Hockey Legends

of Grande Prairie

November 2018

The Hockey Jacket

If this jacket could only talk - what stories it could tell.

This jacket was worn by Oscar Blais in the 1950’s. He played centre ice for the Grande Prairie Athletics and wore #4. Photo by Stan Neufeld

Oscar Blais, who proudly wore it over sixty years ago, is no longer with us to describe the journey of his Athletics jacket. However, my closet where it hangs at the moment rings with memories of local hockey history in our community as it waits to take it’s place in our Legends Lounge display case at Revolution Place.

Who knows the fate that may have befallen this local historical treasure had it not been advertised on Face Book by Krysti Tissington who fancied it may be of value to someone and was there to be claimed. My connection to this garment began on or about 2007 when I was interviewing Oscar’s wife, Amelia and his daughter Carol to write the biography for Oscar’s induction as a GP Hockey Legend (see the story in the menu under Legends and players ). Amelia offered the jacket to me and I eagerly borrowed it for our Hockey Legend’s display case but recognizing the sentimental value it held for Oscar’s family I returned it to Amelia following Oscar’s induction. I thought that would be the last I would see the jacket but took comfort in the knowledge that it was home where it ought to be – with Oscar’s family.

Time passed – the Blais family home was purchased by Krysti Tissington who found the jacket hanging in the basement and astutely recognized it’s possible value in the hockey community. Is it just an accident that I happened to see the it on Face Book and was quick to respond to the post? Upon further inquiry I was elated to learn it was indeed Oscar’s jacket and immediately picked it up.

A “what if” came to mind as I pressed the jacket to my chest. What if the jacket had fallen into the hands of someone like an arch rival Fort St. John Flyer fan? You see - team uniforms – colours and logos have deep significance in the world of hockey. For example, since I could lace my skates and pull on a hockey jersey I have been a “die hard” Toronto Maple fan. I was a Pee Wee entering the player draft in our GP Minor hockey program in 1960. I recall my profound dismay when Roy Borstad, a man I greatly admired both then and now drafted me to play for his team wearing Montreal Canadian uniforms!!!! As much as I admired and enjoyed playing for Roy I felt I was betraying my NHL hockey heroes.

I suffered the indignity of wearing this Montreal Canadiens jersey my first year of organized Minor Hockey in Grande Prairie. Photo by Stan Neufeld

I serve to illustrate that childhood loyalties often extend into adulthood. Two of my close friends are as passionate about their support for the Montreal Canadiens as I am about the Toronto Maple Leafs. If the Leafs lose to the Canadiens during NHL league play I owe them lunch and vice versa. Furthermore I have an army of nephews and nieces who bombard me with “affectionate barbs” every time the Leafs lose.

A book worth reading is entitled “The Hockey Sweater” by Roch Carrier. Roch paints a picture of his childhood and the long cold winters where he grew up in the village of Ste. Justine, Quebec. Life centered around school, church, and the hockey rink. Every boy’s hero was Montreal Canadiens hockey legend Maurice Richard. Kids in St. Justine proudly wore Richard’s number 9. They laced their skates like Richard and wore their hair like him. When Roch outgrew his first and cherished Canadiens sweater, his mother wrote away for a new one. Much to his horror, Roch received a blue and white sweater - one that represented the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. It was an unimaginable horror. How could Roch face the other kids at the rink wearing the uniform of the Montreal Canadiens nemesis?

Back to Oscar – he is everything that represents the spirit and meaning of a GP Hockey Legend. It’s not just that this jacket is a hockey relic in its own right – it is Oscar Blais’ jacket and that is worth some reflection. As noted in his biography, Oscar came to Grande Prairie at the age of eleven and spent the remainder of his life in Grande Prairie. He is the eldest of five brothers - all superior hockey and baseball players. Both of my elder brothers Bob and Ron had the pleasure of playing with him on various teams including the Athletics. As noted in his biography, on the ice the puck had an uncanny ability to find Oscar’s stick and from his stick the puck consistently found the net.

Action shot of Oscar Blais: Athletics forward Oscar Blais played hockey in Grande Prairie for more than 18 years and is seen here(player on the right) in the thick of things during a South Peace Hockey League game. Look at the helmet worn by player #21. Photo courtesy of Bob Neufeld

He was an invaluable asset in the dressing room where he could inspire the team and provide comic relief as needed. Ron recalls his warm smile and generous spirit. He reports that Oscar would regularly get attention in the dressing room with “He Says ….” as we knew this was an introduction to his never ending trove of jokes, light hearted quotes or inspirational anecdotes. “But, states Ron, I never did learn who was the wise and funny “He” that Oscar constantly quoted. Beyond hockey Oscar was a successful business man and gave back to our community in more ways than I can recount here. He was an exemplary Alderman and Mayor and in these roles he promoted the values of sports and recreation as important youth development activities. I could go on and I invite others who read this and remember Oscar, to send us your stories.

Mayor Oscar Blais joins Sylvia Macdonald in 1984 to rename the Recplex Arena as the Johnny Macdonald Arena.

So – one may say it’s just a jacket. However, it is a reminder of our rich hockey history. In Oscar’s era it was the only game in town on many winter nights when the Hythe Mustangs, the Dawson Creek Canucks or the Spirit River Rangers were in town and hometown fans cheered until the very rafters of the Wapiti and Memorial Arenas shook. During WW11 he played in the National Defence League (NDL) with the local D-Company team against soldiers stationed in Grande Prairie serving with the Army, the Signal Corps and the Air Force. D-Coy consisted of those too young or old to be drafted.

Grande Prairie Athletics-1954-55 (South Peace Hockey League Finalists) Herald Tribune photo
Back row: Frank Kisio, Jerry Moffatt, Cliff Haiste, Roy Bell, Charlie Turner, captain, Al “Skinner” Bell, Leo Auger, Max Henning, Lawrence Blais
Centre row: Johnny Macdonald, manager, Gordon Mitchell, Gordon McKie, Assistant coach, Oscar Blais, Bob Rigler, Roy Blais, Al Bell, Bob Neufeld, playing coach,
and Lou Giroux, trainer
Front row: Gerry Rigler, stick boy; Don Repka, Bryan Edmundson, Mike Malarchuk, Eddie Klick, Ralph Hamlett

Name any GP hockey player from the past and Oscar likely played with them including veterans who returned from WW11. Hockey was important activity to help many of them reconstruct their lives and Oscar was an important element in that process. With the exception of old timer hockey that he helped develop the Athletics was the last team on which Oscar played that competed in the Wheat Belt league.

I began this story with a wish, “If only this jacket could talk.” It now occurs to me – it has many voices. It can and will talk as long as it brings to life the memories of those who see it – especially old timers like Max Henning, Billy Bessent, my brothers Bob and Ron and others who played with Oscar and wore on their sweaters the logo that is displayed on The Jacket. Yes! One might say - it is just an old garment. However, it reminds us how hockey serves to bring people together and rekindles valuable memories from the past. How thankful we are that it slumbered for 6 decades and like Rip Van Winkle has been revived and looks like it just came from a sales rack? Thank you Oscar, thank you Amelia, thank you Krysti.

Stan Neufeld