A History of the NPHL and Grande Prairie Athletics
In 1965 the South Peace Hockey League put out a record book. On the cover is an action photograph taken in the early 1960s showing Hythe Mustang goaltender Greg Walker making a save off the stick of Grande Prairie Athletic forward Oscar “Suzie” Blais.
The game was played in the old Grande Prairie Memorial Arena and the stands were packed.
Fran Tanner, the voice of the Athletics on CFGP Radio, was no doubt leaning out the window of the “gondola” above the wooden stands telling his listeners about Walkers’ save and a half-dozen “rink rats” were likely looking on in anticipation of the between periods intermission when they would haul out their scrapers and prepare the ice for the barrels of hot water that would be used for resurfacing.
Forty-five years ago, a senior hockey game was THE place to be on a Saturday night. But the roots of hockey in the Grande Prairie area go back much farther than when the toque-headed net minder Walker and the helmetless Blais, who is the current Grande Prairie city alderman and the former mayor, were toiling in the SPHL.
The first-ever hockey action in the Grande Prairie area took place on the frozen surface of Saskatoon Lake about 1915. And within the next couple of years, Grande Prairie had the first indoor hockey rink in the Peace Country - the Wapiti Arena.
It was much smaller than the 85 X 200-foot modern ice surfaces (somewhere in the area of 70 feet by 170 feet) and was made of rough-honed lumber. The Wapiti Arena was located near 99 Avenue and 101 Street - just west of the Canada Games Arena.
Wapiti Arena faced east and west and included three sheets of curling ice on the north side under a lean-to. During the long winter months between 1915 and the late 1920s, there were many informal hockey challenges pitting various local settlements, some of them women’s teams, against each other, but the first real organized annual hockey challenge didn’t start until the 1930s.
The P.V. Croken Challenge Cup was the prize and teams from Dawson Creek, Clairmont, Pouce Coupe, Hythe, Beaverlodge and Grande Prairie competed for it for almost two decades.
Dawson Creek DCAA won the Croken Cup in 1934 and defended it in January, 1935 with a 5-0 shutout of Pouce Coupe and then defeated Clairmont 2-1 to retain the cup in March, 1935. Pouce Coupe, Dawson Creek and Clairmont all won the cup in 1936 while Dawson Creek CDAA, with 3-2 win over Clairmont, and the Grande Prairie Red Devils, with a 4-1 win over the Hythe Maple Leafs, took the cup home in 1938.
In 1939, DCAA downed the Maple Leafs 4-1 and the Beaverlodge Blue Bombers 2-1 and defended the cup for the third time by tying the Maple Leafs 1-1 (the winner retained the cup in the event of a tie). In 1940, the Maple Leafs defeated DCAA 2-0 to take possession of the Cup. On January 4, 1941 DCAA topped the Red Devils 7-5 in Wapiti Arena to grab the Cup back and on January 6, 1941, the last time the Croken Cup was played for, Hythe defeated DCAA 4-2.
In the mid-1940s, other centres in the South Peace started working towards building covered hockey rinks. In 1945, the hauling of timber started the construction of the Hythe and District Arena and in Dawson Creek, the first Gyro Winter Carnival was held to raise money for a covered arena. It was also in the mid-1940s that a more formal hockey league -the Northern Wheat Belt Hockey League - was formed to replace the informal Croken Cup challenges.
The Grande Prairie Key Club, on March 12, 1947, finished first in the NWBHL after downing Dawson Creek Canucks 6-2, but the playoffs were cancelled that year because of the warm weather. None of the Peace Country rinks had artificial ice yet.
In March, 1948, the Grande Prairie Legionnaires defeated Dawson Creek Cardinals 7-5 in overtime to win the Canadian Utilities trophy indicating they were the champions of the Northern Wheat Belt Hockey League.
What made that game even more significant was the fact 300 fans had made the trek down from Dawson Creek on the first-ever Peace Country hockey train. The train, later dubbed “The Whiskey Jug Special”, had a public address system installed in all four coaches which provided music and added to the already noisy din. Lunch and large quantities of various beverages, were consumed by the merry makers.
Following the collapse of the Grande Prairie Wapiti Arena, a decision was made in May, 1948 to construct a $35,000 structure to replace the 30-year-old facility. Johnny MacDonald, whose name adorned the Leisure Centre arena on the city’s northwest corner for many years, headed up construction of the Memorial Arena, which was built on the same site as the Wapiti Arena.
The 1948-1949 season started with Fort. St. John, which converted a former RCAF hangar, having the only covered arena in the NWBHL. In December, 1949 the Grande Prairie Memorial Arena opened and in January, 1950, the Hythe and District Arena officially opened. With new indoor facilities, and lots of interest in hockey, the sport was beginning to catch the imagination of many fans in the Peace Country.
Capacity crowds were in the norm in Hythe, Grande Prairie and other rinks when senior hockey teams clashed. The sport was so popular in the early 1950s, in fact, a team from Whitehorse, called the Merchants, joined what became the Wheat-belt Yukon Hockey League. The Merchants withdrew from the league just after one year and the South Peace Hockey League was formed in 1954. The SPHL survived, and thrived for almost four decades.
Senior hockey had its heyday during the 1950s and 1960s and a little bit into the 1970s. On Saturday night, rinks in Grande Prairie, Hythe, Dawson Creek, Spirit River, Fort St. John and Fairview were packed as fans watched players like Charlie Turner, Ken Head, Pete Wright, Roy and Al Bell, Ed Sorochuk, Greg Walker, Oscar Blais, David Leoppky, Charlie Turner, Joe Zinselmeyer, Art Patterson, Leo Auger, Max Swanson, Bob Rigler, Pete Wright, Bill Oakford and Larry Harmata perform in the 1950s.
The 1950s had started with just a six-game season involving Grand Prairie Legion, Grande Prairie D Coy, Hythe Mustangs and Fairview Monarchs. Ten years later, the Grande Prairie Athletics, Hythe Mustangs, Dawson Creek Canucks, Spirit River Rangers and Fort St. John Flyers played a 24-game schedule and in the 1960s started with players like Dan Muloin, George Watt, Garth Roberts, Harold Kjemhus, John Listhaeghe, Don Switzer, Dale Stokke, Murney and Gary Nellis, Mike Malarchuk (father of former NHL goaltender Clint Malarchuk), Tom and Fred Zasadny, Fred Hesse and Bill Carby taking the SPHL into a new decade.
The SPHL continued into the 1970s with players like Pat Gouchie, Dale Gaume, Len Iles, Lorne McLeod, Rea Chapman, Earl Jensen, Cam Henning, Gary Clements, Bob Kalb, Art Patterson, Doug Moller, Stan Neufeld, Al Reid, Dennis Tink, George Repka, Denis Prefontaine, Sid Boyer and Rick Dundas leading the way.
During the 1970s, senior hockey interest was starting to wane. A full building on a Saturday night in the 1970s was a rarity during the regular season, but come playoff time, especially if a series pitted the Athletics against the Mustangs, it was hard to find a good seat. One guaranteed way to get fans out for a playoff series (and there is debate whether it was by accident or intentional) was if a brawl happened to occur in the first game of a series.
Fans could always count on at least one bench-clearer in each series. In one playoff game that started in Hythe, the team managers went one step further. They met at centre ice, street shoes included, and duked it out. The building was packed for the next game. The incident was just one of many that gave the SPHL its character. One of the most infamous incidents in league history didn’t take place on the ice.
On November 8, 1964 an SPHL player, under indefinite suspension, burst into a meeting of the SPHL with a gasoline bomb, but was tackled by officials before he could put a match to the wick. RCMP set up roadblocks in the area after the man escaped from the meeting and he was captured.
He had been at the meeting because he wanted an immediate vote on his reinstatement. He as told to put his request in writing and asked to leave, but returned later with the jug of gasoline after hearing that league officials had voted to suspend him for the season. The same man, years later, gained international publicity after claiming it was he who had given Howard Hughes a quarter.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the SPHL was known as an “outlaw” league. The league wasn’t part of an amateur association. That meant good quality players who had been suspended from other leagues could suit up in the SPHL. Bobby Taylor, who played for the Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, once toiled with the GP Athletics. Teams that could afford it would also import players. It almost backfired on the Spirit River Rangers one year when the “imports” refused to play in the playoffs unless they got more money.
During the 1970s, the SPHL tried several interlocks including one with the Cariboo league-including Quesnel, Prince George and Williams Lake-as well as with teams in the North Peace Hockey League including Manning, Valleyview, Peace River and High Prairie.
The Hythe Mustangs folded and the Beaverlodge 77s were born. The Athletics, Flyers, Canucks and Mustangs all took turns winning championships in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s while the Beaverlodge 77s, with players like Tom Adams, Ron Jones, Floyd Goodswimmer, Lowell Moe, Doug Listhaeghe, Al Reid and Brian Walker in the line-up were one of the most dominant teams, along with the Flyers, in the 1980s.
Teams like Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd tried, and didn’t last long, in the SPHL in the 1980s and even long time traditional teams like the Athletics had to fold for a season because of lack of player and administration interest.
The SPHL eventually became the Central Peace Hockey League and now the Athletics, after folding for the second time in 10 years in the 1990s, are part of the North Peace Hockey League along with other former SPHL teams like the Mustangs, Canucks and Rangers.
The NPHL is made up of two divisions with the Athletics, Hythe Mustangs, Dawson Creek Canucks, Fort St. John Flyers and Spirit River Rangers in the West Division and the Valleyview Jets, High Prairie Regals, Falher Pirates, Lakeland Eagles, Manning Comets, and Grimshaw Huskies in the East Division.
Turner, Blais and goaltender Walker are all gone now and have been replaced by names like Shane Mudryk, Mike Mohr and David Larson, but senior hockey continues its long history in Grande Prairie and the Peace Country.
All the buildings aren’t full on Saturday nights anymore, but the crowds are starting to come back and the thrills are the same as they were on that frozen lake back in 1915 when the game’s roots were set in the area.