Goalie one of four players from Temiskaming on the 1956-57 squad which reached the league final
By Pat Payton
A lot of good, young goaltenders have played for the St. Marys Lincolns over their storied 64-year history in Junior hockey.
Ernie Little has a special distinction. Little, now 83, can lay claim that he was the first netminder to stop pucks for the Western Jr. ‘B’ team.
“St. Marys is the second-longest running Jr. ‘B’ team in the province,” Little said proudly in a recent interview with the Independent. “And I happened to be involved with the starting of the first Jr. ‘B’ team in town. That was a thrill.”
Little was one of four players from Temiskaming on that first Lincs team in 1956-57. Frank McCue, Jim Rathwell and Stu Hogan were the others from the northern town, located on the Ontario-Quebec border and about an hour by car north-east of North Bay.
Received call from Stan Moore
In the early years of the Lincolns, many players from the north came to St. Marys because of the recruiting efforts of the late Stan Moore. Little was one of those players. He remembers getting a phone call from Moore, the town’s recreation director and one of the team’s first head coaches.
McCue was working on a chicken farm in Smith Falls at the time and had returned home to Temiskaming for the weekend. That’s when Moore called and invited Little and McCue to the Lincs’ upcoming training camp.
“Stan Moore called and asked if we could come down to St. Marys,” Little recalled. “I always laugh about this, but I said, ‘are we on the team? And Stan said, ‘I didn’t say you guys were on the team, you have to try out like everybody else.’”
Shortly after, Little and McCue jumped on a bus and headed for the Stonetown, approximately 400 miles to the south.
“The very first person I met in St. Marys was Barry Nairn and he happened to be the manager of the team,” Little recalled with a laugh. “Frank and I got off the bus and we went into a Chinese restaurant, which was near the M&M Variety Store. Two Chinese guys run the restaurant and it was also the bus stop.”
Little remembers McCue and Rathwell being “tough” defencemen for the Lincolns. Local talent included forwards Jim ‘Dusty’ Aldis, Barry Hearn and Gary Douglas.
“Dusty really worked his butt off,” Little recalled. “He was always in the corners and getting the puck out. I always said that he did the dirty work. Barry was one of those serious guys who wanted to play the game, and he could put the puck in the net.
“Gary Douglas was a real good skater and a team player. In the dressing room, him and Stu Hogan were the fun guys and kept all the guys loose.”
Captain of the first Lincs’ team was import Charlie Vrana. “He was the best player I ever played with,” Little said without hesitation.
The other Lincolns’ goalie in that inaugural season was John O’Hara.
Started playing hockey at 12
Ernie Little was born and raised in Temiskaming, then moved with his family to Brockville and later to Carleton Place in the Ottawa Valley. It was in Carleton Place where he began playing hockey at the age of 12. “I had never played hockey before, and I went out to play Bantam hockey.”
A couple of years later, Little was invited to play Midget in Rouyn-Noranda, a city in Quebec. He was 15 at the time. “Me and the coach were the only ones on the team who spoke English, the rest were all French,” he said.
After one season with Rouyn-Noranda, Little returned to Temiskaming to play Midget hockey. “We had one heckuva good Midget team there,” he remembers. The Temiskaming Midgets were coached by Stan Moore, who would move to St. Marys just a couple of years later to become the town’s rec. director.
1956-57 Lincs pull upset
Little was just a few months from turning 19 when he got the call from Moore to try out for the Lincolns.
The first Lincs’ team posted a regular-season record of 9-17-1. But they made the playoffs, which was quite a story in itself. Trailing London by seven points with four games remaining, Lincolns won all four games. They defeated London 7-3 in the last regular-season game to grab the fourth and final playoff spot by a single point.
Seaforth (17-10) had finished in top spot. “Because they finished first, Seaforth got to pick who they wanted to play in the first round, and they chose us,” Little recalled.
During the regular schedule, Lincs attracted 350 to 400 fans per night. But the playoffs brought the fans out in droves, with crowds of 1,300 jamming into the rink. St. Marys eliminated Seaforth in five hard-fought games, pulling an upset that no one would have predicted.
“Putting them out was something else; nobody gave us a chance in hell,” said Little, who described it as the “highlight” of his Junior career.
In the league final, however, Lincolns didn’t have much left in the tank and were swept 4-0 by Sarnia. That strong Sarnia club was led by future NHL defenceman Pat ‘Whitey’ Stapleton. “Sarnia had a good team,” Little remembers.
In Little’s second and final season with the team (1957-58), Lincs finished third with a record of 18-11-1.
Lincolns a life-changer
Moving to St. Marys and playing for the Lincs was a life-changer for Ernie Little.
Little met his future wife while playing for the Lincolns. He and Erna Constable went out on a “blind date,” arranged by his St. Marys teammates. They were married a few years later and had three children — daughters Michelle and Missy and a son Michael, who unfortunately lived just one week.
Ernie and Erna Little celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last summer. They are now residents at Kingsway Lodge.
Little also worked over 40 years at the St. Marys Cement Company. He was a tool and die maker, and a machinist. Little enjoyed working for the Linds. “You couldn’t ask for better people to work for; they were fantastic,” he said.
Coached for over 50 years
After his playing days with the Lincs, Little turned to coaching in the St. Marys minor hockey system. He estimates that he coached more than 50 years in the SMMHA.
Little was a goalie coach for several teams over the years. He remembers being asked by legendary coach Ferris Stewart to come out and help with the Cement Midgets. Another season, Little was invited to help with a minor team coached by Bob Davis. It was the start of a special relationship that lasted 20 years. Little noted that he has a lot of respect for coach Davis.
“Ernie was like my big brother; we got to know each other really, really well,” Davis said. “You can always tell a goalie who’s been coached by Ernie Little . . . just the way they move, the way they position themselves in the net. He had this harness thing that he would bring out and show every goalie.
“Ernie always felt that the goalie and the defence were a team,” Davis added. “He’s been so good to minor hockey.”
Little has a SMMHA trophy named after him. It’s given annually to the top female (OWHA) goalie in the St. Marys minor system, and he’s proud to have his name on that silverware.
Little sums up that hockey has been “his life.” And he soon learned that St. Marys was a special place.
“I wouldn’t have a thing without hockey,” he said. “And St. Marys is one of the best places you could ever ask to live. The people are so friendly.”
That first long bus ride from Temiskaming proved to be well worth it!
–Ernie Little points out that a couple of other goalies have come down from Temiskaming over the years to play for the Lincolns, including Mike Mikita.
–Little notes that Charlie Vrana went to military college in Kingston after his Junior hockey days. He later became a pilot for Air Canada.
–Little has won the Ferris Stewart coaching excellence award three times. It’s presented annually to the top coach in St. Marys minor hockey.
“I went to Ferris Stewart the day before he died here at the nursing home,” Little recalled. “I thanked him for getting me involved with minor hockey.”