One Hundred Years of Grande Prairie Hockey (1914 – 2014)
Face-Off For the Century
Mostly log structures – outdoor plumbing – wood burning stoves for cooking and heating – faint lights flickering from coal oil lamps and hurricane lanterns at night; that’s a snapshot of “1914 Grande Prairie”. There were backyard gardens, chicken coops and cowsheds; the source of vegetables, meat and eggs for many of the fifty townspeople while hitching posts not parking meters lined Richmond Avenue, wide enough for horse drawn conveyances to maneuver. Homesteads had to be cleared before they became productive and in the meanwhile many of the settlers trapped, hunted or worked in small scale logging operations during the winter to provide money for staples such as sugar, coal oil for lamps and lanterns and other items the land could not provide. With money in scarce supply bartering was commonplace. The home’s highest tech gadget was the treadle-powered sewing machine. On main-street the Hudson’s Bay Raw Furs Department that had a presence on “The Grande Prairie” a century earlier purchased and marketed furs for the trappers. Meat from moose, deer, elk and even bear was common table fare. Hides from the animals became foot ware, robes and rugs; nothing was wasted.
South Peace Regional Archives | 1998.8.4 Grande Prairie Museum Collection
Following on the heels of the Hudson’s Bay Company was the Catholic Mission shown above on the banks of Bear Creek north of Richmond Ave. Later a Catholic School was added that featured an outdoor rink for many years.
The Jan. 6th, 1914 issue of the Tribune followed up with an account of the game. According to Editor Pratt it was “One of the fastest and classiest hockey games that ever took place on Northern Alberta ice was the match at Lake Saskatoon on New Year’s day between that team and the locals. Hockey in the Prairie is as yet in its infancy but the exhibition on Thursday last was a surprise to all who were fortunate enough to be present. All we can say is that this district possesses some of the finest hockey players of the west, not amateurs but old hands at the sport. The game was a very close one and at times very exciting, being a tie at full time. Five minutes each way resulted in the score of 3-1 in favour of Lake Saskatoon.”
Unfortunately no pictures of the 1914 Lake Saskatoon team can be found but a team from lake Saskatoon seven years later includes several of the players that performed for Lake Saskatoon in the 1914 contests.
Back to hockey - there were in fact two games planned and played between Grande Prairie and Lake Saskatoon in 1914. One game was to have been played in each community but due to unfavourable ice and weather conditions in Grande Prairie when the second game was scheduled both games were played on the lake. The second game was played on March 9 and the March 10, 1914 issue of the Tribune reported that it was a well contested game with Saskatoon Lake once again defeating the visitors by a score of 3 – 2. The article went on record that “Despite the heavy slushy ice on Saturday, the hockey game between Lake Saskatoon and the locals was one of the best witnessed this season. From start to finish both teams struggled arduously for supremacy. The play at times was fast and notable good plays on both parts were frequent, but the ice forced individual play for the major portion of the game.”
How the teams maintained a fast pace is a mystery considering that each team came with a single shift of players that included a goalie, a forward line and a rear guard identified as cover and point players. The seventh player was a rover: typically a fast sniper who could play anywhere on the ice at any time. Assuming the game consisted of three thirty-minute periods – each man on the roster played three thirty-minute shifts. Compare that to three or four lines turning thirty-second shifts that are typical in organized hockey today. One might assume that the 1914 players were generally in good condition with the advantage of cardio vascular fitness going to farm boys with responsibility for chasing milk cows into the barn twice per day. Fitness training was an integral part of their regular workday. None-the-less, maintaining a fast pace for an entire game without relief suggests super human endurance.
An interesting footnote to game two is that a Saskatoon Lake spectator, C. Richardson, took a cold plunge. Breaking through thin ice was just one of several hazards associated with a rink on lake ice. Richardson was no ordinary fan. He was Vice President of the Saskatoon Lake Hockey Association. According to the record, he was one of two hundred fans who watched the game. Where the two hundred fans came from is not indicated but it is a remarkable statistic considering that Grande Prairie was the largest community north of Edmonton and upon its incorporation as a hamlet in 1914, its population was listed at fifty. The populations of Grande Prairie and Lake Saskatoon combined could not have accounted for 200 people. Whatever the number of fans - they stood in snow banks surrounding an ice patch cleared for the game braving subzero temperatures while the players skated and attempted to control a puck on rough and rippled ice. There was no flooding of the ice between periods. None of this was a deterrent to players and fans in 1914. To the extent possible they dressed for the weather conditions but you may be sure there were frozen body parts.
One must admire the dedication of fans as discomfort related to the cold did not end with the game. Spectators who travelled from Grande Prairie to Lake Saskatoon faced a long cold drive home – at least four hours. Now it does not take much longer to drive to Edmonton. Heated rocks would have cooled by the end of the game and the spectators would have returned to cold dark homes upon their arrival in Grande Prairie. Before the teamsters could call it a day horses had to be watered, fed and unharnessed by the dim light of a hurricane lantern. In the frigid house coal oil lamps would be ignited, and maybe a snack would be consumed in unheated quarters before retiring. Scatter rugs of moose, buffalo or bear hides provided some protection from frosty floors but the returning spectators and players alike could not look forward to thawing out until they curled up under heavy wool or down quilts. How many hockey enthusiasts today would have that kind of devotion to a game?
South Peace Regional Archives | 024.01.09. Holroyd Drugs collection
South Peace Regional Archives | SPRA 2005.06.04 Bev Walen photo
South Peace Regional Archives | SPRA 024.01.09.34 Holroyd Drugs fonds
South Peace Regional Archives | SPRA 2006.36.01
Changes in hockey equipment over the years have certainly changed the game. You may be sure, for example, that players on the 1914 Lake Saskatoon and Grande Prairie teams would have scoffed at helmets, visors and cages. Today Light weight cement hard boots are form fitted to a players foot providing a level of stability that was impossible with blades strapped to shoes or the flimsy ankle-high leather boots used in 1914. Similarly, skate blades today are rockered for an individual’s preference and the position played. A properly rockered blade accommodates significantly greater maneuverability. However some of the changes in equipment do not have positive outcomes. For example the hard plastics used for contemporary elbow and shoulder pads are armour-like. While they provide effective protection they are potentially lethal weapons and sadly are sometimes used as such. “I inherited equipment such as shoulder, elbow and shin pads from my Dad who played hockey in the early nineties in Winkler and Brandon Manitoba. They were made of thick felt with soft leather cups covering shoulders, elbows and kneecaps. The felt lining became increasingly heavy as it absorbed perspiration during a game. This equipment offered adequate protection provided my opponents were not motivated to hospitalize me.” (Ron Neufeld). As for early sticks – they were surely one-piece wooden implements - a closer relative to the clubs of cave men than to the finely crafted modern composite sticks with lie, flex and curve carefully tailored to an individual player’s size and playing style. Shooting a puck at over 100 miles per hour was unthinkable in 1914.
Old hockey equipment from the early 1900s.
South Peace Regional Archives | Man in Hockey Uniform - Alberta On Record
Be it as a participant or observer, throughout Grande Prairie’s entire history, hockey has been an important form of recreation for old and young and over the years it has proven to be a popular form of entertainment for spectators. Somehow, even the homesteaders made time for it. In Grande Prairie’s early years it was, at times the only game in town especially on Saturday nights in mid-winter after the war. With the advent of a covered rink fans crowded into the legendary Wapiti Arena or dialed radios to 1350 where they could listen to the engaging play-by- play of Fran Tanner, the Peace Country’s Foster Hewitt – but that’s a “fast forward”. Fran Tanner’s story and events that took place in the Wapiti Arena are covered in a future edition. Beginning in 1913, for five cents per copy one could follow local hockey in the sports column of the bi-weekly Tribune. The point is that the 1914/15 matches heralded hockey as a major recreational outlet in Grande Prairie.
Clearly, the two 1914 games stirred a great deal of interest in hockey throughout the region. It was evidence that the settlers were indeed “settling” and were ready for something more than dawn to dusk and seven days per week of labour to prove up homesteads or otherwise get established. Furthermore it was apparent that community spirit had developed within scattered populations surrounding post offices and small country schools such as Kleskun Lake, Glen Leslie, Sexsmith, Clairmont, Lake Saskatoon, Beaverlodge, Hythe and Grande Prairie. Although centres were small and dispersed there was talk of more teams and even a league. A league of sorts was not unrealistic since only seven bodies were needed to constitute a team. If seven players could not be recruited in a single postal catchment area more than one community could have combined to form a team.
The “S” on the sweaters stands for Sexsmith; a neigbouring community that competed against Grande Prairie in one of the early post war leagues. Frank Edmundson, (father of Hockey Legend Duke Edmundson who wears a Stanley Cup ring from his NHL career in Toronto) is the player in the back row without a hat. Frank played on the first ever Grande Prairie Red Devil team. Notice the short canvas hockey pants and lack of shoulder and elbow pads.
Before the hockey spigot was shut down one “last hurrah” was reported in the March 23rd, 1915 issue of the Herald Tribune. The event drew front-page coverage by Tribune Editor Pratt and might well deserve recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was March, 1915, a month that has often seen the mercury drop below forty. Nine hockey players from Peace River Crossing with hockey gear, piled into a horse drawn sled and when they returned home from their epic journey they had covered 320 miles that Pratt alleged “… will go down in the annals of history as a record in the Canadian Northwest, if not the American continent.” They had defeated all hockey competition north of the Peace and were eager to test their skills against their South Peace neighbours. They were described as former college students, most of them having come from Edmonton. It was agreed that three games would be played in Lake Saskatoon against a team consisting of Grande Prairie and Saskatoon Lake players – the South Peace All-Stars.
According to Pratt, “ the ice was very soft and slushy, preventing fast stick handling. Charles Matheson in goal for the local team was at times very busy and to him are attributed many excellent plays. It was a battle for a championship that to the players was equivalent in importance to a senior league contest.” Pratt went on to report that the games were cleanly played with scores in the first two matches of 1-0 favouring the South Peace and a 2-2 tie in the last event. The citizens of Lake Saskatoon and Grande Prairie treated their visitors like Royalty presenting them with keys to the village. “It might be well”, wrote Pratt, “for hockey promoters of Edmonton to take notice that within a short period of time, hockey teams from the northern adjacent territories will change their hockey schedules and carry away many pieces of her time honored silverware.”
South Peace Regional Archives | Buffalo Lakes Hockey Team - Alberta On Record
The 1914 century-old rivalry between Grande Prairie and Lake Saskatoon and the 1915 series against the North Peace team established the foundation for Grande Prairie hockey and the game as we know it today throughout the Peace River country. Regrettably there is no record of kids playing the game prior to WW 1 but there is little doubt that kids strapped bob skates to their boots and scrimmages occurred on Bear Creek and on nearby ponds. The evolution of Grande Prairie hockey experienced a significant hiccup due to WW 1. However, it recovered quickly after the war and over the years since then hockey has become a major recreational activity in terms of the number of people it engages across the age spectrum, the profile it has established and the growth it has experienced from 1914/15 to the present. Furthermore Grande Prairie athletes have made their mark far beyond the borders of their hometown. Numerous local players have brought notoriety to Grande Prairie on the world stage performing at the highest levels on teams throughout North America and in Europe.
The 1915 hockey series between the North and South Peace contenders was a dramatic finish to Pre-WW 1 hockey but fantasies of a league were not realized for some time. Unlike events in WW 11 there is no record of hockey played overseas during WW 1. As mentioned above, there was likely some skating and perhaps hockey scrimmages on ponds or Bear Creek during the war but no oral history or written reports are available to tell the stories. All that changed when the veterans came home. They ushered in a remarkable revival of hockey. By 1919 many barriers associated with distance and road conditions had changed and development of the game picked up where it had ended four years earlier. Also, in 1919 Grande Prairie became the proud owner of the first covered rink in the Peace, the Wapiti Arena.
An important observation related to the 1914 series is that hockey was not then nor is it now a discrete activity in any community. That was perhaps more apparent during the early years and in small communities where fewer activities compete for attention. However, even today hockey reflects and at the same time is a reflection of the social, cultural and economic setting in which it is played. This story of Grande Prairie’s hockey heritage strives to capture a three-dimensional perspective of the game. That is accomplished by acknowledging the context in which it is played - context makes a difference. This is Grande Prairie’s unique hockey story. It all started with a “puck drop” one hundred years ago.
Watch for further episodes of “One Hundred Years of Grande Prairie Hockey History”.
Grande Prairie Hockey Legends is researched, written and presented by Stan and Ron Neufeld