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  • Madeline Kerr

Low gears up to celebrate beloved former outdoor league

As anyone who has taken in a Paugan Falls Rapids game at the Gatineau Valley Arena in Low can attest: Hockey has the power to bring a community together. 


In the Hills, beginning as early as the 1920s, hockey was foundational for its many small communities. In 1949, a senior men’s outdoor league, known as the Central Gatineau Hockey League (CGHL) was officially formed, and fierce rivalries between villages like Wakefield, Venosta, Kazabazua, Farrellton and Low brought hundreds of folks out to cheer on hometown players, sometimes even in the midst of a blizzard. 

Later, more teams joined the league, including: Farm Point, Rupert, Masham, Danford Lake and Brennan’s Hill. 


In this undated photograph, members of the team from Low pose with the Hopkins Cup. The team was eventually called the Low Blackhawks, although many team names in the Central Gatineau Hockey League changed over the years. Photo courtesy of Don Kealey

On Saturday, Feb. 3, to mark the 75th anniversary of the CGHL and to honour hockey’s legacy in the region, the Gatineau Valley Arena will host a special Heritage Night. The evening will include a fans and players meet-and-greet, an exhibit of photos and memorabilia from over the years, a ceremony to pay tribute to the history and players of the CGHL and, of course, a game – the Paugan Falls Rapids will face off against the Glengarry Pipers. 


Don Kealey has played a large part in recording the history of the CGHL. He was also a proud player for the Low Blackhawks from the late-1960s until the mid-1970s, beginning at the tender age of 15. 


“It was such a pride to get to play for your hometown,” Kealey recently told the Low Down. 


All games in the CGHL were played on outdoor rinks. 


“Every town really took pride in their rink. It would be heavily watered and allowed to sit for the day before a hockey game. The ice would be harder [than indoor ice], but sometimes when you got a January or February thaw it could get pretty soft…I would have to say that the quality of the ice changed from week to week,” Kealey said. 


He added that players braved even the worst snowstorms: “It was very infrequent that games would be canceled unless it was just unplayable,” he explained. “I remember playing in a playoff game in Farrellton, and there was a storm that was blowing so heavily…I can remember branches flying around the rink.”


Even when there wasn’t a blizzard, conditions could be tough.


“It could be very, very cold,” Kealey recalled. “I can remember some nights when people would almost freeze their feet because it was so cold.”


Many venues had a small shack that players would clamber into between periods to warm up. Both teams had to use the same shack and would sit across from one another and try to ignore each other, Kealey explained. Sometimes fans would pile into the shack to get warm too.


Another hazard to contend with was the volume of snow.


“The snowbanks would be as high as the boards and people would stand on them to watch,” Kealey said. “There would be people standing almost right over top of you while you were playing.” 


No matter the conditions, Kealey said he remembers that the turnout, especially for playoff games, was always high. 


“I can remember the rink at Low, just down from the Paugan Inn…there’d be as many people as could fit around the boards…sometimes 200 people at a game,” he said. 


And rivalries could be fierce, although Kealey said that after even the most competitive games players would leave it all on the ice, converging on local hotels to share a post-game drink and a laugh. 


He still gets together with some of his former teammates who have bonded over memories of their days in the league. 


Enthusiasm for amateur hockey wasn’t unique to the Hills. Hockey historian James Milks, originally from Chelsea, told the Low Down that the sport was huge across the country as far back as the early 1900s. 


By the 1930s and 40s, “nearly every small town or village had teams that competed against nearby villages,” Milks explained, adding that “senior hockey was often the ‘only show in town’ and even in larger cities like Ottawa it was very popular until the 1960s, with rinks filled to capacity on game night.” 


“Companies which operated mines and mills saw the benefit of sponsoring teams as a way to entertain employees during off-hours, and that often helped establish leagues in more remote areas,” Milks said. He surmised this might have been the case in many places up the line. 


One grist-mill owner near Kazabazua, John Colewell Hopkins, became the catalyst for the founding of the CGHL when he donated what became known as the Hopkins Cup in 1949 with two stipulations: that his name would go on it, and that the playoff winners would retain it for bragging rights until the next year’s championship. 


As demographics in the Hills changed, the CGHL eventually folded. It was inactive for a few years in the 1990s, around the time that a large team of dedicated volunteers built the Gatineau Valley Arena – itself a testament to the popularity of hockey and skating in the region.


There has been speculation that the CGHL was the last outdoor men’s contact league in the province or even the country, but Milks said this would be difficult to prove with certainty. 


In 2001 the league briefly resurfaced with a reduced number of teams but by then the Hopkins Cup had gone missing. Its whereabouts remains a mystery. 


Kealey said he isn’t holding his breath that the cup will materialize at the Heritage Night event on Feb. 3, but for anyone out there reading this who may happen to have a 75-year-old piece of shiny, silver, local heritage hidden away, bring home the Hopkins Cup! 

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