How hockey lifted shipyard workers’ spirits during WWII

Shipyards workers had their own team to cheer for and take their minds off the war.

After being one of the first official public events canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020, Rogers Hometown Hockey is rolling back to the Shipyards next weekend (April 23-24). But just about a block away, North Vancouver’s hockey historian will be using the opportunity to drum up support for our original hometown team – the Norvan Shipyards.

For one season in 1941-42, the war-era shipbuilder Burrard Drydock iced a semi-pro team to raise the spirits of their 14,000 workers.

Chris Mizzoni spent hours poring over archives and piecing together their season for the Society for International Hockey Research. He has been invited by the Museum of North Vancouver to be a resident expert at two Discovery Sessions at MONOVA.

As members of the Pacific Coast Senior Hockey Association, the Norvans, as they became known, played on Friday and Saturday nights against teams assembled by other companies producing goods for the war effort – the New Westminster Spitfires, Nanaimo Clippers and Victoria Bapcos.

It was a different game back then, Mizzoni said. Most of the players in the Pacific Coast Senior Hockey Association had washed out of pro leagues or hadn’t yet made it into them. They were a bit “doughier” than what you’d find under the pads today, Mizzoni chuckled.

The game was much slower but the on-ice shenanigans would make today’s referees white. Among the highlights (or lowlights): In the first game of the season, a Nanaimo Clippers player was given a game misconduct for deliberately tripping a ref. There were brawls that spread from the ice, to the box, to the stands and near-riots that broke out. Newspaper clippings of the day looked like the reporter had been assigned to cover a boxing match (and the fans ate it up). In one case, a game was interrupted because a fan flicked a lit cigarette down the back of the goalie’s sweater.

“Oh my god,” Mizzoni said. “Try doing that in Rogers Arena today.”

But despite the nastier side of ‘old time hockey,’ the players had an important mission. While thousands of civilians interrupted their lives to join the war effort, the teams were there to take the workers’ minds off the war.

“It was just to represent the shipyard workers and give them something to do on a Friday or Saturday night,” Mizzoni said. “It gave them something to cheer for.”

Researching the team gave an interesting window into life at the time, Mizzoni found. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, everything ground to a halt on the West Coast, including hockey. It was only after arena managers painted the windows black and league halted radio broadcasts of the games, to help hide them as targets for bombers, that they were able to resume the season.

Mizzoni said he hopes anyone who passes through the museum this weekend will come away with a better understanding of not just the team but where they fit into North Vancouver’s story at the time.

“This is just a little bit of it,” he said. “There are people living down there in these giant condos, and they have no idea what was going on out there.”

He’s also got his fingers crossed there may be someone out there with documents, artifacts or even personal stories about the Norvans.

“I’m hoping some of these old guys will come up with remember the team,” he said. “And talk about old hockey, and share the story of the Norvans that nobody knows about.”

Mizzoni will be at MONOVA’s Discovery Session room from 1 to 3 pm on Saturday, April 23, and Sunday, April 24. The event, which is being dubbed Be Your Own Hero, offers a hands-on medal-making activity for kids to take man.

One of the items on display will be a replica Norvans sweater Mizzoni had custom-made based on the only published photo of the team’s crest he could find. To sport the hometown hockey heroes’ logo on your own shirt, visit North Shore News Vintage.

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