MANITOULIN—While he helped create a great memory for the members of the Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) Mustangs girls’ hockey team, which is featured in the Ontario Hockey League Peterborough Petes newsletter, MSS Coach Mike Meeker doesn’t have quite the same memories of being part of the Peterborough team whose bus broke down near Blueberry Hill Road between Espanola and Sudbury in 1978.
The Petes team was travelling back from a game in the Memorial Cup semi-finals in Sault Ste. Marie on a Saturday evening to Sudbury to play in the finals on a Sunday when their bus ran out of gas and they were stranded for several hours in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, after being exhausted from their ordeal the team lost in the final game.
“The girls were really excited to find out that they might be in the Peterborough Petes newsletter by posing for a team picture at Blueberry Hill between Espanola and Sudbury,” Mr. Meeker told the Recorder this past Sunday. “I thought it would be nice for the girls to have their pictures taken and be on the Petes Alumni newsletter.”
In an email to Gary Green, who had been the Petes coach in the 1977-78 season, Mr. Meeker wrote, “Gary, Better late than never I hope. My girls’ hockey team was very excited to contribute to our historical project. We were returning from a game in Sudbury and took the time to stop and take this picture. The girls were amazed that we had no cell phones and there were no houses or anything (in the area) back then. There are houses and developments all over the place now.”
Along with the picture of Mr. Meekeer and his Mustangs team being featured in the Petes Alumni newsletter, it was written, “Alumnus Mike Meeker (’77-’78) returned as a coach to the legendary Blueberry Hill. It was at this location the 1977/78 Petes’ bus ran out of fuel in the middle of the night, while on a playoff road trip. The story goes that the team was unable to reach anybody for aid and were forced to stay on the bus overnight, before their next game.”
However, as Mr. Meeker details, the game was far more important than being on a regular playoff road trip.
“Every time I pass Blueberry Hill I think of that night,” said Mr. Meeker. “It was an awful night with our bus breaking down. No one on the team was dressed for the winter, everyone was in suits, and we froze our butts off that night. You kept hoping someone would drive by.” He pointed out at that time the location was between Espanola-Sudbury, which is now part of Highway 55 and at the time the Petes bus broke down in 1978 it was on the Trans Canada highway. “At that time there was nothing there, it was just bush, there were no houses or development around at all. I remember walking an hour toward Sudbury hoping to find someplace to make a call or have someone help us out, and another player did the same walking in the direction of the Sault, but nothing.”
“Gary Green was the youngest coach in junior hockey at the time (24),” said Mr. Meeker. “In late October of this year, the Petes held a reunion for that team where all the team members came down to watch a game, were introduced to the crowd, and later took part in a banquet.”
When the Petes played in that final, the team had never won the Memorial Cup,” said Mr. Meeker, noting they won the next year (but he was no longer a member of the team.
“We should have won it that year (1977-1978),” said Mr. Meeker. He pointed out one team represented the OHL, Quebec and Western hockey leagues in the Memorial Cup at that time. “Each team played each other twice in the round-robin format and we beat the New Westminster Bruins 7-2 and 7-3 in the round robin. We had lost to the Quebec team in our first game of the tournament, then trounced them the next time we played them.”
The Petes went on to win their game on the Saturday night, with the final slated for Sunday afternoon when they travelled to Sudbury. “I remember we stopped at McDonald’s at around midnight for something to eat,” said Mr. Meeker. “It was pretty late, about three hours later, when the bus broke down.”
“It was the definition of being in the middle of nowhere,” stated Mr. Meeker. “For the girls when we travelling back to the Island from Lively last Monday, they thought it was weird that we had no cell phones, there was no way to contact anyone. Now there are houses and development all over the place (around Blueberry Hill).”
While they finally ended up getting to Sudbury, and the Petes didn’t play New Westminster in the final until the Sunday afternoon, it threw their scheduled sleep, meals and practice off. They lost the final 7-4.
“The biggest memory, everyone will tell you, was running out of gas on the way back from the Sault,” Gary Green told The Peterborough Examiner in its October 25, 2019 edition. “We talk about it quite a bit when we get together, about the boys hitchhiking. I talked to Mike Meeker a month ago and he said, “I think about that a lot. We lost because we ran out gas on the highway. It took so much out of us. We lost a night’s sleep, guys got colds hitchhiking. You didn’t have cellphones back in those and there was no heat on the bus.”
“We played that night. It was a terrible, awful feeling. We were young and as tough as could be, but we were exhausted,” stated Mr. Meeker. He noted that as well as the bus incident, the Petes had played the maximum number of games in the OHL semi-finals and finals, both in eight games (first team to eight points) and seven games in the quarter-finals.
“We were the favourites going into the Memorial Cup, and we had better team than New Westminster. We would have won…,” added Mr. Meeker.