The Early Days of the OHL

Varsity Arena

Junior hockey has been played in Ontario for over a century now, and the national championship structure was codified with the first awarding of the Memorial Cup in 1919. Prior to 1934, there was no firm division between different levels of junior, but in 1934, junior hockey was divided into junior "A" and "B", a division that continues to this day. At that time, there were multiple junior leagues across Canada, representing each western province, Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and separate leagues for northern and southern Ontario, with the south being represented by the Ontario Hockey Association, or OHA. The top two teams in Eastern Canada faced off for the George Richardson Memorial Trophy, with the winner contesting the Memorial Cup against the Western champion.

Much like in the NHL, the indoor arenas used by junior hockey in the formative days of the sport are universally gone now. The boom age of arena construction in Ontario and around the continent began in the 1920's, which not only saw the building of Windsor Arena and the Galt Arena Gardens in Ontario, but also all six of the "Original Six" arenas in the NHL, which were built between the 1924 opening of the Montreal Forum and the 1931 opening of Maple Leaf Gardens.

The junior A ranks saw constant upheaval and turnover until the end of the Second World War, with teams often phasing in for a season or two and then folding, or moving back and forth between junior A and B. While the war years featured teams from as small of cities as Port Colborne briefly joining the junior A ranks, some semblance of stability began in the immediate post-war period. HockeyDB lists the 1945-46 OHA season as consisting of the St. Michael's College Majors, Oshawa Generals, Galt Red Wings, Toronto Marlboros, Barrie Flyers, St. Catharines Falcons, Hamilton Lloyds, and the Toronto Young Rangers. The Toronto teams all played at Maple Leaf Gardens. Oshawa played at the Oshawa Arena (AKA the Hambly Arena), which burned down in a famous fire in September 1953. Galt played at the Arena Gardens, Barrie played at the Barrie Arena, St. Catharines at Garden City Arena, and Hamilton at the ancient Forum. All but the Forum and the burned arena in Oshawa were still standing into the 21st century, though several have been lost since then.

In 1946-47 teams based in Stratford and Windsor joined, with the Stratford Kroehlers playing at the Stratford Arena and the Windsor Spitfires playing at the same Windsor Arena where the modern Spitfires played until 2008. The next season saw the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters join the league, playing one year in Galt before moving into the brand-new Memorial Gardens. 1950-51 featured the addition of the Waterloo Hurricanes, who played out of the Waterloo Memorial Arena. The following year, the Kitchener Greenshirts joined the league, playing out of the famous Memorial Auditorium, then a brand-new building. The Aud replaced an earlier downtown arena that had been located a block from the main intersection of King and Queen Streets, which had burned down in the 1940s. 1956-57 saw the addition of the Peterborough T.P.T's (later Petes) with the building of the Memorial Centre. (T.P.T. stood for Toronto-Peterborough Transit Company, the team's primary sponsor.) Of course, not all these teams survived - many of the new teams were moved from previous locations - and by 1960-61 the OHA was down to a mere seven teams, including the Guelph Royals, Toronto St. Michael's Majors, Hamilton Red Wings, St. Catharines Teepees, Peterborough T.P.T's, Toronto Marlboros, and the new-for-that-year Niagara Falls Flyers, playing out of the Niagara Falls Memorial Arena.

In 1961, the Memorial Cup was won by the Toronto St. Michael's Majors, who were then withdrawn from the league by Father David Bauer. Bauer cited as his reasons "growing professionalism, [the] long schedule and rough play ... [it was] difficult for the educational institution to handle gracefully". (Cited in Over the Boards: The Ron Ellis Story by Kevin Shea.) In these days all junior teams had affiliations with NHL teams, and Maple Leaf Gardens, Ltd., who owned the Toronto Marlboros, became concerned about the loss of prospect room in the OHA and decided to form what became the Metro Junior A League as a response. 1961-62 saw a major re-organizing of the OHA. The previous seven-team division became six, with Guelph, Peterborough, Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, and Hamilton surviving from before, while the Montreal Junior Canadiens, who played out of the Montreal Forum, were convinced to join the OHA from their previous home in a Quebec-based league.

Stafford Smythe was convinced that he could build a junior league that would feed the Leafs and drive the five-team OHA out of business. However, with the addition of Montreal, the six-team OHA was still able to continue operating, and the calibre of play in the Metro League was essentially junior B save for the dominant Marlboros and Majors. The former Majors franchise continued play although the affiliation with the College stopped. Many Metro League games involving Toronto teams directly were played at Maple Leaf Gardens still, while others were played at St. Michael's Arena. The other new teams in the Metro League were the Whitby Mohawks, playing out of the demolished-in-1972 Whitby Community Arena, the Brampton 7Ups, playing out of the 1950-vintage Brampton Memorial Arena (Interior), and the Unionville Seaforths, playing out of 1928's Crosby Memorial Arena (Interior). (Crosby Arena was renovated in 1975, explaining the hideous aluminum facade.) All of those three teams had been Junior B teams the previous year. The next year saw the Seaforths become Knob Hill Farms, while the Mohawks were renamed the Dunlops after the legendary senior team.In Oshawa, Wren Blair helped revive the Generals, sponsored by the Boston Bruins, although they played out of the Bowmanville Memorial Arena (and occasionally Maple Leaf Gardens as well) because there was still no suitable arena in Oshawa.Finally, the Majors were transferred to Neil McNeil High School near the border between Toronto and Scarborough, and were renamed the Neil McNeil Maroons. All three Toronto teams called Maple Leaf Gardens home, which filled the glut of hockey by hosting Tuesday and Sunday doubleheaders, usually in front of tiny crowds. The calibre of play in the Metro League was sub-par, it had a reputation as a Leafs-dominated league, and too many teams in the Toronto area grew to cause major financial problems, as Brampton, Whitby, Neil McNeil and Knob Hill Farms were all in dire straits. The Majors/Maroons franchise won the Metro League title, represented by the Father John Conway Memorial Trophy, both years, although the team was eliminated in both cases in the J. Ross Robertson Cup final by the OHA champion.

1963-64 marks the beginning of the OHA's modern era. The Marlboros applied to rejoin the OHA as MLG, Ltd. decided to cancel the Metro League experiment and redistribute their prospects from the Metro teams between the Marlies and a new Leaf-sponsored team that would play in London out of the new London Gardens. However, while the league re-admitted the Marlies, they rejected the London expansion plan. The stacked Marlboros dominated the OHA that year with a 40-9-7 record in an eight-team league that also included the Kitchener Rangers, who had moved from Guelph, and another Metro survivor in the Oshawa Generals. The Generals were still forced to play their first season and part of their second in Bowmanville, but they would return to Canada's Motor City partway through 1964-65 with the opening of the Oshawa Civic Auditorium. For 1965-66 the OHA relented to MLG's plans and allowed a second Leaf-sponsored team to be placed in London, called the Nationals.

I have now covered every arena used by the OHA/OHL since 1946 on this website, at least in a partial manner. However, information about a lot of the buildings is sketchy, particularly those that have been torn down. Research is still ongoing. If you have any information to contribute at all about the formative days of the OHA/OHL, please send it to Email.

To continue to the middle years of the OHL, click here.

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Last Revised: October 12, 2019