The impact that Barney Maher had on the Muskie hockey program can’t be overstated.
Born in Manchester, England on Nov. 27, 1922, the young Maher immigrated to Meaford, Ont. on the shores of Georgian Bay.
As he grew into his teens, he exhibited some characteristics that would remain central to him for the remainder of his life.
Athletics, be it baseball, hockey, or fishing for steelhead trout with the family collie, were paramount to his weekly activities.
Moving from Hay River, N.W.T. to Fort Frances in 1959, Maher began teaching at Fort High in 1960 and also coached basketball for five years.
Upon becoming the athletic director at FFHS, Barney set out to establish the Muskie hockey program.
In 1965, with the assistance of the late Dr. Challis, he was instrumental in getting the NorWOSSA league hockey established.
Taking on the dual role as manager of the Muskie hockey program and athletic director of all Muskie sports, Maher established an unprecedented 45-plus year relationship with the black-and-gold.
All that hard work and dedication to the local sports scene has made it a no-brainer that Maher will be inducted posthumously into the Fort Frances Sports Hall of Fame next month in the “builder” category.
With the help of coaches such as Julian Brunetta, Larry Fontana, Gord Taggart, Paul Sveinson, Doug McCaig, Bill Allison, Gary Beck, Danny Johnson, Terry Ogden, Ken Christiansen, and Glen Edwards, Maher helped the black-and-gold achieved a high level of excellence.
“When I started coaching with the Muskies Barney was the manager of the team, that was back in 1979,” recalled Terry Ogden, who serves as a co-organizer for the Fort Frances Sports Hall of Fame.
“Barney had been the manager of the hockey team for several years and when I started coaching, I got to know Barney pretty good and he retired shortly after that but stayed on as manager for several years.”
The Muskies’ “Blueline Club” was started in 1980, which Maher then became the president of and presided over for a number of years.
“He was president of the ‘Blueline Club’ for a long time,” said Ogden. “I’m not sure when he left the ‘Blueline Club’ as president.”
One of the biggest things Maher strived to do with the Muskie hockey program was to operate and play with class.
“Barney liked classy things. He liked the uniforms to be neat and tidy and the socks were mended, everything looked nice,” Ogden noted.
“Barney and his wife [Lois] also had a lot to do with starting the [annual] Muskie tea. The kids dressed up and wore ties.
“He wanted the kids to be classy and work hard,” Ogden stressed.
“I guess that kind of intermingles with his coaching philosophy. If you left it all out on the rink or out on the field or wherever you were, that was fine–as long as you worked hard.”
Over the decades, the rivalry with the International Falls Broncos hockey team brought out the best in both communities.
Maher was quoted in the Fort Frances Times as saying “nothing was better than playing in front of packed arenas” on a bitter, cold December night.
The pinnacle of success was realized in 1986, and again in 1989, this time in front of huge home crowds, as the Muskies captured all-Ontario gold.
Maher loved to compete against the powerhouse schools from southern Ontario and life brought him no greater joy than when the 1986 team ran the table from the Falls Christmas tourney to the gold medal game of the all-Ontario finals.
Muskie hockey represents not just the high school, but the community itself.
Maher believed that sports provided young people with a sense of pride, an understanding that the team was more important than the self, and that failure was acceptable if the effort was your best.
Both of Maher’s sons, Ron and Jeff, also played Muskie hockey and when they graduated, had their No. 17 jersey retired in honour of the family contribution to the program.
In 2018, just a few months before his death, Maher took in the annual John Piper Classic tournament in Winnipeg.
Despite being confined to a wheelchair, and with limited eyesight, “Mr. Muskie” watched his beloved black-and-gold for the last time.
Time may have robbed him of many things but his love and joy of Muskie hockey was never more evident than on that wonderful afternoon, as the beauty of the game–and vibe of competition–brought a glow to his heart.
“The things he did with the Muskie hockey program I think was kept it a classy organization,” Ogden lauded.
“I think the people that have followed Barney have built on that. I know I go over to the dressing room [at the Memorial Sports Centre] and the kids take their shoes off before they go into the room.
“They’ve added some stuff that we didn’t do back in the old days, but I think that’s one of the things he strived for was to keep it classy, keep them the players] hardworking, keep them in a sporting mentality,” he lauded of Maher.
“Win, lose, or draw, you won with class, you lost with class, whatever.”
Above and beyond his contributions with the Muskies, Maher also was an avid outdoorsman and helped establish the local chapter of Ducks Unlimited Canada.
He was president of the local branch for 25 years, helping raise money for DU and he also developed close bonds with many people in the DU community–especially Bob Grant.
“Also within his legacy, he began the Ducks Unlimited banquet here, in 1984 I believe,” said Ogden.
“He presided over the Ducks Unlimited group for a number of years but he was big with Ducks Unlimited.
“He got it going and it was the same thing–he wanted it to be classy and wine on the tables, a nice meal,” he added.
Ogden noted that Maher loved to hunt and fish and just to get out in the boat and bask in the sun.
“I recall trout fishing with Barney and if we weren’t catching anything, he’d go to shore and lay down and have a sleep in the sun and it didn’t bother him,” he chuckled.
“As a legacy, to me those would be it. And he had a big family,” Ogden noted.
“He had five kids and he was quite a family man.”
Editor’s note: The Fort Frances Sports Hall of Fame will hold its third induction ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 10 at La Place Rendez-Vous.
This is the second of a series profiling each of this year’s inductees.