As Cliff Smith's career working for Bell Canada was drawing to a close, he started pondering how he would spend his new-found free time in retirement. One thing the self-professed rink rat knew for sure was how much he enjoyed spending time at the local rink, having spent years watching his son Michael play rep hockey. “My son was wrapping up his minor hockey time, so I knew I was going to have some free time on my hands,” Cliff says. “A buddy of mine was the general manager of the Sarnia Steeplejacks at the time, and I came on board as assistant GM and a board member.” It was the beginning of a wonderful ride.

The Sarnia Legionnaires are a storied franchise that will celebrate its 75th anniversary next season. The team was actually born in 1949-50 but missed one full year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We started when the arena was built in Sarnia,” Cliff says. “In Year 2, we won the all-Ontario championship. Our organization is really big on supporting other organizations in the community. We are a registered non-profit and the Legionnaires are run by a board of volunteers. We are all in it for the same reason – to help.”

In the early days, the Legionnaires attracted some world-class talent including future NHLers Phil Esposito and Pat (Whitey) Stapleton. Esposito was assigned to the Legionnaires by the Chicago Black Hawks organization and proceeded to score 47 goals and 108 points in 32 games – an average of 3.3 points per game. Though Sarnia lost in the Western Ontario final, the future Hockey Hall of Famer did manage to have a remarkable 12-point game in the postseason. Sarnia won four all-Ontario titles in the fifties and Stapleton, who played 15 years in the NHL and WHA, was a key member of two of those teams. Bill Lockhead, a 16 year old forward, set the Junior B goal scoring record in 1970, scoring 73 goals in in 42 games. The record still stands.

Cliff has served as team president for four years but gave up the reigns to concentrate on advertising needs and sponsorships. The Legionnaires went through a period of American-based ownership and then had to contend with the arrival of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting. “That changed our dynamic hugely,” Cliff says. “Prior to that, we were ‘the show’ at the Sarnia Arena. When the Sting came along, they took over the building and we got bumped to a smaller venue in town until a new facility was built for the Sting which allowed us to go back to the Sarnia Arena which is a great 2,200-seat arena.” 

In recent years, the Legionnaires have enjoyed a revival in terms of local popularity and are drawing upwards of 1,500 fans a game. “That kind of forced the city’s hand to improve our arena,” Cliff says. “It was starting to deteriorate, but when you are drawing huge crowds at every game, word gets out to the mayor and city council that it’s time for improvements.” The arena received new boards, glass, seats, concession, heat and an improved sound system. The Sarnia Arena, or Brock Street Barn as it is affectionately known, even got a new name - Pat Stapleton Centre. Cliff insists it is the collective of people invested in the team that keeps the Legionnaires moving in the right direction. “It’s never just one individual; we have a very strong leadership group.” The leadership group was lead for years by individuals such as Tom Knight and Fred Cooper. Fred is still contributes as a life member at Board Meetings at 85 years of age. "It also doesn't hurt to have my wife Joan lead our box office group for the last 25+ years," Cliff chuckles, "It really is a family affair."