Bob Phelan was the perfect example of a complete lacrosse player – goalscorer, playmaker, and highly effective checker.
Newspaper headlines shouted out what New Westminster Adanac fans took for granted: “Phelan in Brilliant Display”.
The Second World War, and later an injury, cut short his playing career, but failed to dampen his love of lacrosse – he continued his involvement in box lacrosse as a coach, referee, and league executive long after his retirement as a player.
Born and raised in New Westminster, the youngest of 11 children, Bob began playing field lacrosse for Vic Strople at the age of 12 but easily switched to the box game in 1932 under .
In 1937, at the age of 19, Bob lined up with the senior Adanacs. His success was immediate – although assigned to check the opponents’ top players (Bill Wilson and , for example), he still managed 30 goals himself. Bob and then picked up by Vancouver Bluebirds in quest of the Canadian junior title.
Bob continued to improve in 1938 as he and his Adanac teammates won the B.C. Lacrosse title and made an unsuccessful challenge for the Mann Cup. He also captained an Under-21 basketball team to the 1938 provincial championship.
Then, in 1939, everything came together – Bob scored 37 goals, led the playmakers with 48 assists and was a major factor in the Adanacs’ success in capturing the Mann Cup.
Bob played one more season with the Adanacs – his fourth 30-plus goal season – before he entered the armed services. He remained active in sports while stationed on Vancouver Island, playing lacrosse and basketball with the RCAF and United Services teams.
In 1943, Bob enjoyed the thrill of being a Canadian champion in separate sports. He captained the Pat Bay Flyers (RCAF) to the national basketball title and was added as a pickup player in the Salmonbellies lineup in a successful quest for the Mann Cup.
While still in uniform, Bob returned to the Adanacs for the 1945 playoffs but injuries put him on the sidelines for the entire 1946 season. He attempted a comeback the following year but the injuries limited his playing time to just six games; however, two of those six games were in the Canadian championship playoffs and resulted in his third Mann Cup ring.
Although just 29 years old, the injuries pushed Bob into early retirement following the 1947 season. Over the next 15 years, he continued his involvement in New Westminster lacrosse, coaching midget, juvenile and junior teams and serving as manager of the senior club. As well, he refereed all levels up to junior, chaired the Inter-City Junior Lacrosse Commission, served on the Inter-City Senior Commission and was a BCLA executive councilor.
It was a short, but extremely productive, career – 206 goals and 193 assists for 399 points in just 158 games, plus three Mann Cup titles in four attempts.
Bob was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1998.
Earl Robert Phelan was born in New Westminster’s St. Mary’s Hospital on September 16, 1918, and was later baptized in nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. He died in St. Mary’s Hospital on December 18, 1999; memorial service was held four days later in St. Peter’s Church.
Squeezed in between those dates was the life of a truly remarkable sportsman.