By Darren Lum
Every house needs a strong foundation to stand the test of time and Haliburton was set on the right path by Albert John “Ab” LaRue, one of three people, who are going into the Haliburton Highlands Hall of Fame as a builder.
Ab was a key figure for the town when it comes to being a model citizen for others to emulate.
He was an entrepreneur, school board trustee, boy scout leader, active member of the Masonic Lodge, angler and sportsman. His service for the community was far reaching. He helped broaden the lives of thousands of boys to reach their potential in sport and life.
He was a coach, mentor, manager and owner, and was the catalyst behind bringing a modern hockey arena with artificial ice to town in 1965, which has become the focal point for the community, hosting community events, skating carnivals and thousands of hockey games, including one NHL exhibition game.
He was also known for his generous spirit, ensuring players without the means to have their own got hockey equipment to play, or a loan for a vehicle to get around. There was always an effort by Ab to ensure that the youth of the community didn’t go without and that they were given opportunities to excel just like those from urban areas.
LaRue’s son Scotty said his father, who died in 1987 wasn’t an exuberant man, but believes he would have appreciated the acknowledgement of his efforts with the induction.
“I think he would have got a lot of satisfaction that he was nominated to go into the Hall of Fame. I think he would be proud and would really appreciate the fact that people did finally respect and appreciated the amount of work he did in the community and the amount time he spent,” he said.
Ab served as a chairman of the Dysart Community Centre Board, was the owner/president of the Haliburton Huskies Ontario Hockey Association Jr. D team from 1965 to 1982, a coach/manager for Haliburton Huskies Minor Hockey from 1940 to 1975, an executive for the Glen Dart Hockey Tournament, a coach/manager for Haliburton Minor Softball from 1950 to 1970, and was long associated with organizations such as the Masonic Lodge Haliburton and the Haliburton District School Board.
LaRue’s son thinks out of all the achievements, his father would have considered the building of the arena, which was re-named the A.J. LaRue Arena with a ceremony that drew a crowd in 2013, and bringing the OHA Huskies Junior D team that competed in the Central Ontario Junior D League at the top of the list.
Part of the drive for these endeavours were related to how much Ab wanted to help.
Being a truant officer for the school board, it gave him insight about the importance of education and how engaging the youth was critical for future prospects.
From Janet Trull’s story for the Echo published on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 titled ‘Who was A.J. LaRue’ “Albert lived on Wallings Road, right on Head Lake. In the winter, he made it a habit to shovel off a rink in front of his house so his own young lad, Scotty, could shoot a few pucks in to the net. Like bees to honey, the kids started showing up with skates and sticks. As Albert watched them practicing their slap shots, he realized how important it was for kids to have a positive way to channel their energy. A sport like hockey kept them active and out of trouble. They were learning life lessons; setting goals, improving physical skills, developing strategies, and working as part of a team.”
Scotty described the old arena, the Haliburton Community Centre as a tin shack with natural ice, which meant wood stoves were needed to heat the dressing room, there was a lack of plumbing for running water and working toilets, ice wasn’t even available to skate on until Christmas Day and then would be gone after a couple of months.
“I remember it would get so cold in there the ice would crack. There would be big cracks all the way down the ice. A lot of times your toes would freeze and kids were crying because their toes were cold,” he said.
Scotty said his dad, who was known to be tough, but fair, acted as foreman and fundraiser for the arena.
“He hired the construction guys. He did a lot of work to try and find somebody that had knowledge of building these arenas at that time. He found somebody and got them to build it,” he said.
The budget for the new arena build was $130,000 at that time.
“The town, the men lined up to pour the concrete for the floor,” he said.
At this time, Scotty said he was playing hockey in France and didn’t see the results of his father’s efforts until he returned home after the season.
Once the arena was built, his dad moved towards convincing the OHA to bring a junior hockey team to town. Part of the plan already included transportation for the season, as he owned a bus company.
Despite Scotty’s initial thoughts that it wasn’t going to work, his father wasn’t dissuaded.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll do my best to round up some players and so on. First of all we got to go to the OHA and get a franchise.’ We had a hard time to get a franchise. We had to have meetings with the OHA and all the other teams in the league that we would join. They were all against Haliburton having a team because it was too far to go all the time,” he said. “Well, they never thought that we had [a chance to convince them]. Our closest team was Bobcaygeon and that was 45 miles. After that we were in Lindsay and we were in Bradford. We were in Newmarket. We played in a mixed league – half junior C and half junior D. We got the team together. We never even had the ice finished. For our first practices we had to take our buses down to Bobcaygeon to practice in. Then we got the ice in the arena and at the first game we were surprised ourselves with the fact that we had a little team, but a vicious team. They wanted to win and we ended up making the playoffs that year. No one was ever expecting that to happen.”
He remembers that, during his pitch, he promised the OHA that Haliburton would always have the largest crowd in the whole league, they would make the playoffs and every game would start on time.
“We would have the best event that they had in the whole league. And we did. From then on it was a success,” he said, referencing the inaugural 1965-1966 season.
Four years later, the Huskies had a season no one will forget.
During the 1970-1971 season the team won the Ontario championship, which made his father proud. The entire town seemed to be at every game, selling out home games and even travelling for playoff games during the championship run. The win set in motion a night of legendary celebrations that are still talked about, with a smile and a snicker, to this day.
Scotty said he has always been proud of his father and hoped he would be recognized with an induction.
“I would have been pretty upset, if he hadn’t gone in, but he certainly deserved it. I was always proud of him and the way he worked and the way he enjoyed mixing up with kids. I don’t know how many kids he loaned money to to buy their first car. If he [asked] a kid, ‘Are you playing hockey this year?’ Well, no, Ab, I can’t. I don’t have equipment.’ He would scrounge equipment all over town to make sure that kid got equipment,” he said. “I was really proud of him as a father and as a man, who was so well-respected by the rest of the people and for the hard work he did for kids.”
Scotty wasn’t sure where his father got the drive to help came from, but knows he was deeply affected by the circumstances of the death of his own father, Charlie at his sawmill on Cranberry Lake, located between West Guilford and Eagle Lake. It was something his father never talked about. He only learned about the tragedy from his mother and grandmother.
“He got killed at his own sawmill. It was an awful scene. His coat got caught in a roller and whipped him around. My dad was there and couple of my uncles. My dad carried him out of the mill and he shut the mill down and never went back to the mill. He paid off his dad’s debts over the years. He paid everything that was owed and he never spoke about that to me all my life. My mother, my grandmother are the people that told me about that. He wasn’t involved too much in that. I think he had a little softball team in West Guilford. I don’t know. When he got back into Haliburton he seemed to get involved into sports. He did and he did it in a pretty big way,” he said.
There were softball teams in Haliburton, West Guilford, Minden and Wilberforce. He coached softball for years.
LaRue is one of three inductees for the builder category, joining Lenny Salvatori and Linda J. Brandon.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Salvatori spent considerable time working and living with Ab.
His son, Scotty remembers how his mother would often get upset about not getting the help she needed at the restaurant during baseball season.
Scotty wasn’t sure about whether the community would have been the same without his father and Lenny.
“I don’t know if anybody would have taken his ambition as seriously as him. I’m sure there was going to be like Lenny Salvatori for instance … he lived with us for 10 years. Lenny got that from him and they played ball together and so on and so forth. They both got involved in hockey. Lenny was the manager of the arena one year, the old arena. He would flood the ice with a hose and that got kind of thing,” he said. “He seemed to take it over from my dad. Dad started the boy scouts and was scout leader. Then Lenny was a cub leader and they seemed to feed off each other. They ran the restaurant. My mother used to get pretty mad at them because they were playing ball while she was working.”
It was when Lenny was in high school that he lived with the LaRues, which was also when he drove the school bus as a 15-year-old. He lived with Scotty’s family for 10 years until he was married.
Scotty laments how there is less involvement by young adults now.
“I don’t think we’re getting the participation in people showing the interest. The younger generation here I don’t think are willing to stick their neck out and get involved in sports and so on like they used to,” he said.
He adds there are younger people who will donate money to causes, but the community needs people to do more by giving their time and sharing their expertise.
Scotty believes there is hope that the Hall of Fame could inspire others to emulate the efforts of Ab and Lenny.
“If they’re interested in sports, I’m pretty sure they’re going to be very interested in finding out how, and who were athletes in this town. A lot of people, myself included, some of these people, I’d never seen them perform. Some of the high school athletes and so on. I think when people see that, when young people see that, I think they’ll want to emulate them and maybe they’ll get interested in some of the high school sports and sports after high school,” he said.
He added when the junior Huskies hockey team was playing it helped to stimulate minor hockey.
“The kids they wanted to get up to the Huskies and make the Huskies hockey team and that went on for quite a few years. And we did end up with a lot of good hockey players coming out of here,” he said.
There will be a certain level of satisfaction if the Hall of Fame, which was something that Scotty has been spearheading for the past three years to get going, can inspire a resurgence of community involvement like it was when Ab was alive and active.
“I would be pretty proud if we moved ahead in the community and got back into sports for kids, thinking more about the kids and team sports and so on and starting out fastball in the summer time, there’s hockey and so on. I’d just like to see more and more young people get involved with the community and when I think that the Hall of Fame is a start for some influence there. Let’s hope so,” he said.