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Last of the LA Ramblers

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

The last surviving members of what was probably the strangest hockey team ever to play in the Kootenay have died.

Terry Cavanagh (pictured above) passed away in Edmonton on Dec. 17, 2017 at 91 followed by Max Labovitch in Winnipeg on Jan. 14, 2018 at 93.

Both skated for the Los Angeles Ramblers of the Western International Hockey League in 1946-47, a circuit that also included teams from Trail, Nelson, Kimberley, and Spokane.

Whoever thought this was a good idea financially was crazy, although some former players believed the team owners were trying to get a toehold in California after being turned down in a bid for a professional Pacific Coast Hockey League franchise.

The Ramblers were far more noteworthy for their outrageous travel arrangements than anything they did on the ice, although their lineup was interesting, including three past and future NHLers.

To get to and from Los Angeles, the Ramblers flew in a chartered DC-3 military plane. Players sat on bucket seats and because the heat sometimes conked out, they stuck their feet in their hockey bags to keep warm.

This made them one of the first sports teams and certainly the first hockey team to fly to all of their road games (although they bused between the Kootenay cities). The other teams in the league used the same plane for their weekend road trips to California — all paid for by the Ramblers.

The Ramblers played their home games at the Sonja Henie Ice Palace in Westwood — originally called the Tropical Ice Gardens, but renamed after the Norwegian figure skating queen who dropped the puck on opening night.

Husband-and-wife movie stars George Montgomery and Dinah Shore (pictured below) donated a trophy for the league championship that long outlasted the team (and is today in the Trail Sports Hall of Memories).

General manager Fred Holger was born Friederich Schimetschek in Austria but fled the country after losing his parents to the Nazis. He played hockey in Belgium and then eastern US and doubled as the Ramblers’ backup goaltender.

The playing coach was Ken Stewart, who had some NHL experience, while trainer Harry Westerby was formerly of the New York Rangers. Promotions man Eric Bishop went on to become Calgary’s leading sportswriter and broadcaster.

The starting goaltender, Vern Kneeshaw, wore glasses in net. They fell off a few times, but the unbreakable lenses lived up to their name. I interviewed Kneeshaw at the WIHL reunion in Trail in 1999. You can listen to it here:

Kneeshaw died in Spokane in 2012, age 90.

The youngest player on the roster was Terry Cavanagh, 20, who played junior hockey in Galt., Ont., where he roomed with Gordie Howe. Following his year with the Ramblers, he moved to Trail, where he spent several seasons playing for the Smoke Eaters.

But he was better known in his hometown of Edmonton, where he was elected to city council in 1971. When the mayor died in 1975, he was chosen by council as the interim replacement — becoming the city’s first native-born mayor — but failed in a bid for re-election.

He returned to council in 1983 and when the mayor resigned in 1989 was again chosen by council as interim mayor. And again he was unsuccessful when he ran for the permanent position later that year. But he was back as a councillor from 1995 to 2007.

Cavanagh was lauded as a gentleman, diplomat, and community ambassador. A memorial was held this month for him at St. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton, the same place where he was baptized and married.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 2007 for a story about the Ramblers that appeared in the West Kootenay Weekender.

“Oh, I enjoyed it,” he said of his year in Los Angeles. “I’d never been there. We lived in a boarding house, people were very good to us.”

However, the team only drew 3,000 to 4,000 fans per game in a rink that seated 12,000: “It wasn’t the best draw in town. We gave tickets out to get people to come to the game.”

Most hockey fans in the city, he said, preferred to watch the Los Angeles Monarchs and Hollywood Wolves of the PCHL.

Also on the team that year were brothers Max and Lou Labovitch. Max played five games for the New York Rangers in 1943-44 to become the first Jewish-Canadian player in the NHL. (There had previously been American-born Jews in the league.)

Labovitch grew up in Winnipeg and, according to his obituary, began playing hockey at the age of seven. He turned pro with the New Haven Eagles in 1942 and also skated for the New York Rovers of the EHL and the Toledo Mercurys of the IHL, where he was captain and team MVP.

He retired in 1950 but continued to play oldtimers hockey in Manitoba. He was on roller blades until he was 83. He was also an avid golfer and was club champion at the Bakersfield Country Club in California and Bel Acres Country Club in Winnipeg.

According to his obituary in the Winnipeg Free Press, in 2017 he was honoured by the Rady Jewish Community Centre for his achievements in sports.

I never spoke with Max, but did get a nice email from him in 2007, in which he said bandleader Bob Crosby and actor Andy Devine were a couple of the Hollywood types who frequented Ramblers games.

Although they posted a decent record, finishing second among five teams in an unbalanced schedule, the Ramblers lost a bundle in their lone year in existence. Between low attendance and subsidizing travel for the other teams, they reportedly lost more than $100,000. Playing coach Ken Stewart alone was stiffed of $2,000 in wages.

The Sonja Henie Ice Palace ceased to exist after 1949, although there is some debate whether it suffered a fire or was torn down to allow for expansion of UCLA.

Among my most prized possessions are two rare Ramblers programs — one from a game against Trail, the other against Nelson — purchased on eBay. They are the source of all the images seen here. Another program is in the Trail Sports Hall of Memories. The Ramblers are also expected to get their due in an exhibit on hockey history that will be part of the new Trail Riverfront Centre when it opens in March.

UPDATE: The last surviving player from the Ramblers roster, Harrison (Hassie) Young, died in Vancouver on March 23, 2020, on his 96th birthday. Young won a gold medal at the 1950 World Championships in London playing for the Edmonton Mercurys. He and the rest of the team were inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. I regret that I never spoke to him.

In just one of the team’s many oddities, the Los Angeles Ramblers wore numbers on the front of their sweaters, like football players.

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