Box Lacrosse First Pro Championship
New Westminster Salmonbellies
Long, long ago, in a faraway land called New Westminster nestled by the muddy Fraser Fraser, there emerged the first professional box lacrosse champion.
Oh, there were earlier attempts at pro status in the 1930’s but none reached from coast-to-coast like the 1968 National Lacrosse Association.
The Eastern division was comprised of Detroit, Peterborough, Toronto and Montreal while the West was represented by New Westminster, Victoria, Vancouver and Portland, Oregon. All eight clubs played a 38-game season that included a limited interlocking schedule.
In the end, it was the Jim Bishop-led Detroit Olympics – a team liberally sprinkled with his Oshawa Green Gaels’ alumni – that dominated the Eastern division (ELA) and headed West in quest of the overall NLA title.
Detroit’s fee, surprisingly, would be the upstart New Westminster Salmonbellies which had clawed their way through a so-so season to upset Vancouver four games to three in the WLA semi-finals and then shocked first-place Portland with a four-games-to-two victory – Portland had taken eight of ten games from the ‘Bellies during the season.
Detroit had played its final division playoff contest against Peterborough on September 30 and, so, was a well-rested unit entering the championship round beginning October 5; however, Bishop was forced to dip deeper into his Oshawa Minto Cup roster to replace Don Stinson (pneumonia), Dwight Davies (illness) and Jim Higgs (school).
On the other hand, the ‘Bellies were dog-tired, having played a thumping 7-3 winning battle with Portland on October 4. With so many old veterans’ legs painfully in need of a rest, New Westminster also reached into its junior ranks to add Al Lewthwaite, Ray Bennie, Mickey Lynch and Dave Matheson.
The pre-series’ hype, obviously, centered around graduates from the Junior Salmonbellies seeking revenge over the Oshawa alumni – Bishop’s Green Gaels had captured the Minto Cup over the Junior ‘Bellies four consecutive years.
The stage was set, but fatigue tripped up the Royal City boys at the starting gate. Having played a bruising match the previous evening and, in fact, 14 games in the past 24 days, New Westminster was unable to contain the fast-breaking Olympics, losing 21-12.
‘Bellies’ playing-coach Cliff Sepka’s strategy for Game two was simple – bottle up Detroit’s fast breaks and shut down superstar Gaylord Powless (five goals in Game One). The game plan proved successful – Detroit’s wandering goalie Merv Marshall was dumped twice when he attempted to join the up-floor attack, convincing him to stay closer to his crease, and Powless was held to a mere one goal on just two shots. Meanwhile, the old boys – Septka, Paul Parnell and Wayne Shuttleworth – accumulated 16 points to lead ‘Bellies to a 16-12 victory.
The third meeting came October 8 and, despite the aches and pains of back-to-back games, it was again the old boys who led the New Westminster crew. With 26 points spread between Sepka, Parnell, Shuttleworth and 30-year-old Ken Oddy, the ‘Bellies captured Game Three 23-16.
Sepka had played sparingly during the 1968 season, concentrating on his coaching chores. He managed only 29 points in 21 games but, with everything now on the line, Cliff had nine goals and seven assists in the first three games against Detroit. Bishop told the media that, if he could select a lacrosse team from anywhere in Canada, he would make Sepka his first choice.
For the fourth game, Bishop flew in Green Gaels’ Fred Greenwood to replace Jerry McKenna, who had to return home for personal reasons. Detroit was a smoking gun in Game Four, firing off eight goals to one in the first period on the way to a 15-14 win. Series was now tied 2-2 going into Game Five October 11.
The fifth game was a hard-checking, cleanly-played contest with referees Bob Dobbie and Whitey Severson handing out only six minor penalties to Detroit and eight to New Westminster. It was a seesaw battle but, with less than six minutes remaining, Mac Tyler and Dave Tory found the back of Detroit’s net to give the ‘Bellies a 14-12 win.
Game Six, October 12 – With close to 5,000 fans rattling the cobwebs off the rafters of Queens Park Arena, the New Westminster Salmonbellies found themselves behind 8-7 after the first period but with a slight 14-12 advantage after 40 minutes.
The final 20 minutes undoubtedly produced one of the most exciting periods ever played in the Royal City. The ‘Bellies’ defence slammed the Olympics into submission, allowing a mere nine shots on netminder Les Norman. Outscoring Detroit 8-2, New Westminster capped a 61-game-long season with a resounding 22-14 victory.
The loudest cheers were thrust upon playing-coach Sepka who had earlier announced that he intended to retire as a player.
During the eight-goal, final period romp, Sepka knocked down a Detroit shot, picked up the elusive ball and raced the length of the floor, scoring while literally flying flat-out through the air following a bone-crunching check. The delirious crowd gave Sepka a five-minute standing ovation and, wouldn’t you know it, the goal was the nineteenth of the game – the number Sepka had worn since he turned senior 14 years earlier.
It was Cliff’s finest hour – a time to hang up his pads and go happily into retirement, the first pro boxla title in his pocket, the MVP medal around his neck and the roar of the crowd ringing in his ears.