EARL CARLSON gave up on his promising ice hockey career and left his native Canada at the age of 17 to fight the Second World War in Europe, and then he found love in a dancehall in Darlington.

He had a chance to return home where he could have found Beckhamesque fame and fortune in the Canadian rinks, but he gave it all up for love.

The Northern Echo: NEW SIGN: Earl Carlson Grove in Darlington with Earl's sons Stuart (right) and Robert. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Earl Carlson Grove in Darlington with Earl's sons Stuart (right) and Robert. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

He stayed in Darlington, founded the Durham Wasps, and became a local legend until death robbed him of everything at a tragically early age.

“I asked him about why, when he was offered a lot of money to play in Canada, he didn’t take it up and he gave me the best answer possible,” says his son, Robert. “He said: ‘I came back because I loved your mother’.”

But now his achievements, and his sacrifices, are marked in his adopted home town. One of the new streets springing up in the east end of town has been named Earl Carlson Grove in his honour.

Earl Carlson was born in Kenora, a small city on the edge of the Lake of the Woods in Ontario, in 1925. His parents had emigrated from Sweden and his father, Gustaf, a railwayman, probably de-Swede-ified his surname to fit in with the new country.

Earl was skating on the frozen lake almost as soon as he could toddle.

“He would practise with his hockey stick on the lake by himself with no gloves on – he would see how far he could skate with his eyes closed controlling the puck, and throughout his career, he would get the centre cut out of the gloves so he could feel the stick and the puck with his bare hands,” says Robert.

At 16, he was showing great promise, playing for Toronto Maple Leaf Reserves, but at 17 in 1942, he followed his elder brother into the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was a member of the groundcrew, and he was stationed at RAF Middleton St George (see over the page) and RAF Croft-on-Tees.

There are two things a young man stationed a long way from home wants. Firstly, his sport. The nearest rink belonged to a chap called Icey Smith, and was beside the Wear in Durham City. Lots of Canadian airmen found their way up there to skate and play hockey.

And secondly, a good night out. It was in the Majestic Ballroom, in an old cinema in Skinnergate, Darlington, that Earl first clapped eyes on Catherine, two years his junior, who lived with her parents in Freeman’s Place (where Halford’s is now).

They married in 1945, and had their reception in Cathy’s parents’ house – when they ran out of beer, they sent empty buckets to the nearby Woolpack Hotel to keep the party spirit flowing.

In 1947, with first son Stuart on board, they returned to Canada on SS Aquitania. The Maple Leafs offered large sums for Earl’s signature; they offered to pay for Cathy’s trips back home and to fly her parents over.

But Cathy was homesick, and so home they came.

In 1947, Icey Smith asked Earl and a group of regular Canadian airmen to form the Durham Wasps, and he became their first captain. The players wore knitted black and yellow kit, and padded themselves with carpet underlay from Hugh Mackay’s famous factory nearby. The rink was a little ramshackle – the skaters had to avoid the poles in the middle of the ice that were holding up the tarpaulin roof, and some of the spectators sat on seats made out of coffin lids – but post-war was boomtime for ice hockey.

In fact, post-war was boomtime for local sport – look at the success of football clubs like the Two Blues of Bishop Auckland and the black and ambers of Crook Town who took tens of thousands of fans down on the trains to Wembley to see them win the FA Amateur Cup.

So it was with ice hockey. Up to 5,000 spectators crammed into the rink for Wasps home matches and between 1949 and 1955, the Durham club won the Northern Amateur Cup (which covered an area from Manchester to Aberdeen) on five occasions.

And Earl, noted for his bare-handed sticksmanship as well as his speed, was the star.

He scored a record number of goals in a single match (seven); he scored the world’s second fastest hat-trick (three goals in 26 seconds; the world record is currently 21 seconds); he was the first amateur player to 500 goals; he was the second to 600 goals (the first was Chick Zamick, of Nottingham Panthers, who in the early 1950s was twice voted Nottingham’s sportsman of the year, ahead of the footballers of County and Forest and the county cricketers, such was the popularity of ice hockey).

“He was to ice hockey what George Best was to football, only he didn’t drink,” says Robert, 71. “They called him the Stanley Matthews of ice hockey, or George Best on ice.”

“He shunned the limelight,” says Stuart, 72. “He didn’t like the razzamatazz.”

Although Earl was amateur, and he worked full time at the Faverdale wagonworks to support his family, in those days the “expenses” in amateur sport were very worthwhile. Plus he was lured to Switzerland to play for Crans-sur-Sierre during the short Swiss season. He scored five with four assists in his first game; he was feted by King Farouk of Egypt and the Aga Khan, who were big hockey fans, and it is said that he returned home with money stitched into his blazer lining.

Earl did always dream of playing in the “big league” in Canada, but he was content to stay with the woman he loved in Durham – but he never went so far as to embrace her nationality.

Robert says: “He wasn’t going to give up being a Canadian because he was proud for his nationality, and he said: ‘I have parted with everything else; my nationality is the only thing I will not give up’.” This, of course, prevented him from gracing the international stage.

Towards the end of the 1950s, the ice hockey crowds, and the television cameras, moved on to something new, and Earl retired from the rink at the age of 34. The family stayed in Darlington – they lived in Rockwell Avenue in Haughton and then Somerset Grove – and Earl worked at Coles Cranes in Newton Aycliffe.

In the 1960s, he was treated for stomach ulcers and was then diagnosed with stomach cancer. He had an operation and was off work for six months. He recovered enough to return but he strained his muscles doing some lifting and died three weeks later, on April 14, 1970, of carcinoma of the stomach.

He was only 44.

His early death, and the way he shunned the limelight, prevented him from becoming a senior statesman on the County Durham sporting scene, although his sport never forgot him. In 1998, he was inducted into the Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, and in 2015 he was named in the British team of the century.

“We were driving past the new development on the site of the Feethams football ground where there is Ron Greener Drive,” says Robert. “I knew Ron because I got a couple of games for Darlington reserves. He was a great servant for Darlington Football Club and he deserves to have a street named after him, and I said to my wife, Rosemary, why shouldn’t my dad get the same? His achievements were superb, and at the time, Durham Wasps got more than 4,000 people every week.

“It’s only because ice hockey isn’t our national sport or on the TV that people don’t know about him.

“Rosemary, unknown to me, contacted the council…”

And so now, off McMullen Road – which is itself named after a heroic Canadian airman who was stationed at RAF Middleton St George – there is Earl Carlson Grove. It’s a tribute to a man who came to the aid of this nation during the war, and who stayed for love and became a pioneering sportsman.