AMHERST – There are many people who can be honoured for ensuring the continuous existence of the Amherst Ramblers over the past 45 years, but the team that got the ball rolling, and left a path that everybody else followed, looms largest in Ramblers history.
That first 1968 Ramblers team will be recognized Saturday night before the 2012-2013 Maritime Hockey League Amherst Ramblers take to the ice against the Pictou County Weeks Crushers.
“The Ramblers started in 1967 and played junior B hockey in Moncton,” said Keith Blenkhorn, the Ramblers first coach. “The 1968 team is the 45th year we’ve been in the (Junior A hockey) league and we’re the only team still in the league since the league was formed.”
Fifteen of the 20 original players will be on hand for the ceremony. Blenkhorn believes the early Amherst Ramblers teams were some of the best.
“There were a lot of good hockey players,” said Blenkhorn. “We had a couple of great goal scorers in Billy Riley and Terry White. Bill made the Washington Capitals and Terry father, Jeremy, played for the New York Rangers. Terry, like everybody in his family who played hockey, had the scoring touch.”
Blenkhorn coached the Ramblers for seven years.
“I coached the team four different times,” said Blenkhorn. “1968 was the first year coaching the Ramblers. I also coached them in the mid-70s, the early 80s, and the mid-80s, so I coached them across a span of about 20 years.”
And his former players still call him ‘coach.’
“I was only 25 when I first coached them, so most of them are only a few years younger than me.”
He is proud of how the player’s lives turned out.
“They’ve all grown up to be real gentlemen and good citizens. I can’t go down the list and see anybody who wasn’t productive in life,” he said. “They all ended up with good jobs or ran their own businesses.
“A lot of them are retired, but I’m still working,” he added with a laugh.
Blenkhorn attributes some of their success to playing hockey.
“Living a good life is part of sport,” he said.
Blenkhorn said hockey was different when he was growing up.
“There was a little bit of fighting but we didn’t have a goon. That’s where the respect came in. If you ran the little guy something would happen, but with the rules they have today there are no consequences,” he said.
“Back in those days if you had a score to settle, you settled it,” he added. “Brian O’Byrne, one of the best players to come out of the Ramblers, him and me would drop the gloves against each other when we played minor hockey and then we’d walk home together after the game. Everything was left in the rink, and that sort of thing doesn’t exist today.”
With that said, Blenkhorn has a lot respect for today’s players.
“They’re better hockey players today as far as speed, size and shooting,” he said. “They’ve come a long way in those skills, there’s no question about it.”
Blenkhorn said there’s been a lot of ‘ups and downs’ in Ramblers-land in the last 45 years.
“We’ve had businesses in town take the team over,” said Blenkhorn. “We had Moosehead when Riley was the coach, so that was always a big help.
“And George Baker did a fantastic job. If it wasn’t for George Baker there wouldn’t have been continuous Ramblers hockey in Amherst today,” he added. “At the time he took over, the team was in bad shape and he did a great job digging the team out of a hole.”
He says the Ramblers are going in the right direction today, “especially with a new sponsor. It takes some of the heat off when it comes to financing the team.”
Jack Matthews will drop the puck before Saturday’s game, which starts at 7 p.m.
“Jack is the longest loyal fan we’ve ever had,” said Blenkhorn. “He’s very dedicated. He used to haul players in his car for years and never wanted five cents for gas, and he never missed a game.”
“Before the Ramblers started, he was a fan of the senior team, so he’s been sitting in the same seat in the rink since it was built in 1959.”
Former Ramblers, and other VIP’s attending the on-ice ceremony are:
Trainer: John Kelligrew
Manager: Walter Maltby
Coach: Keith Blenkhorn
Owner/Founder: Representing Moe Bent will be his two sons, Jim Bent and George Bent
Roy Maltby: Sponsor CIBC Wood Gundy. (Roy is past Ramblers president and past president of the MHL)
MHL President: Darrell Smith
Ramblers President: Jim Henwood
Ramblers long dedicated fan: Jack Matthews
Amherst mayor: Robert Small
Cumberland County warden: Keith Hunter
The referee of first Ramblers game may also attend the ceremony