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PROFILE: Bill Smith, who helped 'resurrect' junior hockey in Orillia, heading to the Hall of Fame

'Those were some of the best days of my life,' Smith says of his days owning the Travelways. 'We had some really good teams and some really great times'

Editor's Note: Starting today and on the next three Mondays, we will profile the quartet to be inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame on May 28.

To win a national championship on the ice - at any level - it takes a special group of players blessed with talent and fortitude, exceptional coaches and, often, a little luck.

But none of that happens without a deep-pocketed owner who is willing to move heaven and earth to build a first-rate team off the ice in support of the players.

When it comes to the Orillia Travelways, who went to three straight Centennial Cup championships, winning the holy grail on home ice on a sultry May day in 1985, that owner was Bill Smith.

Without his financial support, vital connections in the hockey world and an unbridled passion for junior hockey, it’s unlikely the Travelways would have skated their way into the history books.

Scott McLean, who captained the Travelways in 1983, said Smith was instrumental in the team's success.

“As I look back and reflect, I think you can say Bill and his partners resurrected Orillia as a hockey town,” said McLean, who described Smith as a “father figure” who became a life-long friend to him and many young hockey players who passed through Orillia.

Equally important, he developed and demanded a winning culture.

“If I had to sum up Bill with one word, it would be ‘winner,’” McLean said. “Whether it was business or hockey or lacrosse … his thinking was, ‘what do I need to do to create a winner?’ And then he did it.”

And that is why McLean nominated Smith as a builder worthy of Orillia's Sports Hall of Fame. The committee agreed and Smith, whose contribution to junior hockey in Orillia was unprecedented, will enter the city's sports shrine next month.

“I certainly didn’t expect it,” Smith tells OrilliaMatters of his Hall of Fame selection. “I am very honoured. I didn’t do this for the notoriety.”

Smith will be inducted at a gala at Hawk Ridge on May 28. He will enter the shrine alongside swimmer Mark Shivers and two other builders: baseball coach extraordinaire Nels Dunlop, and women’s lacrosse pioneer Joanne Stanga.

They will be joined by Dave Town, Wayne Dowswell and Bill Watters, who will also be officially inducted that night as last year’s ceremony was cancelled due to COVID.

Entering the shrine on the same night as Watters is the icing on the cake for Smith.  

“(Watters) was starting out as an NHL player agent in those days when we had the Travelways and he introduced himself to me and said he’d be happy to help any players I thought might have some promise,” recalled Smith.

Watters would go on to help Travelways stars such as Tony Hrkac, Tom Tilley, Kevin Maguire, Jason Lafreniere and others realize their NHL dreams.

It also started a decades-long friendship between Watters and Smith that continues to this day. In fact, Watters convinced Smith to take a financial flyer on the Toronto Rock - a lacrosse team that Watters started, in part, to optimize use of Maple Leaf Gardens, which was part of his job as then assistant General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That team sold out the Gardens and, later the Air Canada Centre, and won five National Lacrosse League titles.

“Bill is a good friend, so I’m even more honoured to go into the Hall of Fame at the same time as him,” Smith said. 

And while he is working on his speech for the big moment and relishing seeing old friends, Smith has never sought the spotlight. In fact, he refused to be included in any team photos with the Travelways, a team he purchased in 1979 and, soon after, elevated to Tier II Jr. A. 

“I liked to fly under the kite,” the 77-year-old said with a chuckle.

In fact, he deflected credit to the countless “heart and soul” volunteers who worked tirelessly, for free, to support the team.

“Without them, we were nothing,” said Smith, mentioning well-known local volunteers such as Bob McFadden, Earl Lumley and Harry Kloeppfer.

He also lauded the many who stepped up financially to support and sponsor the team over the years, mentioning Kirby Wagg, Paul Harris and Jim Wilson.

But even as he shunned the spotlight, behind the scenes, in the hockey world’s corridors of power, Smith’s name was golden. He sported an odd mix of patience and impatience, a streak of fire, mixed with stubbornness and loyalty that seemed to work.

Talk to any of the players from those teams and often the first thing they say is that none of it would have been possible without Bill Smith at the wheel. He steered the ship, but part of the magic was bringing in the right mix of players and coaches.

For example, he lured former NHL player Gary Marsh, who also played for the Orillia Terriers when that team won an Allan Cup, back to Orillia to become the Travelways’ head coach. It was a move that gave the team credibility and a coach who could take a promising team to the promised land.

With his connections to Sherry Bassin, then with the Oshawa Generals, Smith also forged a partnership with the OHL team that proved critical over the years.

When money was required — to pay bills or convince a player to come here — he always stepped up.

In the early years with the Travelways, he owned Seeburn Metals with his partners, Gerry Smith (not related) and Barney Clarke, who “allowed” him to spend “a lot of money” to support the team, he jokes. Truth be told it was no laughing matter; there were years he invested more than $200,000 in the team.

McLean said Smith created a first-class franchise that rivalled OHL teams of that era

“I came to Orillia as a 19-year-old and I came from Belleville, playing in the OHL,” recalled McLean. “I can say Orillia treated players better than major junior ... it’s why so many good players agreed to come here.”

Smith was passionate and followed his heart, which meant faithfully supporting junior hockey in Orillia — he did so annually from 1979 until 2021. 

While hockey was his first love when it came to sports, lacrosse was a close second and he enjoyed his time with the Rock. 

Then, there was football. With Watters’ encouragement, he also became part owner of the CFL’s Ottawa Renegades and enjoyed an impressive, albeit brief run with that team. 

He was not exactly enamoured with the CFL and its leadership, however, and ended his association with the team and the league.

Despite that, as he reflects on his relationship with sports — he played hockey, lacrosse and football during his formative years in Toronto and Cannington — he says the good times always outweighed the bad times, particularly during his long association with junior hockey in Orillia.

“I had a ball. Those were some of the best days of my life,” he said of his time owning the Travelways. “We had some really good teams and some really great times.”

Smith and the other new honourees will be officially inducted at the 2022 Orillia Sports Hall of Fame Gala, which will be held May 28 at Hawk Ridge Golf and Country Club. Tickets are $100.

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