By Cecilia Nasmith
The ballroom at the Best Western Plus Cobourg Inn and Convention Centre was kept rocking with applause and appreciation Saturday for eight initial inductees into the Cobourg and District Sports Hall of Fame.
Two of the inductees moved the audience to the special tribute of a standing ovation in acknowledgement of two extraordinary stories.
Gold-medal Olympian and gold-, silver- and bronze-medalist in the Paralympic World Games, Frank Mazza was born with cerebral palsy April 7, 1958. The disease affected his body movement, muscle control, posture, balance, fine motor skills and oral motor functioning. He had to use a wheelchair for mobility and, in 1982, began wheelchair racing. Much to his surprise, he won many competitions at both local and provincial meets. Next came a racing wheelchair and a two-year training program with Team Canada. In the 1984 provincial games, Mazza won the 60-metre, 100-metre and 400-metre sprints That same year at the International Games for the Disabled (the equivalent of today's Paralympics Games), he won a gold medal for Canada in the 4×100-metre relay. In the 1986 CP Games in Belgium, he won gold in the 4×100-metre relay, silver in the 400-metre race and bronze in the 100-metre event. His career was cut short thereafter by a cancer diagnosis. In 1990, Mazza was inducted into the Ontario Cerebral Palsy Sports Hall of Fame.
His coach Doug Montgomery was there during those years, and his belief is that people back in the day did not truly grasp the significance of Mazza's accomplishments, let alone how hard and consistently he trained.
Though everyone knew about the Olympics and Special Olympics, Montgomery added, they were not as aware of the Paralympics - which today commands exhaustive coverage and tremendous respect.
The fact is, Mazza was up against competitors who had the use of two arms and access to the latest technology. After they encountered the world's first racing wheelchair in Europe, he said, they would eventually be able to acquire the second one on the planet and the first one in North America for Mazza's use.
That was largely due to fellow inductee Layton Dodge's colleague on the Cobourg Star, Suzanne Atkinson (nee Ambrose).
Atkinson took a keen interest in Mazza's accomplishments, and covered each milestone and triumph with an engaging story that inspired people, businesses, services clubs, churches and other organizations to want to help. Their donations helped with expenses and equipment to keep Mazza competing and winning.
Thanks to Atkinson, Montgomery said, the community came through every time to play its own role in Mazza's accomplishments.
Steve Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and came to Cobourg at a young age. For a future NHL great, the young man found that hockey did not come easily for him. He was never drafted by a junior team. But he stuck with it. By age 17, he was a 6’3” 180-lb. prospect who caught the eye of the Junior A London Knights. He went on to become a mid-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers. He would play in 804 NHL games, scoring 72 goals and 303 assists for 375 points. He won three Stanley Cups and a Canada Cup. He would also play for the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames before back injuries ended his career. Since then, he has accepted assistant-coach positions with Calgary, Edmonton and Carolina. He is now an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres.
“I am both humbled and honoured tonight to be standing here,” Smith said in his acceptance remarks.
He recalled growing up in the Cobourg depot and playing hockey in an arena where his mom was volunteering the canteen.
Smith quoted Malcolm Gladwell's assertion from his book The Outliers that truly successful people hone their talents for 10,000 hours.
“That's all I did every day,” he said.
“I was in a rink in the back yard. My dad and I went out on a nightly basis and skated day after day, night after night. It was all I ever did, all I ever wanted. I did it for that very reason,” he said.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and what a village Cobourg has; been for me!”
Prior to the beginning of the induction banquet, Smith sat for an interview with Cogeco in which he shared a few more home-town memories.
He had just arrived in time for the interview, having taken the red-eye flight from the Vancouver draft, and he said he tries to get back every year.
“I think back to Cobourg and what a wonderful place it was to grow up. I still have so many friends here, people that I still reach out to. It's nice to be from a small town. It forged me into the person I am today. It really, truly was a great place for me to be.”
In those days, he said, your backyard rink could go from the first of November to March or maybe April, so he could skate every day and every night for months on end – though he also enjoyed playing lacrosse, volleyball, baseball and basketball when he wasn't wearing skates.
He moved to Cobourg with his family in 1964, and lived there until he was 17 – when he moved to London for junior hockey.
The story that he was cut by the Cobourg Cougars is true, Smith said.
“They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and that was one of those nights - and I lost my job that night because I left my shift at Fisher's Dairy to go to the try-outs!”
But one event does not define you as a person, he said, and it meant that much more to be able to go with the London Knights.
Smith remembers it as a lonely experience, where his dad gave him all the money in his wallet (“probably 40 bucks”), and he jumped on a bus with a hockey back on one shoulder and a bag with his clothes on the other.
He figured everyone in London would know where London Gardens was, but he ended up lost and wandering aimlessly. He lived in a road-side motel his first month in London, but eventually was able to work with good people and good coaches.
“They gave me an opportunity, believed in me, and I continued to work hard to show them they made a good choice,” Smith recalled.
And it all started with his parents believing in him and encouraging him to believe in himself.
He found himself in his early 20s able to boast that one of his closest friends in the world was Wayne Gretzky, he said, and who could have believed something like that would happen.
Years later, heading to an unknown world in Calgary with trepidation, he had a similar experience. He discovered a good franchise that treated its people well, and a city that was an incredibly beautiful place (offering not only a bustling downtown but a breathtaking view of the mountains).
In his coaching career, Smith is bringing a lot of the lessons he learned in his own career – working hard, keeping your nose to the grindstone, being good teammates. Even though it's something he learned 40 years ago, he said, hockey hasn't changed that much and it still attracts some pretty wonderful people.
“The game gave me an awful lot,” he said.
“It molded me into the person I am.”