Flin Flon, 1957-67: Baby Boom, bustling beaches, Bobby Clarke and Flinty

Ron Watt was part of a key generational shift in Flin Flon.

As one of the community’s first Baby Boomers, he came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s during what many view as Flin Flon’s golden era.

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“It was great,” says Watt, now 71, of being raised in the community. “Our life, for a lot of kids my age, revolved around our neighbourhood. The neighbourhoods, whether it was Willowvale or Birchview or 84 or uptown, that was our world. They all had their own hockey rink and ball field and play zones.”

Growing up on Green Street, Watt spent much of his youth with his buddies at the neighbourhood hockey rink.

“We played hockey virtually every night,” he recalls.

“It wasn’t like organized hockey. You just went down there and you divided up the number of kids that showed up and you just had a wild game of scrimmage.

“We had very little equipment. We had a hockey stick and a pair of skates. Some of the richer kids might have the sweater, but that was about it.”

So how late would they play?

“As long as we could get away with,” Watt says with a laugh.

The dominant player in the group was Al Hamilton, who later had his number retired by the Edmonton Oilers.

Another well-known player who showed up from time to time was none other than Bobby Clarke, the tenacious future Flin Flon Bomber and NHL legend.

“We had some pretty good hockey players, but Clarkie would come in, and he’s three years younger than the rest of us, and dominate the game,” says Watt. “He was special.”

Watt not only played the game, but was also a regular spectator. He still remembers the Bombers’ legendary run to the Memorial Cup in 1957 – and how he helped local fans secure their tickets to the home games.

“People sat on the rocks by the Jubilee Hall [on North Avenue] overnight, waiting in line to get tickets,” he says. “So they’d get kids like myself to keep their spot in line while they went for a bite to eat or a beer or two.”

Phantom Lake, with its bustling beach just outside Flin Flon, held a special place in the hearts of Watt and youths of the era. In addition to swimming, visitors enjoyed picnicking and playing tennis or horseshoes.

“It was a very active area,” says Watt. “We were there in the spring as soon as we could get out there.”

As a teenager, Watt spent many summer nights at the Big Island Drive-in, which, having opened in 1957, was still something of a novelty.

“That was a big deal to go to the drive-in,” he says.

“Certainly I remember going with friends and that was a pretty popular thing to do. Every time they had a movie, we went to just about every one of them.”

To make their filmgoing ventures more economical, Watt admits that sometimes members of the gang would enter the drive-in grounds through covert means.

“You’d have a trunk full of kids every now and then,” he says with a laugh.

“Or the other thing they used to do is they used to walk up into the bush behind the theatre, and then when the lights went down they’d come and join you in the car.”

Another major attraction of the era was the Jubilee Hall, long since demolished, located where the Primary Health Care Centre now stands.

“From the teenager’s perspective, it was a big dance hall,” Watt says. “We had bands every Friday and Saturday night.”

When members of the Watt family fell ill, they would call on Dr. Percy Johnson or Dr. Norm Stephansson, two of the best-known local physicians of their era.

Watt remembers Dr. Johnson as “quite nice,” always dressed in a suit and ready to make house calls.

“He would go to homes to see patients, and it wasn’t unusual for him to stay and have dinner or supper with you if it was the time before he moved on to the next client,” he says.

In 1963, a year after television came to Flin Flon, Watt’s family purchased their first TV set. It was as big as an office desk with a screen size similar to that of today’s laptops.

“It was pretty basic and it was one channel and it was in black and white. In hindsight you could barely see it most times,” he says.

“I remember it was big deal, Sunday night we’d all get together and watch
The Ed Sullivan Show.Most of the [shows were] a week late. We’d watch it, but it wasn’t a big part of our lives.”

After junior high, Watt attended high school at the now-defunct Sir Maurice Roche High School rather than the much larger Hapnot Collegiate.

He admits he was a bit of a rebellious teenager who benefited from the structure of SMR, as the Catholic school was acronymically known.

“I often thought if I hadn’t gone to Sir Maurice Roche, I might not have got through high school,” Watt says. “We all had a respect for the nuns. You didn’t talk back to them. You listened to them.

“If you tried to talk back to the nuns, the kids would put a lot of pressure on you. You got peer pressured to behave yourself.”

After graduating from SMR in 1964, Watt had to choose between an electrical apprenticeship at HBM&S and university in Brandon. At the urging of his grandfather, he opted for the latter.

Watt had saved up some money for his education, but it was the newly introduced student loan program that allowed him and many other young adults to pursue a higher education – particularly when they had to relocate from far-flung towns such as Flin Flon.

He earned an arts degree, then his chartered accountant designation, and later enjoyed a long career at HBM&S.

 

Flinty

Like a member of the Queen’s Guard, he stands silent, motionless, his gaze focused straight ahead.

His right hand shields his line of vision from the sun, his left hand clenches a shovel. Red-rimmed glasses rest on a round nose, a light grey fedora crowning a bald head.

With his wide, child-like eyes, feeble smile and clownishly big feet, his appearance falls somewhere between whimsical and downright farcical.

Yet as awkward as he may look, he seems right at home.

In 1962, the Josiah Flintabattey Flonatin statue – Flinty, as he is affectionately known – began greeting visitors to the community.

Constructed of fibreglass, Flinty was the first visual depiction of Josiah Flintabattey Flonatin, the protagonist of The Sunless City, the novel that gave Flin Flon its name.

Somewhere around 1955 or 1956, a man working on a federal tourism strategy, John Fisher, visited Flin Flon. He had dreamt up the idea of a statue that would tell the story of how the community was named.

No one took the bait until 1961, when local businessman Norm Tyson began promoting Fisher’s idea.

But who would design the statue? What would Flinty look like? Tyson took a gamble and asked one of the most famous cartoonists in the world, American Al Capp, to lend his artistic talents.

Against all odds, and after several attempts, Tyson made contact with Capp, who was so captivated by the offer that he couldn’t help but oblige – and at no charge.

Next, money was needed. The Flin Flon and District Chamber of Commerce and the Trout Festival Association helped raise $4,000. Reimer Displays of Winnipeg was hired to build the 15-ft statue based on the Capp drawing.

On June 29, 1962, as part of the opening ceremonies of the Trout Festival, officials formally unveiled the statue just off Highway 10A across from the Gateway Drive-in. He was later moved to the Flin Flon campground, where he remains today.

 

Bobby Clarke

From the moment his blades hit the Whitney Forum ice, there was something different about Bobby Clarke.

Clarke, then 16, made an immediate impact upon joining the Flin Flon Bombers in 1965-66. In a four-game stint, he managed seven points.

It was the start of a miraculous junior career that led to a miraculous NHL career. Today, Clarke gives all the credit to the Bombers organization.

“[Coach Pat] Ginnell was an exceptional coach for young players,” he told The Reminder in a previous interview. “Every day you…were taught to work your ass off. Whether you played the night before or were going to play the next day, you worked and you worked. You were taught to work and you were taught to battle, and that proved successful for myself and for numerous players who played for Ginnell over the years in junior hockey.”

Dennis Ballard, a longtime Bomber fan, recalls Clarke’s early days with the team.

“As soon as you saw him play, you knew he was destined, even then, [to play professionally],” Ballard said in a previous interview. “He was playing with the men. He was beating them in the corners, he was digging hard.

“He played with a certain fierceness. I don’t know how you could describe it. He wanted that puck, that was his puck.”

In 1968-69, his final campaign as a Bomber, Clarke took his third straight league scoring title. The Bombers won both the league championship and the James Piggott National Championship.

As ruthless as he was dominant, Clarke ended his Flin Flon tenure with 495 points (177 goals and 318 assists) in 166 regular-season games. He added another 74 points (25 goals and 49 assists) in 53 playoff games.

He remains Flin Flon’s all-time leading goal-scorer and point-getter, and his records are likely to stand for the ages considering the leading SJHL scorer in 2016-17 had just
79 points.

After Flin Flon, Clarke embarked on a 15-season Hall of Fame NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers. Known for his curly mass of blonde hair, he was also part of Canada’s renowned 1972 Summit Series victory (“Henderson has scored for Canada!”), infamously laying down a brutal slash that effectively took a Soviet star out of the tournament.

Today Clarke is senior vice-president with the Flyers.

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