Editor’s note: The 1979 Yellowknife Junior Merchants got to the final of the Canadian Junior Men’s Softball Championship that year. But unlike their colleagues from 1974, the 1979 edition fell in extra innings in the gold medal contest to Ontario. Their result is still good enough to see them enter the competition for your votes.
The year was 1979.
Fred Henne is mayor of Yellowknife, the Canada Winter Games happened in Brandon, Man., and there’s a group of young athletes who fell agonizingly short of equaling one of the greatest sporting triumphs ever seen in the North.
That group is the Yellowknife Junior Merchants softball team, who lost the gold medal game at the Canadian Junior Men’s Softball Championship that year to Ontario by a score of 5-2 in extra innings.
The 1979 Junior Merchants finished the round-robin that year with a record of two wins and two losses, good enough for a seven-way tie for third place. The first tiebreaker was runs for and against and that still left things unsettled, meaning total bases reached came into play. That gave the Merchants fourth place on the A side, pitting them against
New Brunswick in the playoff opener, which ended in a 4-1 result for the good guys. Next up was the hosts from B.C. and they, too, were dusted off by the Merchants, 5-0.
The gold medal game against Ontario didn’t start off in great fashion as the Merchants committed two errors to gift Ontario a 2-0 lead. They managed to battle back and tie the game at 2-2 but Ontario got the better of Yellowknife in the top of the ninth inning and scored three runs while holding off the Merchants in the bottom half to claim victory.
Coach Dennis Milligan gave an interview to Yellowknifer shortly after returning home and said at the time that the NWT was the team to beat.
“Many of the fans there thought the NWT was the best team there,” he said. “Other than the people who came with Ontario, we had total support in the final game.”
Rod Stirling was the youngest member of the 1974 team but captained the 1979 edition.
He spoke with Yellowknifer a few years back (“Hall of Fame sees new faces”, Yellowknifer, Nov. 16, 2015) and Stirling said there was that feeling of whether the team felt as if they belonged and nerves were a factor, just as it was in 1974.
But once everything began to fall into place, success seemed to follow.
“We felt as if we did belong there and that’s so nice,” he said. “We wanted to do Yellowknife and the North proud.”
Just as Stirling was the youngest member of the 1974 team at age 15, Brent Hinchey was the youngest member of the 1979 outfit at age 16.
With a bit of humour, Hinchey, who also spoke with Yellowknifer in that same story, said he spent most of the time at the end of the bench and was used for certain situations but he remembered the team being so accepting of him as a teammate and not seeing him as the youngest member.
“They didn’t look at me as a kid,” he said. “We all came together and we were a team. We had players who were good but no one was bigger than the team.”
The team was inducted into the NWT Sport Hall of Fame in 2015, joining the 1974 Junior Merchants in the team category, and it was an exciting time for Hinchey.
He said it was a neat feeling to get the recognition from his fellow Northerners, even if it didn’t resonate with the city at the time.
“I think because of the 1974 team winning gold, we didn’t get as much coverage as they did five years earlier,” he said. “When you think back on it though, it is a really big deal. It was an awful lot of work, five nights a week practising for the entire summer and I don’t think anyone didn’t enjoy it.”