Hockey Legends

of Grande Prairie

August 2016

Of Builders, Blocks and the Building of a Team

A Tribute to Kurt Robinson and other volunteers
By Stan Neufeld

You might say it’s just a hometown hockey team - but guess what! Cobbling together a team to participate in the North Peace Hockey League (NPHL) hockey requires the same basic skills that are needed to lead a nation.

Numerous books have been written about leadership, dissertations written, university courses taught and conferences conducted. Individuals recognized as having great leadership skills have been dissected, placed under microscopes, and their character, wit and spleen analyzed endlessly. Skill sets associated with leadership ability include organizational skills, the insight to identify strength and weakness in others, how to draw the best out of them, the ability to listen and knowing how and when to act to name just a few. Since this blog is not a treatise on leadership I will not go on – just to say that Kurt Robinson has agreed to serve as President of the newly formed Executive of the Grande Prairie Athletics. This is good news as it is my opinion that Kurt has the skills noted above to build a successful hockey team. In terms of experience, Kurt served as President of the As in 2011 and other leadership roles. That experience will prove invaluable as he is already familiar with many of the people and organizations that will be involved. However, it is no small enterprise and especially labour intensive.

The first step of the A’s reincarnation began Jan 29th of this year when Kurt called a meeting for players and volunteers at the Coke Centre. Since that meeting an Executive Board has been named and I contend that it is a strong cast of characters including Maurice Trudeau and Brent McCurdy - Vice Presidents, Ashley Callon - Marketing Director, Danielle Commander - Director of Off- Ice Officials, and Darren Walker - Player Liaison. Appointing the Board represents placement of the first block in the complex building plan to put a team on the ice this fall. It is my feeling that the venture is in good hands. The skills and abilities of Kurt and his team are highly valued in the market place and yet they are offered to this community project for free. Mustering stable support for senior hockey in Grande Prairie is a daunting assignment considering the competition for the public’s time and money for entertainment that includes a Junior A franchise: the GP Storm. Undoubtedly fans that support senior hockey will also support the Storm but for many there is only so much time and money to go around.

Finding the right coach is essential to building a successful team. John Lehners is a hometown lad with encyclopedic knowledge about the game and has been involved in numerous local hockey initiatives over the years. I should know - he has been a crucial element in the Legends project from the beginning. The original concept of the Legends project came about in the year 2000 when Max Henning and I were looking at a picture of the legendary Red Devil team. At that time we discussed the notion of a Legends project. The opportunity to implement the idea came in 2004 when Grande Prairie hosted the Nation’s Royal Bank Cup. John was the Special Events Coordinator and he identified funds for the GP Legends of Hockey project. Back to the re-invention of the As – John, along with fellow committee member Marty Tingstad concur that Glen Watson’s appointment as the A’s coach is a step in the right direction. He comes to the A’s with excellent on and off-ice coaching credentials. According to Kurt Robinson, “ Our new coach is going to be great. He will bring a fresh new look with a wealth of experience and coaching success at a variety of levels. “

The Legends Lounge overlooks the rink where the A’s will play. It is a gathering place for the legends and is available for other special events coordinated by Kylee Haining, Manager of the Grande Prairie’s Recreation and Sport Development program. Information about our Hockey Legends, photographs and other hockey memorabilia are on display in the Lounge.

Many of the hockey legends played for or were in other ways associated with the A’s over the years and you may be sure that our hockey legends and their friends will actively support the new A’s. If Kurt, the Board and Glen have their way the A’s will reclaim their former glory and tickets for games will once again become a hot item. Who knows what implications this season of hockey has for future additions to the ongoing Legends story.

Kurt Robinson (left) and John Lehners – taken in the Legend’s Lounge (Stan Neufeld photo)

The bottom line in the team building process is of course selecting the players. That process will keep us in suspense until September 13th when the tryouts begin. To begin with Kurt and Glen are hoping that some old veterans will show up at the trials to demonstrate that they still have gas in the tank. One simply has to watch senior recreational hockey in GP to realize that there is there is a great deal of hockey talent in town. However, it must be kept in mind that playing for the A’s is a huge commitment and not every eligible candidate for a spot on the team will be able make that commitment. In spite of the high level of competition in the NPHL no one is paid. The team is managed and coached and players play for the love of the game. It is amateur sport in its purest form. It is a workingman’s league that involves fitness routines, practice time and travel. Games often involve late nights and time away from spouses and families. Some exceptional local players have jobs that limit the amount of time that they have for hockey. However, as we have noted earlier, Grande Prairie has a rich hockey history on which to build. In the A’s last full season in the NPHL - 2014-2015 - the team lost in six games in the league final to the Spirit River Rangers. In 2009/10 the A's last captured the NPHL title over the Lakeland Eagles. Once again the challenge is to building a roster of players that will be competitive in the NPHL.

Will the team, like the Maple Leafs have a new image and take to the ice along with new sweaters, new colours and perhaps a new logo? We will wait with baited breath for that revelation. Messing with a team’s logo and colours can be controversial and risky. Look for an up-coming blog that will tell the story about how the legendary and popular Red Devils of a by-gone era were retired and replaced by the Athletics. Maybe the “devil logo”, fork in hand was an image that some locals thought was misguided. Maybe a religious lobby played a role. Maybe opponents of the devil image, fork in hand, failed to remember that farmers too are identified with forks. Having said that the A’s are now well established and only old timers like Max Henning, Billy Bessent and my older brothers Bob and Ron will remember Red Devil history that dates back more than half a century. After the red devil logo was abandoned the team adopted the original 1954 black and yellow A’s uniform that featured a full chest name on the front. The second version changed from black and yellow to orange and black featuring also a full chest name and a block letter “A” for the first time. Hockey Legend committee member Cam Henning and I are “babes in arms” compared to older brothers, Max and Billy. Over the two decades that Cam and I played as a defenseman for the A’s we had the privilege of wearing two different sets of jerseys. Max, Billy, Bob and Ron likely wore every colour of the rainbow in their history.

That’s our story to date of the blocks, the building and most importantly – the builders of Grande Prairie’s latest hockey initiative – but watch for further news and again - we invite the public to visit the Lounge at the Coke Center to see old jerseys and memorabilia that embody many stories and evoke special memories from the past. Maybe seeing the sweaters and other memorabilia will remind you of information that should be shared with other hockey junkies on our website. Please feel free to contribute information on the link About/Contact on the menu bar of

Re-Connecting A Broken Thread

The A’s Will Play In the NPHL in 2016/17

By Stan Neufeld and Ron Neufeld

Senior hockey is once again alive and well in Grande Prairie - at least on paper. 

The Grande Prairie Athletics will compete for the Lawrence Cup in the up-coming 2016/17 NPHL season. Senior hockey has been resuscitated under the leadership of a new executive with Kurt Robinson as President, and a new coach, Glen Watson. With this recent announcement senior hockey is poised to regain its former reputation and popularity with Grande Prairie fans. That is how it should be. Grande Prairie failed to enter a team in the North Peace Hockey League (NPHL) last season interrupting a long-standing, colourful history of local small town hockey that is the backbone of our national sport and the NHL.

In spite of the A’s absence in the NPHL last season we covered the playoffs in a series of blogs that saw Spirit River, a community of 1,025 bring home the cup. As we covered the playoffs we were reminded of the manner in which communities rally around hometown teams in a workingman’s league and the important role that sports can play in building local spirit. The series featured community spirit at its best. It was the talk of the towns that were represented and local fans showed up to rally around their local heroes. In addition to the entertainment value small town hockey provides it remains the backbone of the NHL and other professional leagues throughout Canada and the US. From the roster of GP Hockey Legends names that stand out are Duke Edmundson, Johnny MacMillan, Ken Solheim and Clint Malarchuk to name just a few. It illustrates that the need to play extends into adulthood and as such has recreational value for the players – and it’s more than that. On the streets of the town players are local heroes and they are often role models for the younger generation.

As noted elsewhere in the website, Canadian hockey players including young men from Grande Prairie, played a significant role beyond the NHL and North America, by helping introduce hockey to Europe. During WW11 our Gov’t. recognized the important morale building role that hockey could play for soldiers during the war and promoted the sport at home and overseas. During WW11 the Wright brothers, Charlie Turner and other local lads were represented on military teams that played to bolster patriotism that helped to defeat the Axis powers. Following the war our local veterans came home and engineered what we recognize as the Golden Age of hockey in Grande Prairie and throughout the Peace River country. During the late forties and fifties the hottest ticket in town was admission to the legendary War Memorial Arena to watch local young men compete against teams like the Hythe Mustangs or the Dawson Creek Canucks. Fans would flock to the Arena (standing room only) to cheer on the team. For fans unable to attend the game our own Foster Hewitt, WW11vet and GP Hockey Legend Fran Tanner enabled them to follow the play-by-play on radio station CFGP. You can listen to a sample of his play-by- under his Legend’s Biography as a Media Specialist.

No “Go A’s Go” chant rang from the Coke Centre last winter. It was the first time the Athletics failed to ice a team since they joined the NPHL in 1998-99, some 17 years ago. Until last year the As held the record for the longest consecutive participation in league competition for teams in the Peace River country. During this period senior hockey in the Peace was recognized as supporting the northernmost hockey league in the world and it was one of the best in the domain of small town hockey. Before WW11 there were teams like the Maroons and the Red Devils. During the war D-Company was the local team that participated in the renowned Defense League against entries from the Signal Corps, the Army and the Airforce. Following the war returning veterans including Charlie Turner and Bob Card along with Max Henning and Billy Bessent organized teams like the Key Club and the Legion to join the Red Devils who were later renamed the Athletics.

The above history was made possible by the unwavering dedication of countless volunteers. Regrettably we are unable to acknowledge all of them. Eleven of the most active are recognized in the Grande Prairie Legends of Hockey as Builders. They are citizens of the town who were/are determined to make sure that ice surfaces are available and maintained. They include men and women with the organizational skills needed to form leagues, teams and schedules and make certain there are coaches and referees. The tasks are endless. Considering hockey started here in 1913 and our Legends project never got off the ground until 2003 we are playing “catch up” to acknowledge the contributions of these remarkable volunteers. This is a history of sport and recreation in its purest form with no money exchanging hands for services.

So – listen once again for the chant of “Go As Go” rising from the Coke Centre and look for further news as the Athletics, under the competent leadership of Kurt Robinson as he re-connects the broken thread of participation in the NPHL and brings senior hockey back to Grande Prairie.

Will we see any of these faces when training camp opens on September 13th? Photo was taken by Maurice Trudeau, new vice-president of the Grande Prairie Athletics.