Story by Brock Ormond
35 years of Wellington Dukes junior hockey will be in one arena on Friday night for a nostalgic celebration.
Prior to the current Dukes home opener versus the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, he organization will honour more than 40 alumni players, former coaches, staff members and volunteers for their time spent with the team, dating back to the late 80s and early 90s.
Many of the older players came from the former Jr. B days of the Belleville/Trenton Bobcats that transitioned to the Dukes.
Fans quickly filled the old Duke Dome, which formerly stood on Niles St. and that unwavering fan support has continued through the last four decades into the current Lehigh Arena on 111 Belleville St.
For many, that fan support made for some of the best memories playing junior hockey.
“The atmosphere in that small building by the fans made it such a great little arena to play in,” stated Kevin Doyle, a former Belleville Bobcat and Duke whose son Colin was a three-year Duke and captain of the team’s last league championship winning squad in 2017-18.
“My favourite moments were anything involving the Duke Dome at playoff time,” 2001-04 Duke forward Brent Varty stated.
“Every team that came in from the GTA had something to say about our barn, but they couldn’t deny the number of fans and the amazing atmosphere we had at every game,” Andrew Walsh (1989-91) stated.
“The Duke Dome had the best fans in the league from day one. No question.”
That even went beyond the County borders to a national level.
“One of my favourite memories of my time playing here was the boatloads of fans that drove 1,600 kms out to Charlottetown, P.E.I (for the National Junior A Championship tournament) to cheer us on right to the end,” Ron Cordes (defenceman in 2000-01 and from 2002-04) said.
“It was an amazing thing to watch a small community come together, having so much fun and excitement.”
The big name that local hockey fans and County people associated with the Dukes organization was Garry Lavender.
His life and career as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ coach, general manager, scout, billet parent and so much more will be the centerpiece of the night.
Lavender’s son Tod, a fellow coach and a player on the team from 1988-1992, said one of his favourite moments involving his dad was in 2003 at the Dudley Hewitt Cup Regional Tournament.
“I’m not sure I’d ever seen him smile so wide,” Tod Lavender said when describing seeing Garry lift the trophy over his head following the championship game.
“It’s a vision I treasure.”
Lavender added that being a Wellington native and being part of the Dukes organization in various roles for many years through his family is something he will always cherish.
“I understand the importance of the franchise to the community and to be able to gather with fans, players and past teammates to celebrate the tradition of the Dukes is special,” he noted.
“It should be a fun night and I’m looking forward to it.”
Relationship building between teammates, coaches and fans and helping players reach their goals were also the hallmarks of the organization.
“Wellington without question helped me reach my goal of playing NCAA college hockey. I am also very proud of how many Duke players after my time went on to play at my alma mater Oswego State University,” stated Belleville native Rob Smith (1996-2000).
“The university and Dukes player pipeline has always been strong.”
“There were several great moments as you see your teams succeed in hockey after their time as a Duke, like teammates Bryan Helmer, Mark Rupnow, Tod Lavender, Derick Potts, to name a few, that Doyle added.
“Many teammates moved on to successful jobs and careers. Playing in Wellington helped shape us as individuals in a positive way for the rest of lives.”
The alumni all agreed that their time spent with Wellington, whether it was for one year or five, the lessons they learned have carried over to their current lives and careers.
The Dukes will be celebrating various aspects of their history throughout the season following the opening night festivities.
The list of returning players and staff (as of Friday afternoon) can be found below.
Fred “Mick” McPherson
James and Joanne Hurst
Rich “Trapper” Burden