Hoop dreams and coal seams

Cape Breton faces an uncertain future, but the game goes on, writes JANICE ACTON from New Waterford

Shunpiking Magazine

February / March 1999, Number 24

NBA SCOUTS have never come to The Coal Bowl Classic. Nor has the Toronto Sports Network (TSN). They’ve never heard of it. In fact many people outside of New Waterford – the small Cape Breton island town where this unique high school basketball tournament is held – don’t know what it is.

Where it is is part of the story. New Waterford lies past the end of the Trans-Canada Highway, 18 kilometres northwest of Sydney. It’s squat in the middle of the coal-rich Eastern Shore of Cape Breton where – since the 1720s – men, and boys, have wrought a living from coal seams running miles out under the Atlantic Ocean. Coal and history run deep in this part of the province and the surrounding Sydney Coalfields is the arena of some of the greatest, and most tragic, episodes of industrial and labour history this country has known.

And if some people didn’t know where New Waterford was, they do now after Natural Resources Minister, Ralph Goodale’s economy-destroying announcement of the Phalen Mine closure and sale of the Prince Colliery. Many of the area’s 1,100 miners live and work in New Waterford; if Mr. Goodale’s dictums become reality, their lives will change forever.

As a backdrop to the vagaries of coal mining is this year’s 18th annual Coal Bowl Classic that took place in January. Even Mr. Goodale’s bad news didn’t dampen the enthusiasm – or turnout – at this year’s Coal Bowl. Here’s an account of the people I met.

Driving into the congested parking lot of the Breton Educational Centre (BEC) at the end of MacLeod Avenue, I know I’ve come to the right place. The lot is so jammed with cars I have to quickly manoeuvre into one of the two remaining spots. Leaning into the rain, I join dozens of others clutching their coats and dodging puddles to run into the building.

The hectic scene inside the BEC gymnasium contrasts sharply with the quiescence of the local streets. Students of all ages walk in all directions, going up (or down) the bleachers, going to (or from) the washroom to check out the scene. Several boys pass by wearing plastic id cards, indicating they are from the ranks of the ten visiting teams. These “foreigners” are popular as the flotilla of teens accompanying them attests. A number of lone adults are scattered throughout the youthful crowd.

Twenty minutes before the 1 pm game, I’m hard-pressed to find a place to sit. I finally nudge my way into a few square inches of bleacher in BEC’s end zone. In a crammed situation like this, people are either annoyed or are moving with the buzz of the crowd. Luckily, my neighbour is friendly and begins to tell me how lucky she was today to be able to change her usual 6–2 shift so that she could be here for the bec home team’s game. “I’ve got friends who come to every game,” she says with pride. “You see that woman over there?” I nod.

“She’s the grandmother of Amanda Wilcox, who’s travelled here as a coach of the Kanata, Ontario team. Amanda grew up here, her family’s still here. She and her whole team went to her parent’s house the other night for a big spaghetti dinner.” New Waterford is a small, close-knit town.

Whether it’s my new friend’s willingness to talk or the constant chatter filling the high-ceiling gymnasium, there’s a feeling of anticipation in the crowd as we watch the male players shoot warm-up hoops. The referee finally whistles for the jump shot and throws the ball. The players jump in unison. The Coal Bowl begins for another day.

In its 18-year-history, over 2,778 participants from across Canada have played in the tournament and today, the Coal Bowl is nationally-acclaimed in high school sports circles. Teams from across the country sign up months, even years, in advance.

Dale Rooney, a Toronto basketball official who served as referee in the 1993 tournament, wrote BEC principal and tournament chairman, Jim Kavanaugh a letter following his return home:

.”.. I know of no other event with the vision and magnitude of the Coal Bowl and around which so many people rally and in which so much pride is taken… An impression the newspaper accounts give is that Cape Breton is depressed economically. While that may be true, I personally learned that Cape Bretoners are not depressed!

“I learned that Cape Bretoners are people with immense pride and great loyalty, with a fun-loving spirit, a zest for life, and a unique and strong culture.”

That organizers can still muster 300 volunteers every year is a testament to the pride which the community feels in this endeavour. But, why a Coal Bowl? What accounts for the 1500 seats being filled every year for 18 years? Why do these people take a week of their vacation every year to volunteer in this tournament?

Simply put, the Coal Bowl is unique. The tournament is ingeniously designed to highlight both basketball and the area’s identity with coal mining. The Coal Bowl Website (http://www.cbnet.ns.ca/~dmacmull/start.htm) defines its objectives as: “recognizing the close historical association between coal mining and basketball, and providing special educational, social, cultural, and athletic experience for visiting teams, students and staff of Breton Education Centre.”

And like many of the other indispensable volunteers, officials and Board members who run the tournament, Principal Kavanaugh brings his memories of the mines to the sporting event. His father worked underground for 53 years, starting when he was 13-years-old; following the Springhill Mine Disaster in 1958, he was awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund Award by Premier Robert Stanfield for “risking his life in underground rescue work.” It is stories like these that keep the Coal Bowl close to its roots.

New Waterford’s love affair with basketball started early in the century. By the Depression, the town was known as “the basketball hotbed.” Its first legendary team was the unbeatable St. Agnes Juvenile Team which won the Canadian Title in 1932. Canadian Titles were later won by the Strands Intermediate Team (1946/47/48), and the Central School Juvenile Team in 1961. In 1981 these teams were inducted into the N.S. Sports Hall of Fame.

Members of these teams aren’t forgotten as the tournament is divided into the “A” and “B” divisions, named after local people, living or deceased, who have made a significant contribution to basketball. This year’s divisions are: “The Don MacAulay Division” and the “S. ‘Jiggy’ Micholsky Division.”

Gussie MacNeil of the ‘47 Strands team, in an interview with the Cape Breton Post in 1982, explained the importance of basketball to youths who spent many hours underground: “Against the background of mining in Pits No. 12, No. 14, No. 16 and No. 18, youngsters ached for time on the courts. For hours, you’d wait outside for the chance to get into the Strand Gym and shoot baskets. We only had one ball and it made for fierce competition.”

Back in the gymnasium it’s half time and Yogi Muise, retired miner, volunteer tournament spokesman and member of the singing group “Men of the Deeps,” introduces me to his wife, Joan, a member of the 1961 New Waterford Intermediate Women’s Provincial Team that’s being honoured this year. Surrounded by a noisy line-up of hungry fans, I can hardly hear Joan’s soft-spoken words. Joan’s here with team-mates, Lillian, Babs, Mary, Celeste – their first reunion in years. “It’s a wonderful thing for us,” she says and the boys, and so many people from the community are involved.”

Winning is important to the players, but tournament organizers ensure they leave with more than just a trophy. While in New Waterford, visiting players are given a short course in Cape Breton history and prior to their arrival, each player is sent a copy of the textbook: Cape Breton Island: A Select View, which focuses on the island’s coal mining past. Students are examined on the history when they come to the tournament, with academic prizes offered for this, as well as basketball prizes, at the tournament’s closing ceremonies. Tours are given to local historical and industrial sites: the Miners’ Museum at Glace Bay, Louisbourg, the Power Plant. By week’s end, the players have come to know the people, music and culture of this part of Cape Breton, giving them an experience they’ll never forget.

I return to my small spot on the bleachers for the 7pm game between the BEC Bears and the highly-acclaimed St. Pat’s Irish from Halifax who, I am told, are likely to trounce the home team. Once again, I wedge in between others who have wisely come early. “Have you been to many of the games?” I naively ask the older gentleman next to me. “Oh yes,” he replies, “Every one. I only missed one year out of the 18, and that was the year I was off with an injury.”

At the tournament’s end, one team will bring home the Coal Bowl trophy. It’s not a shiny bowl with winged athletes on either side, but a large, simple cup with a huge piece of coal surrounded by tiny picks and shovels – a testament to a community’s proud coal mining heritage. And although they face an uncertain economic future, the people of New Waterford host the little-known Coal Bowl as a way to celebrate the best of the past, present and the future.

First of a series


A unique sports tournament, the Coal Bowl promotes an appreciation of the real history of the area amongst Canadian youth. In this 1903 photo, young coal miners posed at pit-head (Beaton Institute).

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