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Remember This? Bob the fire horse, the end of an era

October 07, 2019

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
 

On September 25, 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal reported the death of old 'Bob,' a twenty-five year old horse. 
 

It was front page news as Bob wasn’t just any horse, but was Ottawa’s last fire horse. 

The red ribbon and cup winner at the Ottawa Horse Parade passed away in pasture, honourably retired for more than a year. He had been purchased by the Ottawa Fire Department (O.F.D.) in 1908 at the age of four from Hugh Coon. Standing 16 hands, 2 inches tall (66 inches) from the ground to the top of his withers, the jet black, 1,300 pound horse served four fire stations during his lifetime, retiring from the No. 11 station at 424 Parkdale Avenue. 
 

Old Bob wasn’t the last horse in active service, but was the last owned by the O.F.D. In late 1928, the last two-horse team, also at service at No. 11 station, was displaced when the O.F.D. purchased three motorized combination ladder and hose trucks. When the team was sold, only Bob was left, pensioned off in recognition of his many years of noble service to the city. 

His retirement to greener pastures was controversial. Ottawa City Controller Tulley opposed Bob’s pensioning.
 
A delegate to the Allied Trades and Labour Association meeting held in Ottawa in the fall of 1928 wanted to know if Tulley thought the old horse deserved to be shot, and whether the councillor favoured the same treatment be given to other old employees.

Bob’s passing marked the end of an era, dating back to 1874 when the city purchased the first horses for its fire department. Prior to then, firemen had to pull their fire engines manually to the scene of a fire. 

The first fire engine in the city dated back to 1830 when the British regiment stationed on Barracks Hills, now called Parliament Hill, acquired the Dominion, a small manually operated machine. A volunteer fire department was formed in 1838. Later, the first fire hall was established on the ground floor of Bytown’s (later Ottawa’s) City Hall on Elgin Street. During these early years, insurance companies played a major role in fire-fighting, even providing the fire equipment. 

The first fire stations date from 1853 when the Bytown Town Council established three 'engine' houses in West, Central and East wards, each equipped with hand-pulled engines. 

In 1860, the now City of Ottawa purchased two hook and ladder trucks. As each weighed more than a ton, they were supposed to have been drawn by horses. But the city was too cheap or too poor to provide the funds for horses, so the engines had to be manually pulled to fires.

The volunteer fire department was neither well managed, nor very professional in its operations. 

According to David Fitzsimons and Bernard Matheson who wrote the definitive history of the Ottawa Fire Department, there were complaints in the 1850s of volunteers who were quick to show off their sky-blue and silver laced uniforms in parades, but were no-shows when there was an actual fire. To "secure the utmost promptitude in the attendance of the different [fire] companies and water carriers at fires," the city began to offer in the mid-1860s significant financial premiums to first responders. "The first engine to arrive in good working order" received $12, the second $8. The first water carrier received $2 and the second $1. 

Although such financial incentives did indeed encourage prompt service, they also led to fisticuffs between competing firemen with fires sometimes left unattended. 

Even when fire fighters managed to arrive at a fire without delay, there was the occasional problem. 

In 1914, Mr. J. Latimer, a fire department veteran, recalled a major fire in the Desbarats building located on the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets in February of 1869. 

When the fire threatened to spread to the neighbouring International Hotel, barrels of liquor were rolled out into the street to keep them safe from the flames. In the process, some were broken open and at least two detachments of firefighters went home "wobbly" and had to be replaced before the fire was extinguished.

The first fire horses arrived in 1874 when the city acquired the Conqueror steam engine with a vertical boiler from the Merryweather Company of Clapham, England for the huge sum at the time of $5,953. 

Considerably heavier than other fire equipment, Ottawa was obliged to buy horses to pull it -- anywhere from three to six depending on weather and road conditions. 

That same year, Ottawa’s volunteer fire department was replaced by a professional, full-time force under the leadership of Chief William Young and Deputy Chief Paul Favreau.

The first motorized fire engines were introduced in North America during the first decade of the twentieth century. 

In 1906, the Waterous Engine Works Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota and Brantford, Ontario produced the Waterous Steam Pumper. That same year, the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts produced its motorized fire engine. Such machines quickly became popular with fire departments everywhere. 

Compared with horse-drawn engines, the new motorized engines were faster and cheaper to operate. Horses needed to be fed 365 days of the year, and required stabling, shoeing, harnesses, and veterinary care. Fire horses also needed to be well trained. They had to be strong, obedient, and willing to stand patiently regardless of weather conditions, noise, and swirling hot embers, flames and smoke. Motorized fire engines didn’t need to be trained, were impervious to weather, and consumed gasoline only when used.

Ottawa purchased its first motorized fire engine in 1911 following pressure from insurance companies that threatened to raise their rates if the city didn’t get into the twentieth century and acquire modern fire-fighting equipment. Chief John Graham was also insistent that the city buy motorized fire equipment for efficiency and effectiveness reasons. Although the initial outlay for a motorized fire truck was higher than that of a traditional horse-drawn vehicle, the operating costs were lower.

Chief Graham had recommended buying a motor fire truck costing $10,450 from the Webb Motor Fire Apparatus Company of St Louis, Missouri. However, City Council chose a vehicle produced by the W.E. Seagrave Fire Apparatus Company of Walkerville, Ontario (now part of Windsor), the Canadian subsidiary of a company of the same name that had been established in Ohio in 1881. The company had previously sold three of its motorized fire engines to Vancouver in 1907 and one to Windsor in 1910. The four-ton, 80 h.p. Seagrave vehicle purchased by Ottawa carried a price tag of $7,850.  It was a combination chemical and hose truck capable of carrying ten firemen, two 35 gallon tanks of fire-suppressing chemicals, 1,000 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a twelve-foot ladder plus extension, door openers, and three fire extinguishers. Fully loaded, the vehicle could attain a speed of up to 50 miles per hour on flat terrain (typically 35 mph), or 20 mph on a 5-10 per cent incline. 

The City had initially sought a combination automobile pumper truck with a pumping capacity of 700-800 gallons per minute. However, it opted instead for the chemical and hose truck on the grounds that a pumper truck had not yet been adequately proven though tests were underway in New York City on such vehicles.

The new Seagrave truck was shown off to Ottawa residents at the end of May 1911 when it was run out on the road with its siren shrieking for the first time. 

Chief Graham invited reporters to witness the truck take him, two deputy chiefs and several firemen on a tour of Ottawa along Rideau, Sparks, Bank, Elgin, Laurier and Albert Streets. It visited No. 3, 7, and 2 fire stations before parking at its new home at No. 8 station located to the rear of the Ottawa City Hall on Elgin Street. In town for the event was Mr. W.E. Seagrave himself and an instructor, Mr C.E. Fern, who drove the vehicle that first time. Fern taught Fireman James Donaldson of No. 9 station how to drive the newfangled machine.

The Ottawa Evening Journal hoped that the purchase of the Seagrave vehicle marked the start of a complete replacement by Ottawa of its horse-drawn vehicles by motorized fire trucks. (The second motorized vehicle purchased by the O.F.D. was a flash car for Chief Graham who could then retire his horse and buggy.) At that time in 1911, Ottawa’s fire department owned 46 horses, for which the cost of feed alone amounted to $4,600 per year. 
 

This was the department’s second largest budgetary item after paying the firemen’s salaries. On top of this were the ancillary costs associated with owning and taking care of horses that needed to be regularly replaced. 

The newspaper thought that by 1931, the whole O.F.D. might be equipped with motorized vehicles. This was a pretty accurate guess, with the motorization process taking twenty-seven years.

The last major event that saw horse-drawn engines in action was the fire that consumed the old Russell Hotel in the middle of April 1928. By the end of that year, the entire Ottawa Fire Department had been motorized, leaving only old 'Bob' to live out his days in green pastures far from the smoke and flames of his fire-fighting days.

Today, the Ottawa Fire Department has forty-five fire stations strategically positioned to protect close to one million people living in an area of 2,796 square kilometres. Among its equipment are pumper trucks, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, and brush trucks as well as boats, ATVs and other rescue equipment.

Canadian Firefighters Memorial Blog Post and Photos, by Bill Williams

September 15, 2017

I attended the 2017 ceremony and took photographs. I have uploaded these, added a few comments and posted them on my blog site, 'Canadian Firefighters Memorial.'

https://canfimem.blogspot.ca/p/16th-annual-ottawa-fire-services.html

Let me first deal with how I'm associated with the fire service. I have never been a firefighter. Claiming to have been would be stolen valour and I refuse to do that. I was not a director with your group. I hope you have time for a bit of a story.

 

My father was a fire buff. He liked fire trucks. He and two others formed the Ottawa Fire Buff Associates and the three of them organized three or four fire musters in the 1980s. From their actions antique fire apparatus from all over the place came to Ottawa for a parade, judging and firefighter type games, first water, tug of war and so on. I don't know the details but from that organization and activity the Bytown Fire Brigade emerged and the Ottawa Fire Buff Associates was either absorbed or disbanded. As I said, I don't know the details.

 

At some point the Ontario Ministry of Transportation revoked my father's driving license. For some time prior to that his doctor had restricted his driving. So I took him to meetings of Bytown Fire Brigade. They are a great group and had good parties. (Firefighters are very sociable and know how to have fun). So I paid my dues and joined. As a member I participated in displays, helped with installing drywall and electrical fixtures in the headquarters, went to all the Ottawa fire stations selling firefighter related clothing, participated and then ran the organizations Bingos, and for two or three years edited the Bytown Trumpet, Bytown Fire Brigade's newsletter.

 

At some point I got it in my head that there should be a memorial in Ottawa to Canadian Firefighters. One work night at Bytown Fire Brigade, in the autumn of 1996, after the work and while having coffee and being social, Will Brooks put out the question, "What should we be doing?"

Among the responses, I said I would like to see a memorial for Canadian Firefighters in Ottawa. That interested Will, so he started asking me questions about what I had in mind and after several minutes of discussion he said, "Let's do it."

 

I said, "Do you think we can?"

 

He said, "Yes."

 

So we started, from a point of complete utter ignorance of what to do or how to go about it but just the decision to do it. Step one was to see if anyone else was already working on this. There wasn't. We called our group the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Development League. I made a phone call to Heritage Canada. The person I should talk to was in a meeting. They never phoned back as promised. I emailed my city councilor. He referred me to the firefighters union. We cornered Mayor Chiarelli at a city of Ottawa dinner. He met with us and was interested but that didn't really go anywhere. In Bytown Fire Brigade's Newsletter I wrote and published a piece on the need for a national memorial to firefighters. We were distributing it to all the Fire Marshall's at Will's insistence.

 

Then 9/11 happened and the attitude toward us and what we were attempting changed. It was subtle but it was a change. Later that year or maybe a year and a half later, Will and I did an interview at the New RO about some activity the Bytown Fire Brigade had coming up. Will brought his antique fire truck and we dressed up in our antique firefighting costumes, all of which was great visual appeal for a TV station. In the interview Will mentioned the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Development League. After the interview we got a call from the station. A woman who had been watching had phoned them up and was very interested in what we were doing.

 

We met with her and she's the one who told us to contact the National Capital Commission, as they are the organization that oversees commemorations on federal land in Ottawa. So we did that. By that time our group included Georges Potvin and Pierre Surprenant. We contacted NCC and arranged a meeting.

 

Will and I met with one person from NCC and when we told them what we were working on they told us they had just had a meeting, like three days earlier discussing future commemorations and one of the things they wanted to commemorate was Canadian Firefighters.

 

I have to interrupt the story briefly here. I had heard a lot of negative things about the NCC, before we went to meet with them. My experience with that organization and the people involved in it had never been anything but completely positive. They could not have been nicer or more gracious with us and they were extremely helpful and supportive of everything we wanted to do.

 

We had two more meetings with NCC. At the second meeting Will, Georges and I met with the person we had previously met with and the next person up in seniority. More progress happened. At the third meeting the three of us met with three people at NCC, the two from the prior meeting and the next one up in seniority.

 

I asked them to tell me exactly what we needed to do to get the memorial to happen. They dropped the hammer. Our group was considered the donor.

The NCC would provide the land and support. The donor, our group, would fund the memorial's design and construction. Then it would become a gift to Canada and as the donor we would also fund the memorial's maintenance.

 

So we walked out of there feeling stunned. Where do we get the money for that? I suggested forming a charity and using it for fund raising.

Doubts were expressed and we decided to let it go for a week or so and then discuss it. We decided to set up a charity to raise funds to build the memorial, risky business. I believe it took about a year to set up the organization, fill in the forms and make it happen. Will Brooks provided funding for the lawyer we hired to get the organization incorporated and then apply for charitable status. Later on the organization paid him back.

 

On May 28, 2003 we signed the incorporation papers for Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation / Fondation canadienne des pompiers morts en service that went to Industry Canada. By August we had navigated the glitch concerning the name and received approval. Then we applied for charitable status, and began preparing for the first National Fallen Firefighters Ceremony that took place in September 2004. By November CRA had approved our charitable status and we had our charitable number and could issue tax receipts.

 

There's a lot more to this but that's the bare bones story.

 

With the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation, I have the title of Founder. I served as Vice President, then Secretary and very very briefly as President. I also edited the annual publication, Courage, for its first three issues. I took on the task of directing the first ceremony, with a lot of help from about a hundred individuals over a year and a half we held the first ceremony on the second Sunday in September of 2004. There's a lot more to that, too. For a year and a half while we were doing that my generalized anxiety that usually ran from about 3 to 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, hit 10 continually until that first ceremony ended.

 

So there you go, a very brief story of what happened from my point of view.

 

To answer your request, yes, please, link my page to the ROFFA site. I already have a link to ROFFA. Actually, if you look at the home page for the site and look down the right hand side, you will see that I have been photographing the Ottawa Ceremony and posting the pictures since 2013. Right now the lead post on the site is a copy of Justin Trudeau's statement, in both languages, about the second Sunday in September being officially designated as Firefighters' National Memorial Day. I think that's a big deal, and bloody about time. I like to think I had a tiny little part of influencing that.

 

Take care and stay safe,

Bill

Tales of July 1, 1867: How a Confederation baby pushed past tragedy to become heroic Ottawa fire chief

June 23, 2017

RANDY BOSWELL

Ottawa Citizen

The Citizen asked Randy Boswell, a longtime Ottawa journalist and Carleton University professor, to reconstruct life in the capital on the day Canada was born. The history specialist dug into archives and old newspapers, unearthing a series of long-overlooked stories that shed fresh light on Confederation’s first 24 hours and some of the people whose lives were touched by the events of that landmark day 150 years ago. This is the first of those stories. The Citizen will publish the others the week leading to July 1.

Mental Health Workshop for Active and Retired Members

June 23, 2017

Retired Ottawa Fire Captain Mark Tedeschini is developing a "metal health workshop" for active and retired members who may like to come and get some heavy metal therapy.

Any interested members can contact mark at mark.tedeschini@xplornet.ca

You can read more about what Mark has been up to these past 5 years at www.1215studios.com

Janet Acres Smiley, wife of Firefighter Rob Smiley

May 29, 2017

Manotick, Ontario

“My dad’s grandfather, Charles Acres, bought this farm in 1920, and then my grandfather, Gordon Acres, started farming here in the 1930s; milking cows and selling eggs. My dad was one of two boys, and he came home to farm — he was in Hydro and got injured twice in a short period of time, and they said, ‘OK, I think you’d better find something else to do’ — so dad came home in the early ’50s. My uncle was supposed to take over the farm, but he got a job at the Experimental Farm.

“I think dad took over in the early 1970s. I’m one of four daughters. I graduated from Kemptville College in 1987 — did the dairy program. So I came home in ’87 and I’ve been farming ever since.

“Times are changing and there are a lot of women taking over the family farm, but their husbands are home full-time. I think that’s the difference with me; my husband is a full-time firefighter with the City of Ottawa. When he’s off, he’s definitely involved. And I didn’t even know when we started dating that he had an agriculture background. His grandparents had a farm, in Manotick Station, and he had two uncles that dairy farmed. So it was in the blood. But Robert’s not a cow man; he’s really good at fixing stuff, which I am not, and my daughter and I primarily milk. And I do have part-timers that help so I can have a day off here and there.

“Being a woman, I did have some negativity from some outside people, like a veterinarian, a feed company and salespeople, when I started farming in 1987, but not from farmers. I’ve always been treated fairly. I used to go to a meeting 20 years ago and there’d be hardly any women in the room. But that has definitely changed. There are girls coming home to farm. But I think that Jasmine and I are the only mother-daughter. She graduated from Kemptville College three years ago and she’s home with me full-time. Our son Travis is around, but he wants to be a firefighter like dad. He’s not a cow man at all. So the hope is that Jasmine will take over the farm.

“We have about 160 head of cattle, 80 of which are milking. So we milk 80 cows twice a day. And we run between 400 and 450 acres of crop, which primarily feeds our cattle. On a good year we’ll have a little bit of crop to sell.

“I love animals. I never get tired of a newborn calf. And I really enjoy milking the cows early in the morning — getting up and starting the day when everybody’s battling traffic to get into Ottawa. I do enjoy my commute to the barn. It’s about a 20-second walk.

“It is not an easy life. The cows dictate your day, there’s no doubt about that. We milk at 5:30 in the morning and 4:30 in the afternoon, so those are set times. But by the same token, when my kids were growing up I could take off and volunteer for an hour or two once a week. I could schedule that into my day. You go for groceries when you want; you don’t have to wait till you’re dog-tired at the end of the day. I guess I like the small freedoms that you get.

“But I really like the cattle, I really do. I did work in customer service for an electronics company between Grade 12 and my first year of college. I worked with people, and that wasn’t for me. Customer service is a tough job — I always have sympathy for cashiers and Tim Hortons workers, I really do.

“And as hard as this job is, cattle are really easy to please. They just want to be milked and fed, and they don’t give you sass. They don’t complain that you’re 10 minutes late or that their feed is late because of a frozen silo.

 

Generally, I find animals easy to please. And they have personalities. People on the whole think that cows are stupid. I follow Farmer Tim on Facebook, and on his farm they milk 40 cows and he has them all trained to go into their own stalls. So they’re trainable — cows are very trainable.

“You’ll have the cow that’s eager to get milked, so she’s standing there looking for me as I’m working my way down in the morning. She’ll bawl until I get there and get the milker on her. And there are some that love attention; there’s one who’ll just about lick the coat off you when you walk by. Jasmine calls her our puppy dog.

“Some of them don’t really care. They’re just like, ‘Feed me. Milk me.’ But there are some who are characters. And they’re all registered so they all get names. I name them when they’re babies. This one here is called Sumo, and when we started milking her, my daughter said we should have never called her Sumo because she was so rough and didn’t want to be bothered. And I once named a calf Lucky and she died, so you have to be careful.

“I know the names of the majority of them. Before I turned 50, I knew them all. My son brought a friend home and said, ‘Mom, he doesn’t believe that you know all the cows’ names.’ So I went around and I think that day I missed two out of 75. But it’s no different than a high-school teacher knowing three classes of kids’ names. You work with them seven days a week, you just get to know them.

“But you are very tied to the farm, and I’m better than I used to be. I’ve got two farmer friends and one’s just quit. He’s 52 and his back is done. So I figure if I could take at least a day off — there are some weeks now where I can take a second day, which is usually filled with paperwork — and one week a year we take off now, for sure. But it took me a long time to get comfortable with that. I think that’s because my dad never did; that wasn’t a priority for the older generation. Robert and I, from the second year we were married till we were 20 years married, we never had a week by ourselves. But now, at 20 years, we try to book a holiday. But we’re our own worst enemies for not stopping, and when you’re off, you’re not off. You’re always on call.”

Original content: http://epaper.ottawacitizen.com/bookmark/63T6A3P2IXW/

Firefighters fan fundraising flames for Girls Night Out

May 29, 2017

Story by Caroline Phillips

 

This year’s Girls Night Out was issued its own extreme heat alert after some of Ottawa’s smoking-hot firefighters volunteered to help out at the 10th annual benefit dinner and auction for Hospice Care Ottawa, a community-based organization that provides hospice care and community palliative support to individuals and their families.

The men in uniform escorted hundreds of ladies to their dinner tables at Friday night’s event, held at Algonquin College. They also offered to visit the home of the highest auction bidder in order to prepare a barbecue dinner for her and her friends.

In the 700-person crowd was prominent Ottawa philanthropist Shirley Greenberg, who was there with two tables full of her friends. Organizing committee member Mary Ann Smythe also had a table, courtesy of her husband, Phil Massad from BMO Nesbitt Burns. “I didn’t even have to ask him,” she told Around Town. “He volunteered.”

The crowd heard from Hospice Care executive director Lisa Sullivan. She was “over-the-moon excited” to share the good news that they will be breaking ground Tuesday on a new residential hospice in Kanata.

“For many of you in the room, the genesis of Girls Night Out came from a desire to have a hospice in the west end of Ottawa,” she said.

Original content: http://ottawacitizen.com/life/style/our-ottawa/around-town-firefighters-fan-fundraising-flames-for-girls-night-out

Ottawa Firefighter/Famous Chef Frank Muraca and his team win first place at the Emergency Response Team Cook-Off and Awards Gala held in Ottawa

May 16, 2017

Story by Frank Muraca:

 

We were very fortunate to have worked with Chef Janik and the team worked very well but first  place was even better! 

 

Each team was led by an Ottawa Chef, they were given a protein and a list of veggies that must all be used to create their dish. There was Military, 911 Dispatch , North Dundas fire and our volunteers from Ottawa fire as competitors.

Our Chef was Janick Quintal executive chef for Saint Albert,  with myself, Taylor Halfinger, Phil Scarfone, and Vern Fiddler which represented Ottawa Professional Firefighters.

http://ccfccottawa.ca/blog/2017/01/09/ccfcc-emergency-response-team-cook-off-and-awards-gala/

Canadian dogs sniffing out cancer in U.S. firefighters

By Allison Vuchnich and Veronica Tang

Global News

Dogs have been part of the workforce for ages, helping to sniff out bombs, drugs and even to find missing people. Now a Quebec organization is drawing on dogs’ keen sense of smell to detect cancer.

CancerDogs has trained six dogs, all beagle and hound mixes, to screen breath samples from firefighters in the United States.

“If they have cancer, we find it,” CancerDogs founder Glenn Ferguson told Global News.

 

Dogs have been used to sniff out cancer before, but what makes this approach to early detection different is the way the breath samples are collected.

For close to $20 per test, a firefighter receives a surgical mask and breathes into it for 10 minutes. That mask is then shipped to the testing centre in Gatineau, Que., where it’s stored in a large plastic vial. The dogs take over from there, sniffing each vial and raising a paw to indicate a cancer detection.

READ MORE: Sniffer dogs used to search for destructive weed in Calgary’s Fish Creek park

Ferguson said the dogs are more than 95 per cent accurate at finding cancer, with fewer than 40 per cent false positives.

The method is an experimental one, and Ferguson made clear the test is only meant for screening and detection.

“We’re not talking about diagnosing those people. We’re not treating those people, so what we’re doing falls completely into the traditional use of dogs,” he said.

If the dogs do detect cancer in a sample, CancerDogs asks for a second sample. If that test comes back positive as well, they recommend a visit to the doctor for further testing.

READ MORE: World Cancer Day: Important cancer screening tests and when you should get them

CancerDogs began working with American firefighters in 2011. Now the organization is partnered with more than 50 fire departments in the U.S.

With studies showing firefighters at greater risk for developing cancer, many say they are willing to give a breath sample and get screened.

“Twenty-seven guys that I have worked alongside of have developed some type of cancer,” said Jeremy Eldredge, a firefighter with the Modesto Fire Department in California.

READ MORE: Funeral held for Fredericton firefighter who lost battle with occupational cancer

Ferguson said he tried to rally interest from Canadian fire departments as well, but so far, none are using the CancerDogs screening method.

When Global News reached out to several firefighter associations across Canada, some said they were waiting for more evidence about the program, while others said they had never heard of the organization and its cancer-sniffing dogs.

Ferguson said he knows there are skeptics in the medical community, and he’s always working to improve the dogs’ accuracy.

“If there comes a day when there’s a machine that can do a better job than what the dogs are capable of doing, we think that’s wonderful – but until that day comes, we should not be so close-minded,” said Ferguson.

View original content: http://globalnews.ca/news/3271252/canadian-dogs-sniffing-out-cancer-in-u-s-firefighters/

ROFFA member Charlie Henry From Gatineau to Gretzky: The great ones you never forget

January 25, 2017

By Ron MacLean

Not long ago I was co-hosting a charity golf event in Milton, Ontario. I spent the afternoon stationed on the tenth tee with my partner, as he and I posed for photos with the golfers.

My co-host was Walter Gretzky. Walter was in fine form, teasing the golfers, playing pranks on the volunteers and just lighting up the day.

Later at the dinner, as I thanked Walter, I pointed out that it had been 24 years since Walter’s brush with death. I explained that he had suffered a stroke on October 13, 1991. He recovered fully, with the exception of his memory. Huge segments of his life poured from his mind during the four days his brain bled and his short-term recall was permanently damaged.

I said Walter was here because of a great doctor in Hamilton, Ontario. “Dr. Rocco de Villiers!” Walter shouted from his seat at the head table. We all cheered.

There are some people you cannot forget. Throughout dinner, Walter and I chatted about his best friends in the world. Charlie and Nan Henry of Ottawa. Charlie is a former Ottawa firefighter and junior hockey coach, who became the governor and general manager of the Gatineau Olympiques in from 1985 to 2010. Nan is the women who put up with Charlie and Walter. As I will explain, you would need a good sense of humour to cope with their act.

Walter’s famous son Wayne owned the Olympiques from 1985-92. Their first coach was the late Pat Burns. Then came Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien, who coached the Olympiques to the 1997 Memorial Cup championship.

The List of players Charlie Henry groomed includes, Luc Robitaille, Jeremy Roenick, and Claude Giroux. Under Henry, the team made the playoffs 27 consecutive years, winning seven QMJHL titles to go along with four trips to the Memorial Cup.

The Gretzky-Henry friendship stems from a tyke hockey tournament in Belleville, Ontario when Wayne was 10 years old. Charlie stood beside Walter at one of the games and said, “Walter, why is Wayne wearing white gloves, does he play in the dark too?”  Walter liked the quip. He told Charlie he had bought the flashy gloves specifically to prepare Wayne for the catcalls, the extra attention he knew would follow him every step of the way.

Not long after their rendezvous in Belleville, Walter tracked Charlie down on the telephone. “Charlie, Wayne is a huge baseball fan and would dearly love to see a Montreal Expos game. We have two tickets but I’m tied up with work.  If I were to put Wayne on the train to Ottawa , would you drive him down to Montreal to see a game?” Charlie said yes, and that is how it all began.

Walter and Charlie have been all over the world together ever since that day. They love mischief. Their favourite stage was the backseat of a taxi.

As soon as they got in the car Charlie would say “Where we going?” Walter would reply “The NHL game.” Charlie would follow up with “Who’s that kid that’s playing?,” at which point the cab driver would usually say, “It’s Wayne Gretzky!” Then Charlie would say, “Oh hell, we gotta see him again! I don’t think he can play.” The drivers would always start an argument. One cabbie stopped the car and hollered, “Get out!”… Only then would they explain who Walter was.

At the1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Walter was walking along singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Charlie insisted that Walter stop and put out his cap as if he were a street musician. Sure enough a lady stopped and threw in some money. Walter tried to give it back but she adamantly refused. That was their life.

Sneaking into the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, attending horse races in Paris, France, talking hockey and laughing all the way.

A couple of years ago Charlie had a scare with stomach cancer. While in hospital, his son Michael, said “Dad you get better, and I’m taking you to China.” Charlie did get well, and they eventually climbed the Great Wall.

Perhaps it was all the globetrotting with Walter that lit a fuse, but Charlie cannot get enough of the great historical landmarks of the world. This summer they did Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and next year they plan to ascend Machu Picchu in Peru.

When Pat Burns was dying of cancer, he had an incredibly clear and upbeat approach to everything. In his last conversation with his son Jason, Pat removed his Stanley Cup ring and handed it over. “Jason, I want you to keep this ring and listen, they’ll likely put me in the Hall of Fame one day. When they do you be sure to thank Charlie Henry and the Gretzkys.”

Burn’s was inducted last year, four years after he succumbed to his illness. Jason spoke on his father’s behalf, and he celebrated the Gretzkys and Charlie Henry. The great ones, you never forget.

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