Nick Komarnitsky often wonders if the leather helmets worn by Western Mustang football players ‘back in the day’ really made a difference.
“Doesn’t seem like a lot of protection offered here,” he said, holding the hardened leather helmet up for closer inspection. “I think some of the old football equipment is some of my favourite stuff. I can’t imagine football players today wearing stuff like this.”
The helmet is just one of the thousands of artifacts, equipment and photos that make up the John P. Metras Sports Museum. And Komarnitsky, a recent graduate of the master’s program in Public History, is now overseeing the entire lot as the museum’s first paid curator.
The Metras Museum, as it’s simply known, was founded in 1984 by the ‘W’ Club and situated at the front of Alumni Hall, where it still stands today. Created to make visible what had long been the pride and joy of students and staff at Western – the university’s legacy of excellence in athletics – legendary Mustangs coach Dutch Decker was the inaugural curator.
Decker teamed up with long-time London Free Press sports writer Bob Gage to establish a collection of photographs, artifacts, newspaper clippings and other items, many of which were donated by staff and alumni, along with an array of financial contributions. Gage took over as curator in 1988, followed by well-known Western student-athlete Ted Hessel, who just recently retired after seven years at the helm of the museum.
The museum’s centerpiece is its comprehensive team photo collection, which consists of more than 2,100 unique pieces from more than 60 men’s and women’s sports teams, and spans from the early 1900s until today. The museum also boasts a growing oral history collection, developed in partnership with Western’s History Department, which serves as a way to collect the memories and feelings of a host of athletic alumni.
“I was completing the master’s program in Public History and worked at the museum all during the school year and, in the summer, did internship,” Komarnitsky said. “From there, Ted happened to be retiring and it was good timing for me. I enjoy reading about Western’s athletic history; it’s a really fun topic.”
While he’s now curator of the museum, it was something Komarnitsky wasn’t even aware existed when he first got to Western.
“I did my undergrad at Guelph, and they don’t have a sports museum at all; Western is one of only two schools that does,” he said, noting the University of Alberta is the other. “It shows you how important athletics has been to the university here.”
While 24 years old, and still fairly new to Western, Komarnitsky will have Hessel as his trusty backup.
“He’s like an encyclopedia of Western and Western sports history. It’s unbelievable,” Komarnitsky said. “He knows everything off the top of his head. He will be around and popping in occasionally, so I will still have access to him and his vast knowledge base.”
When Gage passed away in 2009, he bestowed more than $1 million to Western Athletics, with a large portion of that money going to the museum, to ensure Western’s athletic legacy would continue to be preserved. It also meant getting extra storage space for the museum in Thames Hall, allowing Hessel to move his large collection of memorabilia from his basement to campus.
“At one time, he’d be bringing everything from his house to the museum, back and forth,” Komarnitsky said. “Now, we have storage right here on campus, as well as a work space.”
Also, in 2009, the Metras Museum developed a working relationship with Public History, hiring an intern to identify, catalogue and digitize sports artifacts and photographs. While great strides were initially taken in collecting visual and textual research, there was still a need for the collection of oral research.
In order to fill that gap, an oral history project was undertaken in the summer of 2012 that would focus on the collection and preservation of oral testimonies of former athletes, administrators, and coaches at Western. These are currently available on the museum’s website, metrasmuseum.ca, with new additions each year.
“I really like being a part of the campus community; I really like Western,” said Komarnitsky, who is planning for the museum’s biggest weekend – Homecoming. “We get a lot of people who come by. It’s a lot of fun when people come in and pick themselves out on the wall and share stories about their time at Western.
“That’s usually when it hits me how big athletics are here, and what it means to so many who played.”
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PRESERVING OUR HISTORY: The John P. Metras Sports Museum welcomes donations of pictures, artifacts, schedules and any other materials relating to the athletic history of Western. They also provide research help and limited access to the collection on an appointment basis. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 519-661-2111 ext. 88854. Follow the Metras Museum on Twitter at @metras_museum or on Instagram at metras_museum.