew Ducky most of my life. What I recall most about him was his puck-handling abilities with a hockey stick, not his talents maneuvering scissors through heads of hair.
He was one of the truly fine guys around hockey rinks during my Pictou County years in the 1950s and ’60s.
To me, his story began in 1954.
Yes, 68 hockey seasons ago. The date has been carved into my mind for personal reasons.
Let me explain.
I was starting Grade 10 at New Glasgow High and, downtown, the Evening News was introducing its new sports editor, 20-year-old Ricky Fraser. One of Ricky’s first moves was to hire Courtney Malcolm and myself to help cover local sports.
Right about then, New Glasgow’s APC Senior Hockey League team, the Rangers, was recruiting a new playing coach, goaltender Paul LeClerc, who had played professionally under coaching legend Toe Blake.
It was the time of year when sports were getting busy – so Courtney and I were soon put to work. I was initially assigned to school sports, but Ricky said I would soon get other responsibilities.
And that’s what happened.
One night, just a week after being hired, Ricky asked me to cover a Rangers game at the stadium. It would be the first senior hockey I ever wrote about.
I think I got to the rink, pen and notebook in hand, in less than five minutes.
I had been attending APC games since I was about five years old – at the Old Arena downtown. Soon as the new building opened in the south end in 1951, I practically moved in.
I knew the older players, guys like Leo Fahey, Nelson Wilson, Kent Storey, Jimmy MacDonald, Tiger Mackie and Arnie Baudoux.
But talk around town, especially at the stadium, wasn’t about the veterans. It was about three youngsters who were put on a line together by LeClerc.
There was Ralphie Cameron, Bert Dalling and Ducky MacLean.
They instantly caught my attention. New Glasgow won handily, thanks mainly to the youthful threesome. They had quite a night.
Afterwards, as I pounded on the typewriter keys, I made reference to the trio – using a name that apparently would stick forever. I don’t remember the exact words, but I wrote that the Rangers won because of “the Kid Line.”
What was surprising as time went by, the ‘54-55 success by the line was the only season they were together. Of the three, only Cameron previously played in the APC circuit.
How good did they do?
Very good, especially when you consider how young they were compared to many of the locals and imports in the league.
Most noticeable was the fact they all finished in the league’s top 10 scoring figures. Ducky was third in the scoring race with 58 points, Bert was fifth with 55 points, while Ralphie had 52.
In my observations, I easily determined that Ducky was the key, the sparkplug, the very heart of the line.
The Rangers were good enough to win both the league and provincial championships. That likely wouldn’t have happened had it not been for those three younger players.
Way back then – and many seasons afterwards – I tried to write a column about Ducky. He would never agree to an interview, though. He always kept telling me to write about the other fellows on his teams.
The last time I saw him?
Four years ago, I wrote my second book, Remembering Pictou County. One of my signing sessions was at the Highland Mall, just a Ducky MacLean wrist shot from the barbershop. Afterwards, I dropped by to say hello. Once again, I failed – my interview request denied on the spot.
Around the mall that day, I discovered what people thought about him. In fact, I should add that I found out how people loved him.
One of the comments: “His barbershop is home to old Ducky MacLean, the best-known and best-loved barber in town.”
Now for the sad part, the final dates.
Ralph, the right winger, died in 2010 at Glen Haven Manor, so close to the stadium where he excelled so many times. He was just 78 years old.
Bert, who played on the other wing, passed away early in 2018 at the Aberdeen Hospital at the age of 85.
On Friday, Ducky, the centreman and the real heart of the line, died at 89 in the Aberdeen, perhaps rejoining his linemates in hockey heaven.
I checked his obituary on the Angus Funeral Home’s site, where these words grabbed my attention: “A humble, gentle man, never expecting reward or praise.”
That’s exactly the man who kept telling me to write about others.
And so now, just months shy of 68 years since I labelled them “the Kid Line” in my first story, I offer my final goodbye.