Legendary Jerry Udell inducted into Orillia HOF

Four local athletes were inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame at the Orillia Sports Council gala at Casino Rama. From left are Brenda Udell, widow of Jerry Udell, Rob Town, Terry Bullen and Judi Fairwell, niece of Mervyn McKenzie. Photo: Dave Dawson/The Packet & Times

Four local athletes were inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame at the Orillia Sports Council gala at Casino Rama. From left are Brenda Udell, widow of Jerry Udell, Rob Town, Terry Bullen and Judi Fairwell, niece of Mervyn McKenzie. Photo: Dave Dawson/The Packet & Times

Monday, May 1, 2017 

Jerry Udell, Terry Bullen, Lawrence Mervyn McKenzie and Rob Town join Orillia Sports Hall of Fame

By Dave Dawson
Orillia Packet & Times

Four iconic Orillia citizens, pillars of the city’s rich sporting heritage, were inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame Saturday night as part of the Orillia Sports Council’s sold-out gala at Casino Rama.

Jerry Udell, widely regarded as the best baseball player ever to sparkle on a local diamond, Rob Town, an Olympic-calibre athlete and two-time national decathlon champion, Terry Bullen, a three-time Canadian champion lacrosse player who went on to win a pair of professional titles, and Lawrence Mervyn McKenzie, an elite athlete who became a heavyweight in sports boardrooms, composed the impressive class of 2017 – the third group of legends to be inducted into Orillia’s sports shrine since it was created three years ago.

All four are deserving hall-of-famers, said former Toronto Maple Leafs star Jack Valiquette, who was the evening’s guest speaker. The former NHL player shared many colourful, funny stories of his days in the NHL, but he turned serious when talking about the new inductees. “My parents told me a long time ago that it is more important to be a good person than a good hockey player, but you can be both,” said Valiquette. “The men being inducted tonight have the qualities of achieving a goal and living a good life. Each made a tremendous contribution to the community. Merv, Jerry, Terry and Rob are great examples for Orillia.”

Bullen said he was humbled by the induction. “One of the great things about this event, for me, is sometimes I think (what I’ve accomplished is) not really a big deal,” he said. “But this makes you realize how important it is what you do every day and to give back.”

Stuart Finlayson, who began playing lacrosse with Bullen as a young lad, provided some highlights of Bullen’s storied lacrosse career that began in Orillia. He told the crowd how Bullen moved to Whitby to play Jr. A lacrosse where he played on a team that traveled to B.C. and defeated the New Westminster Salmonbellies to win the Minto Cup. “The Salmonbellies had two players named Paul and Gary Gait (two of the greatest offensive stars to ever play the game) and Terry Bullen and company shut them down.”

When a group of Orillia businessman bought the Ontario Raiders and turned them into the Toronto Rock, they quickly signed Bullen, who anchored the league’s best defence and helped them to win back-to-back NLL titles.

And while his feats on the lacrosse floor are legion, his real legacy may be as a coach, said Finlayson. “He has been coaching (at local high schools) in Orillia for over 30 years,” said Finlayson. “He coaches three or four sports every year. By my calculation, that’s about 2,500 student athletes Terry has touched. Plus, he also coaches with the Orillia Lakers, boys’ lacrosse and girls’ field lacrosse – that’s another 500 athletes, bringing to a total of 3,000 young athletes who have been inspired by this incredible man.”

Bullen credited his parents for giving him a solid foundation and expressed his gratitude for growing up in a north-ward neighbourhood where he could play hockey, football, lacrosse and other sports with his friends; that experience gave him the confidence to try out for a variety of teams when he went to high school at ODCVI, where he starred for the Blues in basketball, football and other sports.

“I really enjoy being able to give back to students and I am so very proud to be part of the Orillia scene and to be an athlete that grew up in Orillia,” said Bullen. “I’m humbled by the experience. Thank you.”

Rob Town, an accomplished decathlete who shone for Canada at the Commonwealth Games and narrowly missed qualifying for the 1984 Olympics, echoed those sentiments. “I was born in Orillia, went to school in Orillia and returned to Orillia to work... this community has been so supportive. I am truly humbled.”

He was also truly dominant in track and field circles, said Ian MacMillan, who coached at ODCVI for 53 years and helped Town hone his abilities from 1971 to 1976 at the West Street school.

“Rob won 12 throwing medals at (the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Association) during his five years at ODCVI. I don’t know of anyone else who did that and I went through the records,” said MacMillan, noting Town still holds an OFSAA record – one he set in 1973.

“I was there that day when he threw the discus 193 feet. I’ll never forget it. Officials were around the 145-feet mark ready to mark … and, all of a sudden, (Town) let it go and you could see these officials scrambling to mark it. That record still stands today.”

Town also played volleyball and basketball at ODCVI and helped the Blues win a bronze medal at the OFSAA basketball championship. While the medals and records and results are written in the history books, Town said the teammates and coaches that shared his journey are equally important memories of his pursuit. He said innovative coaches with the Orillia Channel Cats, at ODCVI, at the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto were integral to his success.

“I had wonderful coaches in my career,” said Town. “I always tell athletes to cherish their coaches and the commitment they give to their charges. These mentors deserve to be celebrated.”

Mervyn McKenzie also deserves to be celebrated. Growing up in the shadow of the YMCA, McKenzie excelled in hockey, football and swimming, but it was in lacrosse that he really shone. He led the Orillia Terriers to the 1940 Minto Cup, played senior lacrosse in Mimico and went on to play with the Hamilton Tigers for seven seasons where he routinely earned all-star and MVP status. Despite missing time to serve his country during the Second World War, McKenzie won a Canadian senior title with two different teams, was named commissioner of the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) senior league in 1954 and is in both the Ontario and Canadian lacrosse halls of fame.

In 1953, he was appointed the Ontario Athletic Commissioner and was instrumental in arranging the 1966 heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Chuvalo, who was on hand Saturday night at the induction. McKenzie was an ardent supporter of boxing and his hometown.

“Uncle Merv was instrumental in ensuring (Orillia’s) Walter Henry was recognized for qualifying for the Olympics and he presented Walter with a trophy at the CNE,” said Judi Fairwell, McKenzie’s niece, who accepted the award for McKenzie, who died in 1977. Henry, inducted into the local sports shrine last year, was on hand to support McKenzie and the other inductees.

Fairwell said McKenzie never forgot his roots. “He attended several Christmas parties here in Rama, bringing gifts of lacrosse sticks and hockey sticks. Walpole Island First Nation made him an honorary chief and presented him with a headdress that was proudly displayed at the family home in Mississauga.”

In 1967, McKenzie was presented the Canadian government’s Contribution to Sports medal. And, to this day, the OLA remembers one of its favourite sons with an award given annually to someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of lacrosse. The Mervyn McKenzie Trophy is also awarded annually to the top player in the Ontario senior circuit.

“After his death, a sports writer described Mervyn as the best all-around athlete to ever come out of Orillia,” said Fairwell, who noted her uncle was also Inducted into the Mississauga Sports Hall of Fame and the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame (1971). “I’m sure he’s looking down on us tonight, humbly appreciating this honour bestowed on him.”

While it was a night of celebration and nostalgia punctuated by laughter and infused with a sense of pride, it was a bittersweet night for the Udell family; they were thrilled to see Jerry get his due, but sad that cancer cut short his life. Jerry Udell’s widow, Brenda, accepted the award on behalf of her husband, who succumbed to brain cancer on Oct. 17, 1995. He was just 45.

“It truly is an amazing tribute to his talent to be inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame and I know he would be so very proud,” said Brenda, after donning Jerry’s beloved Blue Jays jersey with his trademark number 33 on the back. “Jerry left me three very special gifts – our girls, Krista, Alison and Whitney” who joined their mom on the podium.

With pride, Brenda recounted some of her late husband’s incredible athletic achievements: provincial baseball titles in 1969, 1970 and 1983, a provincial curling crown in 1976, playing for Team Ontario at the Canadian Baseball Championship in 1973 and 1975, winning Orillia’s athlete of the year award in 1982 and being named Orillia’s athlete of the half century in 1987.

While he was a scratch golfer, a renowned curler, an avid skier and excellent basketball player, he shone brightest on the baseball diamond. He once pitched 19 innings in a single contest and won 48 straight decisions over six spectacular seasons – including a perfect game. He almost always led his team with his powerful bat yet laid down a perfect, totally unexpected squeeze bunt to help the Orillia Majors win a dramatic provincial title in 1983.

“In my humble opinion, he was and still is the best baseball player to ever play in Orillia. He outshone them all,” said Rick Watters, a long-time teammate.

Brenda Udell said the support the family has received in the 21 years since Jerry’s death has reaffirmed her faith in the community. “Not only did we lose an amazing husband and father, the world lost a remarkable human being,” she said. “They say it’s not the years in the life but the life in the years and Jerry lived every day to the fullest – he just didn’t get enough of them. But his spirit and legacy will live on forever.”

Brenda urged those in attendance to “value life and treasure every breath.” She then asked everyone to raise a toast to the legendary athlete and capped the evening by leading all those in attendance with a rousing rendition of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’

    --- Story re-published courtesy of the Orillia Packet & Times.