It was an evening of songs and stories about the man who wrote Bud the Spud, The Hockey Song and Sudbury Saturday Night.
Some of the fans who filled the arena had driven for hours for the public tribute to the singer, who died March 6 at age 77. There was a large contingent from Prince Edward Island, which Connors considered home.
The memorial began with a video tribute to the singer, with photos from his impoverished early years through his career as a singer and family life with his wife, Lena, who looked on from a front row.
Billy MacInnis and the Stompin' Tom Band played as an RCMP honour guard brought Connors’ casket into the hockey arena. The singer’s signature black cowboy hat rested atop a Canadian flag on the coffin. His board and guitar were nearby.
Then the fun began, with Connors band launching into a fiddle medley that reflected the upbeat traditional music beloved by the late singer. It was Stompin' Tom's request as opening music. The tribute, though it had sombre moments, was geared to recreating the good times he brought to so many Canadian fans.
Stompin' Tom planned memorial
Planning the memorial was one of the last acts of an artist who insisted on making his fortune in his own country, with songs that celebrated Canadian stories and ordinary people.
He chose Peterborough as the site of his public memorial because it was the city where he earned the nickname Stompin' Tom, because of his habit of tapping his boot as he sang.
Mayor Daryl Bennett recalled that event – on Canada’s 100th birthday on July 1, 1967 — and the waiter at a Peterborough who first dubbed him Stompin’ Tom.
The mayor drew applause as he told the story of how Stompin’ Tom returned all of his Juno Awards to the Academy of Canadian Recording Arts and Sciences in protest over lack of support for Canadian artists.
“Stompin’ Tom was many things, but first and foremost he was a Canadian storyteller, a man who proudly wore the Maple Leaf on his sleeve and we are grateful for that,” Bennett said, before introducing a video of Connors playing the song Peterborough Postman.
Calgary singer Tim Hus played Man With the Black Hat, the song he used to introduce Connors to the stage when the two toured together. It was a song Hus, who Connors called his natural successor, wrote for his musical hero when he was just starting out.
Ahead of the tribute, Hus recalled getting that first call from Connors with the invitation to tour.
“He said he appreciated all the songs I'd written about Canada and how I was working hard to bring my show to the little towns and to come on the road with him,” Hus recalled.
“That's how we became good friends. I was the last guy to play with him from Newfoundland to Vancouver.”
'One of a kind'
Hus said he believed Connors wanted a sendoff that showed his fans a good time.
“He's definitely one of a kind,” Hus said. “He's got real strong principles about what he was trying to do and about trying to bring the whole country together and he took that very seriously. He was a very proud Canadian.”
Brian Edwards, Connors’ longtime promoter and friend told CBC News more than 40 artists had vied for a chance to take part in the tribute.
In the end, Stompin’ Tom chose for the lineup artists he had performed with, including J.P. Cormier, Dave Gunning, Sylvia Tyson and Dave Bidini. The only newcomer was Mike Plume, whose new song So Long Stompin' Tomwas a hit at the East Coast Music Awards last Sunday.
“I think deep down in Tom's mind, he knew the support he had and that's why he wanted to have a public service,” Edwards said.
Edwards gave a moving tribute to his friend as part of the memorial, recalling their years touring together. There were also tributes from Gail Shea, Canada's minister of national revenue, who said "Canada has lost a friend" and from fellow artists such as Tommy Hunter, Rita MacNeil, Corb Lund and Liona Boyd, who recalled Connors' role in starting the first classical record label for Canadian artists.
The Blue Berets in Rwanda
Senator Roméo Dallaire sent a letter remembering how at the height of the Rwandan crisis, when the small contingent of Canadian peacekeepers he then commanded was under bombardment, he found his tape of the Stompin’ Tom song The Blue Berets and was able to keep morale up among his men.
Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson looked back at Connors' disadvantaged past and marvelled at how it left him, not embittered, but understanding of other people and their stories.
“The man that we celebrate today is that very unusual thing – someone we can all agree about as Canadians,” Clarkson said about the man she considered a friend.
"He gave us first and foremost a real sense of ourselves. Whether we grew up in Vancouver or Happy Valley Goose Bay, we knew what he meant when he said ‘The girls are going to bingo, the boys are getting stinko and we think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night.'”
Former hockey player and MP Ken Dryden also remembered The Hockey Song, calling it a celebration of the team and the game.
“ I love The Hockey Song,” Dryden said. “When I was with the Leafs, during games there was one stoppage of play that was reserved. It was the long commercial break in the middle of the third period. On a bad night, the song was a brief respite. On a night that might go either way, it was a jolt of energy. But on a good night when everything was cooking, it was fantastic.”
Stompin' Tom's son, Tom Connors Jr., reflected ahead of the memorial on seeing so many people lined up, some since 9 a.m., for a chance to say goodbye to his father.
"I have chills already going down my back. It's wonderful to see all his fans come out. He sung about them — that's what his job was in his life," he said.
“And so they are paying him back a little bit, and saying ‘Hey, Stompin’ Tom, you sung about us, we are going to be here for you right till the end.”
Connors Jr. concluded the evening, saying it was a fitting tribute to a man who loved Canada and loved bringing people together.
"We're giving him the best send-off we possibly can, because he did everything for us," he said, before sending fans into the night with a rousing edition of his father singing Sudbury Saturday Night.