The old Centennial train

November 17, 2022

North Bay Centennials. The moniker is etched in the memory bank. They boasted a legendary coach and played to rowdy crowds at venerable Memorial Gardens with a who’s who of players, many of whom were homegrown or from the fellow northern towns of Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and White River.

They also have a secure spot in the Ontario Hockey League history books as a quintessential small market franchise that was the frenzied talk of the town for many a cold winter. The Centennials were North Bay’s first OHL team, arriving from Niagara Falls in 1982 only to leave for Saginaw 20 years later.

And while the OHL returned to North Bay in 2013 when the Battalion relocated from Brampton, the Centennials to this day remain a revered and iconic brand among a legion of faithful followers who have not forgotten the glory days under iconic coach and general manager Bert Templeton.

Named in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the railroad in North Bay, the Centennials were an immediate hit after owner Reg Quinn moved his Niagara Falls Flyers to the Gateway City. 

North Bay Centennials debuted with a 44-win, 91-point season in 1982-1983 under the aforementioned Templeton, who would enjoy a spectacular 12-year run in North Bay that included a cult-figure status within the hockey-mad town of 54,000 residents.

The Centennials won back-to-back Emms Division titles in 1986 and 1987 and the OHL was wildly-popular in North Bay with fans flocking to Memorial Gardens and team pennants on display throughout the town.

Under Templeton, the Centennials three times came within a Game 7 victory of advancing to the Memorial Cup tournament — twice losing to the Paul Theriault-coached Oshawa Generals and once to the Ted Nolan-coached Soo Greyhounds — before winning the OHL crown in 1994 with a thrilling championship-series win over the erstwhile Detroit Jr. Wings.

For his efforts, Templeton was awarded both the OHL and Canadian Hockey League coach of the year awards in 1994 but when owner John Hopper would not give his esteemed bench boss a raise on a proposed new contract, a parting of ways resulted.

The departure of Templeton in 1994 signaled the beginning of bad times for the Centennials, on the ice and at the gate.

Over the next eight seasons under three different coaches — none of whom could hold a candle to the late Templeton — the Centennials would have a winning record only twice while never winning a playoff series and missing the playoffs all together three different times.

While Templeton was the undeniable face of the franchise during his 12 years in North Bay, a number of players became notable attractions while wearing the black-and-gold of the Centennials.

To be sure, the list of Centennials alumni reads like a virtual who’s who of OHL populace, some of whom would go on to play in the National Hockey League.

Alphabetically, here is a sample collection of noteworthy players who were standouts and/or fan favourites during their OHL days in North Bay.

Shawn Antoski, Alex Auld, Drake Berehowsky, Ron Bertrand, Dennis (the Menace) Bonvie, Brad Brown, Mike Burman, Adam Burt, Brent Bywater, Troy Crowder, Rob DeGagne, Jason Firth, Paul Gillis, Trevor Halverson, Mike Hartman, Derian Hatcher, Kevin Hatcher, Mark Hatcher, Bill Houlder, Nick Kypreos, Bob LaForest, Mark LaForest, Mark Major, Andrew McBain, Dave McLlwain, Bill McMillan, Ron Meighan, Jim Midgley, Chris Neil, Robbie Nichols, John Purves, John Reid, Tyler Rennette, Shawn Roy, Lenny Soccio, John Spoltore, Derek Switzer, Chris Thorburn, Darren Turcotte, Carmine Vani, Kevin Vescio, Vitali Yachmenev et al.

Of the above mentioned notables, many of them are Northern Ontario products.

They include Auld (Thunder Bay), Burman (North Bay), Bywater (North Bay), Crowder (Sudbury), DeGagne (Thunder Bay), Halverson (White River), Houlder (Thunder Bay), McMillan (North Bay), Rennette (North Bay), Roy (North Bay), Thorburn (Sault Ste, Marie), Turcotte (North Bay) and Vescio (Thunder Bay.)

Aforementioned Sault Ste. Marie product Chris Thorburn played three full seasons in North Bay after the Centennials took the big right winger in the first round of the 1999 OHL priority selections draft from the Elliot Lake Ice of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. He then accompanied the team to Saginaw in 2002 after the Centennials were sold and the franchise was moved to mid Michigan and became the Spirit. Thorburn was then dealt by Saginaw to the Plymouth Whalers at the trade deadline. In all, the lanky lad from the Sault’s west end played in 203 OHL games over four seasons and totalled 79 goals, 124 assists, 203 points.

Thorburn then played three full seasons in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans before embarking on an improbable National Hockey League career that included stops with the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues while suiting up for 805 games. He finished his NHL career by being part of a Stanley Cup winning team in St. Louis. Transitioning from a power forward with a scoring touch to more of a role playing enforcer, Thorburn managed to stick it out for those 805 NHL games while scoring only 53 goals, 81 assists, 134 points but racking up 968 minutes in penalties and earning a reputation as a popular team first player.

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