Bill Livingstone: Hockey Lessons

Celebration the announcement of winning the grade one World Pipe Band Championships 2009

by Bill Livingstone
Piping Today #96, 2019.

I grew up in the town of Copper Cliff in Northern Ontario, and completed my secondary education (“high school” in some quarters) in Copper Cliff High School (CCHS) which boasted a total enrolment of about 300 students in Grades 9 through 13. The town had a population of perhaps 3000, and it acted as the economic driver of the entire Sudbury district, founded on the mining and smelting industry, managed entirely by International Nickel Company (INCO). The school had a senior hockey team called the Copper Cliff Braves – be a little forgiving here of the racial overtones, as it was a different time. This hockey team became legendary, routinely defeating teams from much larger schools in the area.

More than that, the team went on to win seven All Ontario Championships, and had countless other appearances in the All Ontario Finals. This amazing team (actually teams, for their reign continued for many years) also won many Northern Ontario titles, Ontario being so vast that it had to be subdivided to accommodate the large distances.

I’ve been thinking of the fairly sorry state of Ontario pipe bands, there now being only one Grade 1 band in the province. As I wondered what had happened, my attention turned to the storied success of the CCHS Braves…how could they have prevailed for so long against much bigger schools with many more students to draw on? Two things popped out at me.

The first was “ice time”. Stanley Stadium was an arena built in the mid 1930s, named after a major INCO bigwig. It provided the only artificial ice surface in the region for a great many years. The CCHS Braves were given top priority where ice time was allotted, so there was always a great practice facility available.

The other factor that stood out was one Bert McLelland. After a short stint working in the machine shop at INCO, Bert was hired by CCHS to teach “shop” as it was then called, though his skills on the various lathes, drill presses, carpentry tools and the blacksmith’s forge (you read that correctly) made it clear that he was really hired because he was a good “hockey man”… which indeed he was. He coached the CCHS Braves to all of the honours described above.

The result was an intensive programme of top-notch coaching and instruction, coupled with nearly unlimited opportunities to play and practice. Success was pretty much inevitable.

Train your sights to Scotland now, in particular the more than 2000 students enrolled in piping and drumming in the state sponsored schools, plus The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, the George Heriot’s School Pipe Band, the Dollar Academy Pipe Band and the Scottish Schools Pipes and Drums Trust, and who knows how many other private initiatives, with kids being taught everywhere by highly competent instructors.

•SFU pipers celebrate their last World Pipe Band Championship win in 2009

Little wonder that Canadian or North American bands have a daunting challenge at the Worlds. Since 2009 when Simon Fraser University were first, a Canadian band have not won the Worlds. SFU have maintained a strong presence at the Worlds because they have their own teaching system with the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Bands. Since this organisation became part of the SFU family in 1994, 2000 piping and drumming students have gone through their ranks, and they now field bands in Grades 2, 3, 4 and 5 with many of their alumni moving up to the SFU Grade 1 band. The band have ensured their future and longevity at or near the top, with this ambitious programme.

There may not be anything quite like it elsewhere in the world (except perhaps in Dunedin, Florida.)

And what do we do in Ontario? At the moment, not much of anything. The Pipers and Pipe Band Society of Ontario (PPBSO) claims there are teaching programmes, but a search of their website will not produce the name of one instructor associated with the organisation.

It seems the organisation thought it best to leave this kind of initiative to individual bands but that has not been effective. We will never close the gap unless outfits like the PPBSO step into the breach… without that, our time, I fear, has come and gone. Schools in Canada could never be persuaded to offer piping and drumming lessons – Scotland has skin in the game, this being their national instrument – we don’t have the same deep interest. And the drop in immigration from Scotland means we have fewer native Scots to encourage their kids to take it up. This is reflected in the sad number of spectators at Highland Games and band contests, as well the loss of so many pipe band contests during what used to be a hectic season.

This is not meant to depress, or cause despair amongst my countrymen who love this music. It’s offered as a call to arms. People, we must DO something.

Bill Livingstone’s book, Preposterous: Tales to Follow, is available from The National Piping Centre shop