Pictou Advocate sports

It’s safe to say it was a very long time ago.

By the calendar, it was just after the first great war—in the 1920s and early ’30s—when the steel works and rail car plant were still standing tall in the bustling industrial life of Trenton.

It was the great decades-long era of steelmaking, when new railway cars were rolling out of the steeltown by the hundreds, when up to thousands of men were working fulltime in the facilities that dominated the town’s landscape.

That history, which I’ve heard repeated many times, comes easily to mind because my great-grandfather, Graham Fraser, was one of the two founders responsible for starting the Canadian steel industry. My father was named after him. So was my younger son.

But this isn’t a story about Trenton’s industrial past. Rather it’s a look back at two brothers who were born and raised in the steeltown way back when.

If alive today, Sonny MacDonald would be 106 years old. His brother, Hughie, would have turned 100 this year.

There’s a good reason I’m talking about them in a sports column.

They were unique in hockey circles because at the height of their careers, they were both goaltenders, both among the very best netminders in the Maritimes in fact, often playing against one another in the best leagues in the country.

Their careers are worth remembering.

Of course they’re no longer with us. Sonny died so far back that he was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame posthumously—and that was 30 years ago. Hughie, who always said he was six years younger than the brother he looked up to, died seven years ago at the age of 93.

What got me thinking once again about the two?

The other day, the subject was brought up over coffee by a former goalie who played junior hockey in Cole Harbour.

His question: Were there ever two brothers who were competitive goaltending stars in this part of the country?

Wow, did I jump into that!

When I began, I used the 1946-47 hockey season as opening evidence.

That was the year the powerful Maritime Big Four league was re-established with Sonny tending goal for the Truro Bearcats and Hughie number one with the Moncton Hawks.

Not only were Truro and Moncton the league’s two best teams, meeting in the finals, but the MacDonald brothers were chosen as the first and second all-star netminders. Hughie and Moncton won the loop and went on to the Allan Cup playdowns.

It wasn’t the first or last time the pair dominated the best league in the Maritimes. It happened in other seasons too.

Sonny, being the older, was the family’s trailblazer wearing the big pads. It wasn’t a surprise that Hughie wanted to play the same position.

Hughie told me once, “I guess probably Sonny was the reason I was a goalie. I used to watch him play. He was my inspiration, I imagine.”

Facing each other happened several times, in different leagues. The family rivalry was a big story after the Second World War and into the 1950s.

From 1937 to 1943, Sonny had been the netminder for New Glasgow, then played for Pictou for three years.

Sonny had another huge campaign when he led the Saint John Beavers to the Big Four title. He was picked as the league’s first all-star that time. The second all-star choice, of course, was Hughie with Moncton.

The debate over which of the two was the better has gone on for more than a lifetime. It will go on for a long time yet before it’s settled, if ever. Both have their followers when it comes to deciding that issue.

I once tossed the query at Sonny.

“Hughie and I were different types altogether,” he opined. “He took things in stride, while I tended to be more fiery, being sometimes hard to handle. The only thing that really bothered me was the opposition’s blinking of the red light behind me.”

Before Sonny died, I never got to ask him what it’s like to play in a highly-competitive league against your own brother.

I did get to ask Hughie.

“It didn’t make that much difference,” he said. “You were still trying to win. But we had a lot of fun, though. We used to talk about that for years afterwards. We never argued or anything like that. I’ll tell you one thing, Sonny was quite a competitor.”

The Trenton brothers played in an era when there was a lot of talent around.

Though I never had a chance to ask Sonny about opponents, I did find from doing research that he had the opportunity to play with and against such stars as Foster Dickson, Bobby Beaton, Sid Malcolm and Bruce Cox. Later, there were the likes of Lou Medynski, Cliff Roach, Billy MacIntyre, Frank Grabowski and Kink MacDonald.

Hughie, on the other hand, was delighted to name his favourite, Kink MacDonald, who was an opponent and teammate.

“Everybody has favourites,” he said, “and Kink is certainly a favourite of mine. He didn’t have to take a back seat to any of them. He was a good, smart hockey player. He led that Big Four in scoring and he was from the north end of New Glasgow and he had to be one of the best.”

In my coffee shop comments, I didn’t get to mention all the details with the guys. But I think, when I was finished talking about Sonny’s and Hughie’s achievements, nobody was disputing me.

To this day, I’ve never heard of another brother act that could match the goaltending feats of the two MacDonalds.

As an old friend from the steeltown once told me in a proud way, “Both were from the little town of Trenton.”

If only the steel industry was still there.

Columnist

His newspaper career started in Pictou County in his high school days and his first story was published in 1954. He has been writing for more than six decades; two books and 10,000 newspaper columns since 1972, he hasn't stopped writing yet!