By Mika Rekai
Special to The Compass
When entering the small, unassuming town of Harbour Grace via Jamie's Way, motorists are greeted with an eye-catching, oversized billboard.
A first-time visitor would be hard-pressed not to slow down and take a closer look.
The jumbo sign features a photo of hockey player Danny Cleary, proudly hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head, and gold medalist Jamie Korab throwing a stone during the curling competition at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.
A message on the top of the sign reads: "WELCOME TO HARBOUR GRACE."
But it's the message on the bottom that really catches your attention.
It reads: "HOME OF CHAMPIONS. SPORTS CAPITAL OF NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR."
It is a bold proclamation for a town of barely 3,000 people (according to the 2006 census), but even more brash when you consider the town awarded the title to itself.
"It's a great way to celebrate our accomplishments," Mayor Don Coombs says of the sign, which he says has been a big hit with locals and visitors.
"It's great. People go out and get their photos with the sign."
The sign was erected several years ago, not long after Cleary, a native of Riverhead, Harbour Grace, and the Detroit Red Wings, sent the whole province into a Stanley Cup frenzy. Cleary was the first Newfoundlander to ever bring home the legendary trophy.
Coombs says the title is accurate, and represents more than just a gold medal and Stanley Cup. He says it celebrates a long, proud history of sport, and he doesn't think any other town in Newfoundland and Labrador could make a similar claim.
"Our regatta is the second oldest sporting event in North America," he says. "We've had successful athletes in everything, not just traditional sports."
Coombs cites Melanie Haire as an example. In 2006, she won a silver medal at the world karate championships in Denmark. Anna Robinson, a competitive swimmer, is currently a Rhodes scholar in England, due in part to her commitment to the sport.
Harbour Grace athletes have also taken home a number of regional and provincial awards in soccer and tennis.
If you look even farther back in time, it's clear many sports are part of Harbour Grace's history.
John Shannon Munn, born in Harbour Grace in 1880, has been described as the "best cricketer in the history of Newfoundland" by cricket historians. The five Williams brothers were well-known rowers in the province, and dominated the Harbour Grace regatta throughout the 1960s.
In the modern era, the town's facilities have attracted major sporting events. It co-hosted the 1992 provincial summer games with Carbonear, and is set to co-host the games with Carbonear again in 2012.
And soccer continues to be a popular sport in the town.
Not all agree
It's undeniable that Harbour Grace has a notable sports history. But, does that make it the "Sports Capital of Newfoundland"?
Sports historian Dee Murphy, author of "Our Sports: The Games and Athletes of Newfoundland and Labrador,"thinks it's a bit more complicated.
"In fairness to Harbour Grace, they have a long sports history," Dee says. "(Coombs) is entitled to call the town whatever he wants, but I wouldn't call it the sports capital of Newfoundland."
In his book, Murphy lists a number of towns he considers to have prominence in provincial sports. In his opinion, Bell Island is the hockey capital of the province, St. Lawrence is the soccer capital and Corner brook is the baseball capital.
His pairings go on, but Harbour Grace is not included anywhere on the list.
"The biggest thing they have there is the regatta," he says. "The CeeBees are good, but they get a lot of players from places like Carbonear and other towns."
When asked which town might be worthy of the "sports capital" label, Murphy could not name one.
"Of course, St. John's has the most famous athletes, but that's because of population. Recreation-wise, Mount Pearl is way ahead of everyone for facilities, but I can't think of any town that I would call the sports capital of Newfoundland."
Signs of downturn
Recently, some say Harbour Grace's sports prominence has been slipping.
The once vaunted CeeBees' senior mens' hockey team has gone down to defeat for the past three consecutive years in the Herder Memorial Trophy final, which is symbolic of senior hockey surpremacy in the province.
And in recent years, the Blueberry Harvest Run has been struggling due to a lack of volunteers.
What's more, it's also no longer the only town in Newfoundland and Labrador with a Stanley Cup champion. Michael Ryder of Bonavista won the trophy earlier this year with the Boston Bruins.
Another Bonavista native, Adam Pardy, is also an NHLer, and international rugby star Rod Snow was born in the town.
Lloyd Stagg, who manages Cabot Stadium in Bonavista, says Harbour Grace should watch out.
"I would have no problem whatsoever calling Bonavista the sports capital of Newfoundland," he says.
Walt Davis, a sports enthusiast from Grand Falls-Windsor, says he has no problem with Harbour Grace's self-proclaimed title.
"I don't blame them," he says. "When we get a player in the NHL, we'll put up a sign, too."
Coombs is not worried about Bonavista, or any other town.
"No one can touch it," he asserts.