SIHR founder Bill Fitsell dies at 97

The native of Barrie, Ont., and longtime newspaperman  founded the Society for International Hockey Research in 1991 and served as its first president.
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By Denis Gibbons

Whether it was researching the origins of hockey or serving in the Navy on the Murmansk Run, Bill Fitsell always had the best interests of Canada at heart.

Fitsell died Dec. 3 in Kingston, Ont., at the age of 97, following a bout with pneumonia. In the early part of his life he was greatly concerned that the history of hockey would be lost.

The native of Barrie, Ont., and longtime newspaperman founded the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) in 1991 and served as its president for its first five years. Former Hockey In Night In Canada commentator Brian McFarlane was one of the original 17 members who met in Kingston, Ont., in May of that year.

Today SIHR has more than 500 members worldwide, including former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. “Bill envisioned an umbrella of common purpose for hockey researchers, writers and historians,” said current SIHR president Fred Addis. “But much more than that, he worked to build a network, a community of friends we know today as SIHR. He will be greatly missed.”

As a teen in the 1930s, Fitsell began collecting memorabilia and photographs of the Toronto Maple Leafs, as well as organizing a scrapbook of newspaper clippings. His father took him to his first NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens in January 1935.

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Former NHL president Clarence Campbell once said the 30-chapter manuscript Hockey’s Roots, which Fitsell produced, should be in the library of every student of hockey. It became the foundation of his first book, Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings in 1987.

Longtime friend Ed Grenda, one of the Kingston 17, traveled with Fitsell to several SIHR meetings in Canada and the U.S. “Bill was a meticulous researcher and writer and very sophisticated in the way he approached it,” Grenda said. “He never accepted anything with an unsourced reference.”

Fitsell wrote five books, including a biography of Captain James T. Sutherland, who founded the International Hockey Hall of Fame in Kingston and established the Memorial Cup, Canada’s national junior championship, to honor those who gave their lives during the First World War. Fitsell was heavily involved with the International Hockey Hall of Fame from 1969 to 2005.

Queen’s University and Royal Military College used to play hockey games on the frozen surface of Kingston harbor in the 1880s. Later, chiefly through Fitsell’s efforts, an annual re-enactment of those games in period costume was held as part of the Kingston Winter Carnival.

Fitsell was inducted into both the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame and the Lindsay District Sports Hall of Fame, and received the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal. He was instrumental in the effort to establish the monument and plaque commemorating hockey pioneer James Creighton that Harper unveiled at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa in 2009.

Fitsell started his newspaper career with The Lindsay Post in Lindsay, Ont., in 1946. He retired in 1993 as district editor of The Kingston Whig-Standard.

It was while working for the Gananoque Reporter that Fitsell covered the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) bantam playoff series between Parry Sound and Gananoque at which Boston Bruins scout Wren Blair followed every move that then-13-year-old phenom Bobby Orr made with his Parry Sound team.

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One of Fitsell’s most prized possessions was a photo he took of Orr, ironically, at the Boston Cafe in Gananoque surrounded by players of both teams. Years later, the Hall of Famer autographed it for him. The superstar’s book My Story In Pictures, published in 2018, includes the picture and the following Orr quote: “This was a day that changed my life forever. Not only did I enjoy the bottle of pop that day in Gananoque, but Wren Blair, a scout for the Boston Bruins, was in the stands.”

Fitsell was a convenor for the OMHA and was the recipient of the association’s Honour Award in 1967.

As part of the Royal Canadian Navy, Fitsell served on the frigate HMCS Outremont during D-Day operations off Normandy in 1944 and also on the Murmansk Run, which delivered war materials to the far north of the Soviet Union, above the Arctic Circle, during the Second World War. With this aid, the Soviets eventually drove the Nazis back to Germany, leading to the end of the war.

Fitsell did not see any hockey games there, but it is well known that sailors from the HMCS Algonquin played a pick-up game against a Soviet team, using elite athletes, on outdoor ice. This was a decade before the Soviet Union first took part in a world championship and almost 30 years before the 1972 Summit Series.

Fitsell and his wife Barbara were married for 75 years. Besides Barbara, he leaves behind five daughters, 11 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. 

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