When the Woodstock Navy Vets took the ice Oct. 23, 1966 against the Ingersoll Marlands for their first regular season game, few would’ve predicted the team lasting 50 years, let alone 10 or even five.
At the time it was a way to continue a successful juvenile team, who were sponsored by the Navy Club, that had been born from a prosperous midget program and had gone as far as the 1965-66 Ontario Minor Hockey Association semifinals after losing only five games.
A rocky start could’ve meant an early demise and made it an afterthought in Woodstock sports. After all, teams easily come and go. Some fade in the blink of an eye, while others hold firm, grow and continue traditions as new younger generations takeover from the ones that preceded them.
But as other teams were lost and forgotten in the footnotes of athletic history in southwestern Ontario, the Navy Vets remained.
Over the course of 50 years, much has been written about the team. There were championships, unforgettable goals and names that live on regardless of how much time passes. And tonight, the Navy Vets will continue etching more lines into their history as they officially mark their half century with an alumni night during their game against the Delhi Travellers.
The club first looked to join the Junior B fold, but were left on the outside joining the Inter-County Jr. C Hockey League in time for the 1966-67 season that included five other teams.
With team founder Sam Keeping and an executive of 11 others, including first head coach Don Izzard, the team signed their first three players – Scott Seagrist, Mike Fitzgerald and Gary Pooley – Oct. 6, 1966. They were joined by 14 others before their first game – a 10-2 win over Ingersoll – that saw Fred Slater get seven points, including five goals, to lead the Navy Vets to their franchise first. They’d go on to win the league before bowing out in the Clarence Schmalz Cup quarter-finals.
Over the next 48 years, they’d win three Inter-County titles, five Super C championships in six years, top honours in the Central Junior C league once, four Niagara and District Junior C titles and finally one Schmalz Cup win as top Junior C team in Ontario. An impressive collection for a team first formed to give juvenile players a couple more years of competitive hockey.
Though when you take the good, the bad will inevitably follow.
The team had its lean periods in their half century of existence. A brief name change, a horrible ownership group that left them more than $70,000 in debt and temporarily locked out of their own dressing room and more than a decade of futility that saw the franchise on the brink of folding more than once.
Since their dramatic 2002 triple overtime win against the Chippawa Hawks that sent them to the Schmalz Cup, the Vets spent a decade rapidly cycling through players, coaches, managers, executives and owners. As years went by, the memories of success seemed further away.
But still, the team remained. Not just part of a hockey community, but part of Woodstock’s personality. Only seven of the current 65 Junior C teams in Ontario pre-date the Navy Vets and in recent seasons the return of a Navy Vets identity has been strengthened and persevered.
Following its rockiest years, it’s slowly regaining the strength of being a pillar that’s part of Woodstock’s character. The fans have started to return as have memories of the successful past that led to arenas being filled to the brim and talk for a hopeful future.
In sports, as in life, moments are what stand the test of time. While that future inches closer to reality each day, people have taken notice of the possibility of adding new defining moments to a club already rich in them.
The 1969 provincial championship team riding through town on a fire truck after winning Game 7, the cardiac kids that unexpectedly stormed to the Schmalz cup finals, three straight Schmalz Cup appearances between 1994 and 1996, Taylor Winkler’s wrist shot goal in triple overtime to send Woodstock to the team’s eighth and last Schmalz Cup – all are moments in the franchise’s legacy that can never be taken away.
In its 50 years, those moments have helped form connections and create bonds that otherwise wouldn’t have existed without a Navy Vets franchise. While wins and losses have come and gone, 50 years of a shared history have helped to link generations of locals.
Not everyone may live and breathe with the team, but in some small degree of separation every Woodstonian has a tie to their longest lasting sports team.
The pages of the Navy Vets history are packed. But with what they hope will be a prosperous future in front of them and a return to success that mirrors their past, there’s still plenty of space left to continue writing about the Vets.