Remembering when high school hockey was Friday favorite

January 21, 1994|By John Steadman

From an era lost in the dust of times past, when every Friday was high school hockey night in Baltimore, comes the entertaining reflections of a former player and coach who says the sport provided keepsake memories for him.

Paul "Knobby" Harris, who once told his Mount St. Joseph team he was critically ill to inspire it to a successful emotional effort, is the source for an assortment of anecdotes and reminiscing.

Harris, a Glen Burnie lawyer, is still walking around, in good health and affable spirit. Fortunately, his heart ailment in 1951 wasn't as serious as feared. The ploy worked. Mount St. Joe went out and defeated Forest Park, 1-0, to earn the Harvard Cup. It was the "win one for Knobby" speech that made the difference.

He is so smitten with what high school hockey meant to Baltimore that he has researched the fact that Mount St. Joe, Poly, Loyola, Calvert Hall, Forest Park, Gilman and City, for a brief period, were represented in the Maryland Scholastic Association hockey competition.

"We played at the Sports Centre at 6 North Ave.," he recalls. "It was later turned into a parking lot. Every Friday night we had a high school double- or triple-header. The place accommodated only 2,000 spectators but the crowd usually exceeded capacity with 400 or 500 standing up. High school hockey players were special heroes and some of the best-looking girls in town came to the games."

Harris says no one team dominated the championship but notes that Mount St. Joe won in six different years from the inception of the league in 1939 to its conclusion in 1956. He insists the best players he ever watched were Charley Plitt and Alan Barrett of Gilman, Jimmy Vaeth, Joe Reeves and Don Kerr of Loyola, Bob Lilly of Forest Park, and Dick Dutton and Lou Sleater of Mount St. Joe.

"The highest scorers in the history of the league, from my research, were Dutton with 30 points in 1947, Franny Fick with 22 in 1945 and Sleater with 21 in 1944," cites Harris. "That's a lot of scoring in seasons when you only played 10 games.

"After I think it over and weigh the factors, I personally believe Sleater [later to be a major-league pitcher] was the best all-around high school hockey player this city ever had. Another great one was Frank Tamburello, but he gave up his last year of hockey when he transferred to Patterson Park High."

Sports Centre was built in 1932 by contractor Tom Mullan and associates Harry Karr and H. E. Gilbert. Seven years later the high school league was put in place. Practice time was rationed. Varsity teams squeezed in workouts between the afternoon and evening public skating sessions and the junior varsities showed up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays for games.

Gilman flooded an outdoor area on its campus, hoping for a natural freeze, but the winters turned mild and the rink idea was soon abandoned.

During World War II, the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Cutters team was one of the best in the country, with the likes of later Hall of Famers Frankie Brimsek and Johnny Mariucci, but two products of Baltimore's high school circuit, Plitt and Kerr, were capable enough to play with them.

Harris says Mount St. Joe's only undefeated team, 10-0 in 1944, was the best in the school's history. The roster included Ed Connelly, Joe Smith, Jack Roberts, Joe Tarr, Don Dutton, Al Ryan, Ken Maskell, Tom Carolan, Jerry Faulstich, Len Di Paula, Bernie Appel, Harry Cole, J. Wolf, Fick and Sleater.

"What I'm trying to point out is it was a great time to be young, in high school and play what was then the most popular of winter sports in Baltimore," said Harris. "Now there's a high school hockey league with 23 teams on a club basis but the crowds lack the enthusiasm we enjoyed at Sports Centre. The competition is good. Make no mistake."

The time Harris gave the inspirational dressing room talk that won a title for his team in 1951 came because he desperately wanted to beat Forest Park.

"It was later ruled Forest Park used two ineligible players so a game we lost and one we tied were forfeited," he said. "I told our team I wasn't in good health and wanted to go out with a win. And they were remarkable, winning, 1-0."

The recovery of Paul "Knobby" Harris since then has been rather remarkable. Not an ache or a pain . . . in over 40 years.

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