As he walked into Barrie North Collegiate on that first day of Grade 9, little did Chris Forde know the role his first-class phys-ed teacher would play in his life.
“For a little Grade 9 kid, he was this big, tough phys-ed teacher. You knew he’d played in the NHL,” Forde recalls of Gary Inness, the retired long-time North teacher and guidance counsellor who passed away Tuesday at the age of 71 after a long battle with dementia.
“He just sort of exuded this manliness in a sense that you automatically respected him,” Forde added. “You had that little bit of fear as well, but it was good fear. It wasn’t that he was mean or vicious or anything like that, it was just he commanded respect and he commanded accountability. He demanded as close to perfection as you can provide. He just had that innate quality that you immediately respected and you immediately want to strive to be like him.”
The St. Joan of Arc High School teacher and football coach looks back at those days fondly and just how much Inness meant to the students and the school.
For Forde, he was a ‘giant’. “To me, Gary was Barrie North and Barrie North was Gary,” he said.
And to Forde, Inness was a mentor and a big reason he is also a teacher and football coach today.
“He was probably one of my biggest inspirations to become a teacher and definitely become a football coach as well,” Forde explained. “I think if you interviewed many other people, they’d say the same thing.”
Take a look inside the classrooms and on the football sidelines across Simcoe County and you see the impact Inness had over his 25 years at Barrie North after leaving behind a 10-year career in the NHL as a goaltender.
Forde played three seasons as a defensive halfback for Inness at North. He says there are no fewer than seven current local high school teachers and coaches that played on that North team back then.
“They talk about the Bill Belichick (New England Patriots) coaching tree, the Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs) coaching tree, well for our area there’s no coaching tree like Gary Inness,” Forde said. “There’s nobody in our area that can come close to that kind of inspirational legacy.
“To see him gone is heartbreaking for sure, but to know that obviously he leaves behind a family that is clearly heartbroken. They should know that their dad was an inspiration to so many people.”
Barrie North teacher Burke Erwin took over the senior football program after Inness retired in 2010. Inness, he said, left a presence there that is still there today.
“The integrity and character we as teachers have, even ones that retired, Gary was sort of the figurehead of that,” Erwin said. “Even when he’s not there you just have a standard that this is how it’s done.
“I’m very, very sure that Gary was a big part of bringing that to the teaching profession, let alone (our) football program. That standard of excellence, we don’t want to let him down.”
He admits Wednesday was a tough day after learning of the loss of Inness. To Erwin, he wasn’t just a friend. He was much more. “I lost my dad at a young age in life,” he explained. “As a result, I find myself identifying mentors and great men who I can align myself with and Gary did that for me. He was a huge mentor. I just soaked up as much as I could from him.”
As Erwin reached out to other teachers across the community, he realized he wasn’t the only one who felt Inness was a father figure too.
“It personally stung just having another big loss,” he said.
Erwin had been a student at Innisdale Secondary School and had played against Inness and North on the gridiron.
“You knew what you were going to get, which was a fundamentally solid but really, really tough football team,” he said.
Mark Welch, who taught and coached the senior football program at Eastview Secondary School, found himself on the opposing sidelines of quite a few of those fierce battles. “You knew when you played their teams, it was going to be a physical game, but it wasn’t going to be a dirty game,” said Welch, who started at Eastview in 1989. “They always understood the fine line. I always loved playing North. Win or lose you always knew what you were going to get.”
Erwin feels for co-coaches Ian Hunter and Peter Glass. Hunter had the longest tenure with Inness at North.
Glass admits he felt a little over his head when he arrived at North in 1991 but was quickly welcomed to the football coach’s fraternity. Especially by Inness, who was pelted with many questions from Glass.
“I remember one day fondly when he said, ‘Glass you ask a lot of questions,'” he recalled. “Without an opportunity to reply, he said, ‘That’s good, it shows you care and you want to learn.’ What I interpreted that to mean was, if I was able to encourage curiosity or questions in the classroom or the field of play, the students/athletes would be active learners and engaged in the activity.”
Inness wasn’t just a very good hockey player; he was as good a player on the football field as he would become a coach.
Born in Toronto, he attended McMaster University where he was a standout goaltender on the hockey team and centre on the football squad for four seasons. He would eventually be inducted into the university’s hall of fame.
Inness would then attend the University of Toronto to complete his teachers’ certificate and would lead the school to a CIAU hockey championship.
“He was a very good athlete,” Welch said.
Welch would play pickup hockey against Inness during their coaching days.
“Gary is probably one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met.” he said.
Inness was playing defence and things didn’t go quite as Welch expected.
“I was playing my first shift and I got a spear and an elbow, and then a sideways smile,” Welch said, laughing out loud. “He wasn’t trying to hurt me, he just wanted me to know he was there.”
Undrafted and never having played junior hockey, Inness would still find his way to the NHL as a free agent, going from university hockey to joining the Pittsburgh Penguins a year later in 1973-74.
The six-foot, 195-pounder would also take to the crease with the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, before his final season on the ice in 1980-81 with the AHL’s Hershey Bears.
Inness would go on to coach Hershey into a fourth season before he was replaced halfway through the year.
“When he was done with hockey, he was done,” Forde said. “He went headfirst into education and education and coaching became his life, obviously apart from his family. He poured everything he had into coaching and education. He was a special man.”
Inness certainly didn’t look back. He seldom talked of his hockey days. “Apparently his goalie pads, he chucked them in the lake at his cottage up in Haliburton,” Erwin said. “And that was it.”
Despite being a tremendous athlete, Inness had a humbleness about him.
“He was very unassuming,” Welch said. “I think he talked more about playing football at McMaster. I don’t think I ever heard him talking about playing in the NHL. I had no idea until another fellow teacher told me.”
Inness, though, truly made a difference with the students.
Welch, a real estate agent in Barrie, recalls having a client who played football at North and had Inness as a guidance teacher. “He said, ‘That man changed my life,'” the former student told Welch of Inness. “He gave me advice that no one had given me.
“It’s when someone like that makes a difference for a person in a way that’s unheralded, that’s impressive to me. Gary did that a lot to people.”
Welch said what made Inness such an amazing coach was what he was able to give a lot of kids that maybe didn’t have all the breaks in life. He helped them believe in themselves.
“Gary had a different kind of student and he meant so much to them because he taught them nobody’s going to give you anything. You got to earn it,” Welch said. “To me, in my mind, that’s his legacy. Even when he didn’t have great talent, they were always in the game. We lost games to North and we were the better team.”
Welch remembers seeing Inness about nine years ago at a championship game and he could tell his health was not good. Still, he saw the old Inness when play started. “He had a big smile,” Welch said.
Erwin will always remember a coach that commanded that respect. When it was serious, when it was business time, it was deadly serious. “I always say Gary was like velvet and steel. He was velvet on the outside, but steel on the inside. That quote was used a little bit in our program and that’s exactly what he was. He was a gentleman and would do anything for anybody, but when it came time to competition it was on.”
Erwin will also remember the many hours he spent up at his mentor’s cottage in Haliburton and his love for the Hershey Bears.
“Him and I were sitting in his SUV up at his cottage about 10 p.m. at night listening to the Hershey Bears on satellite radio winning another Calder Cup,” he recalls fondly.
“He let all of us in.”
banner image provided by Hershey Bears