Legendary junior hockey executive Sherry Bassin has witnessed the type of impact General Motors of Canada employees once had on the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals.
The relationship ran much deeper than just a team name and logo in his days with the club.
“These people that worked hard on the lines, I can’t say enough about them, they were a big part of our support,” said Bassin, who was with the Generals from 1976 to 1989.
“Those guys that worked hard on the line, administrative people, they were all die-hard supporters of the Generals.”
The Generals were born in 1937 and took their nickname from GM, which was their original sponsor when they played in the Ontario Hockey Association. GM expanded over the years and eventually opened the Oshawa Assembly Plant in 1953. That helped grow not only the city of Oshawa, Ont., but the team’s fan base as well, with many workers becoming season-ticket holders right up until present day.
Bassin was in charge of the Generals when GM was at its peak with upwards of 23,000 employees in Oshawa. But those numbers declined heavily with layoffs in the early 2000’s. On Monday, GM announced it would be closing its Oshawa plant for good and letting go of the remaining 2,500 workers by the end of 2019.
It was news that didn’t sit well with Bassin, a 79-year-old Oshawa resident who won two league titles with the organization and had his finger prints all over a Generals team that would capture the 1990 Memorial Cup.
“The passion that you saw from the General Motors employees, this whole community survived around it. This is a blue-collar community where the workers worked hard and were doing well,” said Bassin, who was born in Semans, Sask., but has lived in Oshawa for more than 40 years.
“Because of their efficiency and proficiency (in making automobiles), whatever they were going through they’d find a way to make it work. You kept thinking they’ll find a way.”
Generals games often kept employees entertained while doing their shift work.
“The boys used to tell me when the cars were going down the line, the radios would be on to the Generals game,” said Bassin.
Bassin says that in his era the relationship between GM workers and Generals employees was intertwined, with some people even working for both at the same time.
Bassin once had two scouts that put in their hours on the factory line at the plant while one of his hockey operations staff members, Wayne Daniels, eventually took over from him as the team’s general manager while putting in a full career in the auto industry.
“Our fans were all kinds of General Motors employees, my secretary was even a General Motors employee, she got me deals on cars,” joked Bassin.
Longtime junior coach Stan Butler, who entered the 2018-19 season with the North Bay Battalion second on the OHL’s all-time wins list, broke into the league with the Generals in 1994-95 and remembers Daniels balancing both roles.
“Wayne worked full time at GM so basically what would happen we’d all get to work those days around noon, practice at 3:30 p.m. and if you had to meet with Wayne it was right after practice because he would leave GM and then come right to the arena,” said Butler.
Bassin and Daniels have both since been inducted into the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame for their contributions to the Generals, one of the most storied franchises in junior hockey.
Over the years, GM employees have been there to see a 14-year-old Bobby Orr make his junior debut in 1962, the acquisition of a 17-year-old Eric Lindros in 1990 and John Tavares being the first player in the modern era drafted under exceptional player status in 2005.
After the Generals’ first home, Hambly Arena, was destroyed by a fire in 1953 and the team was put on hiatus for nine years, GM employees returned when the Oshawa Civic Auditorium opened in 1964.
“A lot of the General Motors employees helped support the building of the new rink … that really is community,” said Bassin.
Bassin believes the old Auditorium — with seating for 3,600 fans — was a difficult place for opposing teams to come to thanks in large part to the fan base made up mostly of GM employees.
“Die-hard, die-hard season-ticket holders that lived and died by the success of the Generals,” said Bassin, who has guided teams to six Memorial Cup national championship tournaments and drafted Connor McDavid into the OHL with the Erie Otters.
“A lot of them that I knew very well had season tickets years ago behind the penalty box behind the visiting team … worst thing you could do was get a penalty. They all had different funny sayings, would work over the opposition.
“I can remember them in the playoffs being four deep in standing room in key games.”
The Auditorium remained the home of the Generals until 2006 when the city opened a new downtown arena, named the General Motors Centre. But the naming rights expired in 2016 and is now known as the Tribute Communities Centre.
The Generals didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Canadian Press, though they did issue a press release.
Team president and governor Rocco Tullio said the organization “shares a very storied history with GM and we (are) very proud of the number of GM workers who are our fans and season ticket holders.
“In the coming days and months, the Oshawa Generals will look for ways to support our GM worker fans, tickets holders and their families.”