Sports

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Totem memories reach beyond basketball

IT WAS A DARK AND SNOWY NIGHT – North Vancouver High basketball players, Dan Dempsey (#6) and Len Corben (#11), had a harrowing experience on a lonely road to Sproat Lake during the 1961 Alberni Totem Tournament. Back row (l-r): Drew Leathem (manager), Ian Dixon, Keith Hart, Lou Metzner, Arnie Dunham, Al Yarr (coach). Front: Duke Fairbrother, Bob Crawford, Colin Dobson, Bill Hobbis, Dan Dempsey, Len Corben. - Len Corben collection
IT WAS A DARK AND SNOWY NIGHT – North Vancouver High basketball players, Dan Dempsey (#6) and Len Corben (#11), had a harrowing experience on a lonely road to Sproat Lake during the 1961 Alberni Totem Tournament. Back row (l-r): Drew Leathem (manager), Ian Dixon, Keith Hart, Lou Metzner, Arnie Dunham, Al Yarr (coach). Front: Duke Fairbrother, Bob Crawford, Colin Dobson, Bill Hobbis, Dan Dempsey, Len Corben.
— image credit: Len Corben collection

A little puppy love, a snowy evening and a scary car accident on a dark logging road at midnight – all wrapped inside memories of the tradition-laden Totem Tournament – has been on my mind this week.

It’s something I think about whenever there’s mention of the annual Totem Tournament, the high school basketball extravaganza held at ADSS every January.

You see, it’s now 50+ years since a teammate and I lived to tell the tale of a shared moment in time as teenagers that is now about to be revealed to the whole world.

We haven’t wanted to divulge it before. Not back in 1961 anyway.

Actually, the life-threatening part of the car accident is an unmitigated exaggeration. But I wanted to capture your attention. Oh we were definitely in a car accident. And it could have been very serious, not solely because of potential injury, but because of the situation, which I think you will soon agree has to be pretty unusual. Hard to believe actually. We’ll get to all that shortly.

Outside of the annual B.C. “AAA” boys’ basketball championship, the Totem Tournament is the longest-running high school hoops tournament in the province, having been held continuously since way back in 1955.

Port Alberni was the hot bed of basketball at that time. The Alberni Athletics were Canadian senior men’s champions in 1955. The legendary Jim Robson got his start broadcasting those games. Alberni District High finished second in the B.C. boys’ tourney that same season. Bill Marshall was the coach. So that was even before Jack Gilbert began his lengthy career at the helm of the team. Gilbert’s teams also placed second in the 1963 and 1965 B.C. championships. The school placed in the top eight 11 times in the 16 years between 1951-66. So going to Alberni for the Totem Tournament was special.

Alberni District went by the nickname Chieftains back then before changing to the Armada by the mid-1980s.

Until the last edition of the Totem Tournament, it was a boys-only tournament, at times attracting the province’s elite. A four-team girls’ section was added last January with ADSS coming away with three fine victories and the title.

North Vancouver High’s boys were invited to the Totem Tournament in 1961. I remember it well because I played on that team.

Heading into the first day of play on January 27, 1961, NVHS had won nine straight against high school opposition en route to a 23-14 season record that included a win over Magee of Vancouver, the eventual B.C. champs, and a 7-3 record against other schools that made it to the provincials.

But in our first game in Alberni, we came up against the hot hand of one Roy Picketti who canned 30+ points to give Courtenay a 62-59 victory. Ian Dixon, who later starred at UBC and also played four years in the New York Yankees’ farm system, scored 28 for us. Dixon again potted 28 in the next day’s 66-61 consolation win over hosting Alberni District who featured players like Alex Brayden, Bill Derkach, John Drew and Bill Nordmark. Brayden went on to play for UBC when they went undefeated against Canadian competition to win the national university title in 1970. Drew also played at UBC and SFU.

Enough about all that. You want to know about the car accident, right?

Okay, nowadays high school teams almost always stay in hotels when travelling. However, players were always billeted back then. The Totem Tournament was a big deal, so it wasn’t just the host team’s families who provided accommodation, the whole community got involved.

Dan Dempsey and I were billeted with a nice family in town. Nice would be an understatement. Unbelievably generous would be a better description.

You see, Dan had met a girl during vacations at Bowser over near Qualicum. Her family lived beyond Port Alberni, somewhere way out on the edge of Sproat Lake on the road to Tofino. Dan was anxious to connect with her. He must have called her because her family invited him (and me as well) for dinner. But their place was a good 45 minutes or so out of town.

When our billeting family learned of the invitation, they offered to give us their car to get there. Yes, you read that correctly. They offered to let us have their family car for the evening. We were teenagers. They had never even met us before. But this was Port Alberni. We needed transportation. They had a car. So here are the keys plus a key to the house. You’ll be back late, so we’ll see you in the morning.

Dan has lived in Dover, Massachusetts, on the coattails of Boston for something like 40 years, so for two hours recently, Dan and I reminisced on the phone about that time in Alberni, piecing together our memories.

My recollection that it was a cousin Dan wanted to visit was incorrect. Rather, it was a puppy love situation that originated the previous summer.

“I can remember quite vividly planning to see this girl before going to Alberni,” Dan acknowledges. “I was very nervous about thinking of her as a girl friend. Yet that was what was in my mind. Having you along took the pressure off being there by myself.”

Dan did the driving. He was 17, so he’d had his driver’s license only a very short time. I didn’t have a license yet.

“I remember driving,” Dan recalls, though neither of us could offer much about the dinner or visit. “I remember the road being dirt. It wasn’t snowing when we left, but coming back it was snowing. It was very dark. It was a mountainous road with hilly terrain and heavily forested. And really spooky.

“I had no experience driving in snow. I must have been going a little too fast. I think there was a curve and we slid off the road.”

The car, embedded deep in a snowbank, couldn’t be budged. There was absolutely no traffic on the road. No one to lend a hand. It was now midnight. So I stayed at the car and Dan started walking back to his friend’s house for help.

“I would guess it took me under an hour,” he says. “I probably ran too. I tapped on the window or banged on the door. My recollection is that they weren’t asleep yet. They didn’t take it badly at all. But I remember the embarrassment of getting stuck. He [the girl’s father] had a truck and pulled us out.

Thankfully the car was not damaged and we arrived at our billet’s place without further incident.

And what about Dan and the girl? “It was a romance,” he admits, “that didn’t go anywhere.”

Well, of course, puppy love still happens today.

But someone giving two teenagers – strangers with unproven driving records – the keys to the family car for the night to travel on a dark logging road with snow a possibility after having just met them? No, I can’t imagine that happening today.

But maybe it would. After all, the Alberni Valley is a pretty special place.

Len Corben is a sports historian living in North Vancouver and writes for the North Shore Outlook, a sister Black Press newspaper.

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