A recent victory by the Sault Steelers over their arch rival Sudbury Spartans not only gave the locals a winning record for the 2022 regular season but a home game for the opening round of the playoffs, which get underway next month.
A 3-2-1 regular season record is a good mark for the gritty Steelers, who along with fellow NFC members returned to the grid iron this summer after the COVID pandemic cancelled the previous two seasons.
The come from behind over Sudbury also came on an evening when the Steelers celebrated their 50th anniversary since joining the NFC back in 1972.
From the Steelers side, the names associated with the franchise dating back to its 1972 birth year in the NFC are both plentiful and memorable.
A copy of the roster from the Steelers 1972 souvenir program that I just recently came across reveals the following names from a team that was coached by Lenny Monico. The player list includes Les Piccolo, Keith Hillstrom, Brad Jourdin, John Pinches, Carmen Gassi, John Mason, Peter Longarini, Derek Orr, Steve Whalen, Don Mei, Lionel Simonini, Nick Lesysher, Ron Morin, George Bell, Jim Elliott, Vern Milosovich, Jim McLean, Ray Diotte, Rick Turpin, Gord Triplett, Bob Moyle, Tom Twornzanyski, Peter MacPhail, Mark Connolly, Jack O’Neill, Bob Travaglini, Dick Wooton, Lynn McCoy, Mauro Damignani, David Wysynski, Mac Headrick, Bob Brownlee, Dave Shand, Keith McMillan, Jack Anderson, Val Nose, Neil Duguay, Bob Misner, Paul Wysynski, Steve Miskiw, Bruce Martelini and Harold Holtom.
And what a first year it was for the Steelers of 1972. Following the regular season came the playoffs and a two game total point series with Sudbury (who else?) to decide the NFC championship. It was the Steelers who gained championship glory over their bitter rivals from Sudbury with a decisive 30-8 triumph in the two game total point set.
But the Steelers were not done with the winning of 1972 as they had a provincial crown matchup with the Ontario Rugby Football League champions, the London Lords. In a stunning upset, the Steelers lambasted the Lords 28-7 before a huge gathering of fans at Queen Elizabeth Field. I went to the game with my dad and it is an experience that I have not forgotten to this day.
Personally, I have my list of favourite Steelers from the first 20 or years of their existence, during which I regularly covered the team for CKCY Radio and then the Sault Star and then the Sault This Week.
Coaches of legendary fame included Lenny Monico, Dick Joy and Barry Rushon.
Steeler players of similar fame from that era included gunslinger quarterbacks John Dionisi and Marty Smith, quarterback/wide receiver Adrian Vilaca, running backs Les Piccolo, Walter Vial, Tony Bianchi and Mike Devuono, ultimate receiver Rocky DiPietro and stalwarts from linemen to linebackers to safeties that bring to mind names such as Derek Orr, Glen Stortini, Mac Headrick, Robin Wood, John Dilabio, Scott Wood, Joey Valente, Danny Berardi, Brad Jourdin, Francis Hennessey, Paul Hennessey, Paul Linklater, Fred Marotta, Eddie Tighe, Vince Colizza, Paul Caldbick, Jim Corelli and Brandon Lewis.
And so many, many more.
Meanwhile, I think of the Spartans of Sudbury and one name stands out — legendary coach Sid Forster, he of the scowl and the colourful quotes in the Sault Star and Sudbury Star and the ultimate passion for the game. It was Forster who once referred to the Steelers as “a bunch of rag tag, whistling gypsies.” Yes, he actually said that and was quoted in the newspapers.
Other Spartans whose names are synonymous with the old Steeler rivalry include the likes of quarterback Paul Gauthier and running back Ottavio DeBenedet. DeBenedet played for the Spartans when DiPietro played for the Steelers. And only a major injury prevented DeBenedet from becoming the Canadian Football League star that DiPietro did.
Back in the 1970s, the Steelers had a major radio following thanks to erstwhile AM station 1050 CJIC with Frank Donnelly, George Jonescu, Greg Stephens and Darius Dudley doing the play-by-play and commentary along with weekly guest appearances by players on CJIC-TV sportscasts.
Then came the Steelers improbable NFC championship win on a hot August night in 1980 when they shocked the heavily favoured Stoney Creek Patriots with a 10-6 victory at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium. I was part of the play by play broadcast with Peter Ruicci on local radio station CKCY as the Steelers prevailed on a steamy, sweaty evening in one of the most thrilling games I ever watched of the many NFC matches that I took in on the road and at home back in those days.
Speaking of road matches, a favourite trip was to Sudbury to watch the Spartans play host to the Steelers at Queen’s Athletic Field. As hard hitting and entertaining as those games were, the “fun” would continue after the match at the nearby Mine Mill Hall where players from both teams “socialized” in a beer-soaked setting that was not for the faint of heart.