Down and out in Deeside

An interesting and entertaining article about the London Lions' game against the Altrincham Aces in Deeside, Wales, on 26 March 1974. Written by ex-Ace RICK DRENNAN. First published by Mississauga Business Times, 2 October, 2003. Reprinted by permission.

In September 2003, the Toronto Maple Leafs travelled to Sweden to hold their training camp. It was the NHL team's first European vacation. The trip to Europe brought back fond memories of my own ill-fated foray into international hockey. This year marks the 30th anniversary of my European hockey experience. With the hockey season about to faceoff, and the memories of my season in Merry 'Ol England still fresh in my mind, I'd like to share those remembrances with you. As you'll soon see, our 1973-74 squad was thrown to the Lions, but showed it was made of much "Sterner" stuff. I'll never forget the time, date, year and place: the afternoon of March 26, 1974, at Deeside Leisure Centre, Queensferry, Wales, just a slapshot across the border from England, and less than an hour's bus ride from Altrincham (a suburb of Manchester, and my home away from home). It was the sporting event of the year, the grand opening of a brand new ice rink. Thousands of curious onlookers - many who'd never seen an ice hockey game before - jammed the building to watch the fabled London Lions, the top farm club of the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League, play the local heroes, the Altrincham Aces, challenging that season for the British Southern League championship. The Lions were a hockey juggernaut, an eclectic mix of future NHLers (Dennis Polonich, Ron Simpson, Nelson Pyatt), former world-class Olympians (Ulf Sterner, Tord Lundström and Leif Holmqvist), and seasoned pros (Dennis Johnson, Rick McCann, and Earl Anderson). They were coached by legendary Red Wings' defenceman Doug Barkley. That winter the NHL had tentatively dipped its toe into the European waters, setting up shop at Wembley Ice Rink. The Lions barnstormed Europe, taking on - and in most cases, beating - any and all teams: Gothenburg, Helsinki, the Prague All Stars, the Finnish Olympic team, Helsinki IFK, AIK Stockholm, and Dynamo Moscow.

Ice hockey was a curio-sport back then, a rank below darts, field lacrosse, and tiddlywinks. It had enjoyed a spirited run in the 1950s, spurred on by expat Canadians who joined the services and stayed on after the war to try and sell their national pastime to a football-mad public. It had dwindled to irrelevance by the time I'd arrived 30 years ago this year. The Aces were of less-than-stellar pedigree, a ragtag outfit of semi-pro and semi-serious Canadians (the Drennans, Ron and Rick, Jim Francheschini, Leo Franchino, Joe Greenberg, and Stan Windross), a dozen local heroes and part-timers, and an overeager band of juniors. The English league gave colonists a chance to travel over 'ome, play a little hockey, meet some new mates, kill a few million brain cells, chat up a few thousand birds, and record a memory that would last a lifetime. I had no illusions of glory. I was a better-than-average club player from Canada. We didn't know we were torchbearers for a new-look professional league still in its infancy. We played on round rinks (Blackpool), rinks with ankle-high boards (Birmingham), and I swear Turkish prison officials designed our dressing facilities. In one memorable game, after building a 14-0 lead, one of our players left the bench to grab a quick pint in the rink's pub. The game over 'ome had a whole different feel and vernacular: scorers were 'strikers,' defencemen were 'defenders,' and the netminder was the same as his football counterpart, the 'keeper. The oddities of the English league didn't stop there, however. The first and second periods were clocked at the regular 20-minute spans. But the third period lasted until public skating began, sometimes 50 minutes later.

Altrincham Aces 1973-74

England was prawns and pies and greasy fries. DD was Double Diamond, and TT's were tartan eyeballs, or what I had the morning after the night before. In Manchester, I think it rained non-stop for eight months. There were four forecasts: overcast, light rain, heavy showers, and bring the ships in. I thought I might drown standing up. But slowly, due mainly to my brother Ron's scoring exploits (he set the league record with 46 that season), the Aces caused a quiver of excitement in the community. We became used to - no, make that enlivened by - English life. At the local paper, we went from zero coverage to agate type to full-blown game reports. Our supporters club grew from a few family onlookers to the hundreds. Our bus trips to away games in Blackpool, Liverpool, Bristol, and London, became legendary romps and were sold out weeks in advance. The Deeside game promised to be a red-letter event for the sport. Fans were promised a titanic battle. Trouble was, our team was the Titanic; the Lions' players were the icebergs. This wasn't even in the David versus Goliath category. It was Manchester United vs. a C-flight club team.

The Aces' crack management team had somehow convinced Lions' management that we could give them a stirring game. The owners of the rink promoted the hell out of it. Much was expected. The pressure was on. But OUR management didn't have to play THEM. They didn't have to go into the corners with Dennis Polonich, the meanest little SOB this side of Kelvington, Saskatchewan, or bust through the defensive paring of Ron Simpson and Charlie Shaw, who ate their steaks bones and all. They didn't have to live with the results of a pasting for the rest of their lives. Thousands bought tickets. Brother Ron was touted as the 'Aces Trump Card.' But scoring six against the pylons masking as Blackpool defenders wasn't exactly the same as beating the grizzled Lions' rearguards. We knew we were badly outmanned, ready for a savage beating. We'd travelled to Wembley ice rink earlier that winter to watch the Lions play one of the world's premier teams, the Prague All Stars. The Londoners beat them 3-1, in one of the most fast-paced, highly evocative encounters I'd ever witnessed. When Aces management struck the Deeside deal, I looked at my brother - over a pint, of course - and gulped noticeably. "They'll kill us," I said. But we had an ace up our sleeve that afternoon: Bourbon. Kentucky Whiskey. There was even something serendipitous about its name: Four Aces. Ron had purchased a bottle the night before the game. During our pre-game preparations he was passing it from player to player. Many of us, in desperate need of fortification, took a large pull. At least we'll go out on our shields, I thought, or fall down dead drunk on top of them.

Brothers Rick and Ron Drennan in 1974

When organizers saw our undermanned, rag-tag outfit before the game, they struck an 11th hour deal: they would lend us Sterner, the former Swedish Olympian, and Terry Richardson, their other goalie - a former first-round draft pick of the Red Wings. Suddenly, the Aces lineup didn't look so vulnerable. Suddenly, the blue and white had hope. Suddenly the top was put back on the bourbon. The first period was a dizzying blur: we scored the first goal, and added another. Richardson made 1,246 saves. High to the glove, low to the corner, break away after break away; it didn't matter; he saved it. After each save he'd laugh uproariously at his snake-bitten ex-mates. On the bench, Sterner in his too tight Aces sweater urged us on: "Let's Go Aces," he shouted, in his highly cultured Swedish accent. At the end of one period, it was 3-2 Lions. The hyper fans were cheering on the underdogs. They ran to us after the period for autographs, ignoring the future NHLers. But back in the dressing room, we knew the gig was up. The Lions were too good. We were like the titanic survivors, bobbing around in the water, waiting for a lifeboat. The Lions put it in second gear in the second period and third gear in the third. They put 11 past Richardson and we could only add one more, a fluke. No matter. The fans filed out happy. Sterner and Richardson joined the long list of ex-Aces who had donned the blue and white. And after the game, we polished off the Four Aces - and everything else alcoholic. The Deeside game wasn't the highwater mark in the Aces' storied history, but perhaps it was the team's most poetic moment. And as I look back fondly on my time with the club in the rearview mirror, I know that the time, date, year and place will be forever etched in my own personal history. For all those present and past Aces, I now propose a toast (and they'll have to buy a bottle of Tennessee Whiskey for this one):
"To the Aces of 1973-74: We passed on the torch (and the bottle) to all those who followed."