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When Flu Turned Our Reds to Blue

George ?Butch? Keeling and Ed Yagnesak may not be household names in Reds? history, but for about a week in October 1957 they were the talk of all local hockey. That?s when the ?Asian Flu? reached our shores with gigantic impact and effectively decimated the Rhode Island Reds roster just at the start of the 1957-58 season. 

The "Asian Flu? was a pandemic outbreak of influenza ? similar to today?s ?Swine Flu? virus ? that originated in China in early 1956. By June 1957 it had reached North America. The Reds had held their pre-season training camp in Three Rivers, Quebec, in late September and early October. That?s when the flu began to plague the team, first hitting the club?s star center Paul Larivee and then spreading to others. 

When training camp broke and the team returned to Rhode Island on Oct. 7 for the start of the season, six more Reds were down with the flu: John Hanna, Aldo Guidolin, Ray Cyr, Ken Davies, Jimmy Bartlett and Bob Robertson.

With only 11 skaters healthy enough to dress for the season opener in Springfield just two days away, management scrambled to get some temporary replacements to ice a team.

That?s when Keeling and Yagnesak ? a pair of Burrillville High School graduates and former stars with coach Tom Eccleston?s ?blue and white? perennial state champs of the 1950s ? were called on to help fill the Reds' need.

Eccleston got a frantic call for help from Reds? coach Johnny Crawford. He then convinced his two 22-year-old former all-staters to pull their skates out of moth balls and help the ailing Roosters.

?I couldn?t believe it when coach Eccleston called and asked me to join the Reds for a few games,? George said recently. ?At first I thought he was kidding me. Then I thought we?d get killed out there. But he was very persuasive and coaxed us into giving it a try.?

After a practice with the Reds, Keeling, a forward, joined veterans Zellio Toppazzini and Bruce Cline, and rookies Bill Sweeney, Bruce Carmichael Teddy Hampson, Mel Pearson and Eddie Shack.

A defenseman, Yagnesek, worked with blueliners Andy Branigan, Ivan Irwin and George McAvoy. Goalie Marcel Paille, meanwhile, was set to play his first-ever game for the Reds.

The Reds began the 1957-58 season on Wednesday, Oct. 9 in Springfield, very short-handed in numbers. But there was a huge surprise ahead. The Providence Journal headline read the next day, ?Shack?s Goal Gives Flu-Ridden Reds a 5-4 Victory in Season Opener.? The sub-head: ?R. I. Club Forced to Use Pair of Bronco Grads.? 

Journal hockey writer John Aborn?s lead paragraph read: ?Able to pit only 13 men, including two Burrillville High School graduates playing on a three-game amateur trial basis, against a nearly full compliment of 15 men, the flu-fraught Rhode Island Reds last night opened the 1957-58 American Hockey League campaign with a sensational 5-to-4 victory before 2,501 in Springfield.? 

?I think we were all shocked ? even the veterans ? that we were able to win that game with so few players, including five rookie pros along with Eddie Yagnesak and me,? George reflected.

With the recall of veteran defenseman Camille Bedard from their Three Rivers farm team, the Reds relieved Yagnesak of duty after his one-game assignment. However, even with the addition of veteran forwards Danny Belisle and Rene Pepin, the club kept Keeling for two more games. 

The Reds traveled to Hershey on Saturday where astonishingly they upended the Bears with a 2-1 victory. They returned home for a Sunday match against Springfield and soundly dumped the Indians, 4-1, for an improbable sweep of three games to start the season.

How does George feel today about his three-game win streak with the Reds? 

?I was just happy to fill in and help. Johnny Crawford gave me about two shifts a period and the guys were great to me, especially Topper and Ivan Irwin. 

?They made me feel at home and part of the team. It was really a great experience.? Both Keeling and Yagnesak still live today in their native ?blue and white? hockey town of Burrillville, filled with fond memories of once wearing red.

George ?Butch?Keeling, a former Burrillville Bronco, pulled his skates out of the closet to help the Reds fill out their roster when the flu decimated it..

R. I. Reds Heritage Society
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