WIIKWEMKOONG – The moves are a bit slower and there is the occasional creak that just might be coming from the strategically arranged chairs set out on Gordie Odjig’s deck, but the camaraderie of the surviving members of the champion Wiky T-Birds (sometimes the Blues) remains as vital as ever.
Most of the sky blue and yellow-emblemed championship team jackets have inexplicably shrunk over the intervening years—well, except for Scan the Man Odjig’s, which has somehow managed to survive the clutches of girlfriends past. The boys have a few conjectures as to how Stan managed to hang onto his. “Don’t write that down,” laughs Gordie, the organizer and impresario of the get-together being held at Gordie’s Beach. That particular admonition will be repeated several times throughout the evening, along with the accompanying “true story, write that down.”
Between the roars of laughter and interjections of forgotten T-Bird lore, Gordie is valiantly trying to keep the chronological order of the storied hockey team’s history straight. “Hold on, I’ll get to that,” he says, as his buddy Sonny recalls a humorous incident involving something called “the dungeon.”
Gordie started his chronology by paying homage to the original hockey players from the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territories, one of whom was his own father Dominique Odjig. He picks up a framed photograph from the table of a group of decidedly tough looking young men gathered around his father. “That’s Eli McDougal, the guy with the cigarette and Charlie Minogue,” he said; “it’s the 1950s and they are getting ready to hitch the horses to travel across the ice to Killarney to play the Killarney Northmen.”
It was these early pioneers of hockey who provided the inspiration for those who followed. “There are what I call four generations,” explains Gordie. “The guys from the 1920s, they kinda started it all, then there were the guys from the 1950s, early 60s, they were the first generation of T-Birds.
“The second generation, those were the guys from 1968, 69, 70, guys like Johnny Jackson, he was a great goalie,” said Gordie. “I wasn’t allowed to be a T-Bird yet, we were young guys still in high school.”
The Wiky T-Birds were a senior league team, back when the Island had a senior league and hockey was a major draw. Fans would travel to the games by the school bus load, sometimes for a particularly important Island championship game the fans would arrive four buses strong. “There wasn’t enough room in the arena,” laughs Sonny. “Standing room only,” agrees Gordie.
There were tryouts for the team in those days and the competition was tough. “If you didn’t make the team you went to play for the Odawas,” says Sonny. “I played for them too.”
The Odawa team ranks were made up of those who wanted to play for the Wiky T-Birds but didn’t make the cut yet, along with older players who weren’t up to the grade anymore. “You had to be committed,” said Gordie. “If you worked out of town, or you couldn’t make the games, or if you slacked off on your effort, you could get cut.” It was serious business. But there was that time the Odawas got the last laugh, beating the lauded T-Birds in a tournament game. “That’s another story,” laughs Gordie. “We’ll get to that.”
Gordie digresses to explain how the team name came about. “Somebody came back from a game in West Bay, that’s M’Chigeeng now, and they liked the name of the West Bay team, Thunderbirds. So our team became the Wikwemikong Thunderbirds. That caused quite a bit of controversy,” he said. “So the team became the Wiky T-Birds. That’s a story I never knew until recently. But it’s a true story, write that down.”
Although his brother Scotty was the team coach, Gordie was 16 before he first got to join the roster.
The third generation started around 1973-74.
“The arena burnt down in 74,” recalled Gordie. “It’s still a mystery how it happened, April Fool’s Day. There were lots of stories going around, you know how it is. But we will get to that later.”
In this third generation of the team a new challenge arose. “We started the Wiky Drum Committee,” said Gordie. “We would lose half the team when there was a big powwow down in Detroit or someplace. We would get back and ask how they did and the answer would be ‘we lost, you guys weren’t there.” It was a coach’s nightmare. “The coach would get real mad at us,” laughed Gordie.
In 1974 there was a brand new arena, the Thunderdome, but it was a bit nip and tuck.
“They put the name Wiky Band down in the general ledger for the building, but when the parts arrived the band didn’t have the money,” recalled Gordie. “Scotty Fisher (Odjig) was in charge. Scotty said ‘get those steel beams together, they won’t be able to take it back’.” It helped that some of the work team were ironworkers.
“The old T-Birds built that arena,” asserted Gordie.
“I worked there for a while,” said Sonny.
The inaugural game was a major community event. “The Creighton Gold Miners were invited to play the T-Birds,” recalled Gordie. “It was a good game.” “We beat them 6-3,” offered Sonny.
“It was around then that the Manitoulin Senior League really got started,” said Gordie. “Even Sheg had a team—the Sheg Bears.”
It was good hockey, there was body checking back then, good hockey, rough hockey,” said Gordie. “Wiky won their share of championships in those years, 1974, 75, 76. More hockey players came on.”
Tryouts were now in September and October. “We had artificial ice by then,” said Gordie. “Before it was water and hoses. Now the seasons started a lot earlier.”
When those tryouts ended, the team would have three solid lines of five each and a goalie plus a spare.
When the Wiky T-Birds secured the Island Championship, Ogimaa Ron Wakegijig declared a band holiday and everyone retired to the community centre, with some partying on until daylight.
As the ‘80s drew on, a lot of the players moved south to Toronto to find work, and found hockey there as well. “I played on the Toronto Firebirds,” recalls Sonny. “It was mostly Wiky guys.”
As the games went on through the ‘80s, the games were tough as nails. Every community had a team, and a lot of them were made up of big tough farm boys. “There were a lot of fisticuffs,” admitted Gordie, “but it was all in fun. We were all friends.”
“But there was a little racism, like society as it is,” said Gordie.
A number of the players were on the travelling team, the Juvenile hockey club (a step before the Senior League category), the Wiky Bruins, and Sonny recalled one game when the opposing fans were chanting “Wiky on the warpath, oom-uh.” “The were trying to be racial,” said Gordie. “But the Wiky fans picked it up and went with it.” From then on the intended slight became a bonding chant for the Wiikwemkoong team and its fans.
The Island non-Native teams got teased right back. “Those Tehkummah Tycoons (Sportsman League), the Mindemoya boys, they were like ZZ Top guys, all big beards, big tough farm boys. My good high school friend Gordie McCallister.”
The Wikwemikong Thunderbirds represented Manitoulin and the North Shore at the All-Ontario Indian Hockey Tournament and secured the championship with three straight wins.
It wasn’t a cakewalk, but the Wiky T-Birds downed their arch-rivals Moose Factory Scrappers thanks in good part to the goaltending of Tony Roy, Mike Webigijig (Monster), Alex Shigwadja (Joe Alick) and Jim Robinson of Little Current.
“Those guys are moose-eaters,” said Gordie of their Moose Factory rivals. “Football player big,” agreed Sonny.
The penultimate win for the team had to be the Challenge Cup, however, and although the Sudbury Braves took the final amid some controversy, the T-Birds took it in good grace.
“That was the end of our era,” said Gordie, “the third generation.”
In 1984 the team name changed to the Wiky Blues. “It was still the T-Birds, but we were under the wire,” laughed Gordie. “We won that Challenge Cup.”
The Senior League faded away, giving ground to the Sportsman era. “It was too rough, I guess,” said Gordie of the demise of the heavy hitting, rough and tumble Senior League, “but it was really good hockey.”
The camaraderie of those days created lifelong friendships between the players among both the T-Birds and their opponents. “We used to say ‘don’t be scared’ when we left the dressing room,” recalled Sonny. The famous Peak Manitowabi, the team’s on-ice goon/policeman coined the phrase “kill or be killed.”
“He was the Marty McSorley of the Wiky T-Birds,” explains Gordie.
“Billie and Howie Webkamigad, Junior Assinewia, Bob Corbiere, Donald Jacko, Ron and Jeff Trudeau, Zootah and Agilius Ominika, Ron Davies, Mr. Cheechoo, Cliff Chicks and Henry George, Marvin Assiniwai, Alex Fox, Donny Trudeau, Melvin Lewis, Louie Noekwegijig, Paul Williams and our trainers Stan Peltier and Merve Pitawanakwat, so many great hockey players, I know I there are more,” said Gordie.