Hockey Legends

of Grande Prairie


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Billy Jr. and Billy Sr. proudly display this well worn pair of Tacks. Photo by Stan Neufeld

The Legend’s display at Revolution Place recently received a treasure – the last skates Billy wore before he retired from hockey. “I got these new skates, Tackaberries, after returning home after the war and before I got married in 1950. Everyone wanted a pair of Tacks. That was a big thing. My skates were size 6 ½. I had guards sewn on and they were hand sharpened by Andy Neil in his machine shop near the train station. I can’t remember how much I paid for them but it would have seemed like a lot in those days. I never got another pair after these. At the time I was playing for the Key Club, a post war hockey team organized by Max Swallow.” (Billy). I (Stan Neufeld) spoke with Billy at the time he donated his Tacks to the Legend’s display. At ninety-three he has a keen memory. He reminisced about his youth, the war and his hockey experiences upon returning home from the battlefields in Europe where he lost his twin brother Bobbie. He went on to describe what it meant to own a pair of Tackaberry’s. They were the Cadillacs of hockey skates.

At the age of sixteen when I (Stan) began playing senior hockey for the Grande Prairie Athletics. I obtained my first pair of “Tacks” thanks to a deal from my coach, Pete Wright. He owned Wright’s Sporting Goods Store on Richmond Ave. at the time. I suspect he may have lost money on that sale. Pete was good to kids he thought were short of money.

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Pete Wright owned a sporting goods store on Richmond Avenue and posted this advertisement with various media in the city. Stan Neufeld photo collection

Everyone I knew who played hockey in my era wanted a pair of Tacks. They featured the most up-to-date engineering design to maximize speed, maneuverability, stability, safety and comfort. The boots were made of kangaroo leather (maybe that was intended to give them more jump) – a reinforced toe, an elevated heel and specially designed tubes and blades. Both of my older brothers, Bob and Ron purchased Tacks. When Bob was playing for the U of A Golden Bears he obtained a discount. His skates are also housed in our display at Revolution Place. Given the shortage of money when I (Stan) was growing up those who have never played hockey may have wondered - “What’s the big deal about a pair of skates?” It may come at as a surprise that skates have an impressive history.

What’s In A Skate? - Ancient History to Modern Technology

Wikipedia tells us the Finns, gave us the first iteration of skates in about 3000BC. They strapped animal bones to their feet and used poles for propulsion to traverse the vast expanses of ice that covered their country. Norway and Sweden improved upon animal bones by attaching wooden blades to their feet. Further research reports that in the fourteenth century AD the Dutch were the first to strap iron blades to their boots making it possible to obtain traction without the use of poles. They enabled skaters to push and glide – a movement they called the Dutch Roll. Many kids when Billy was young learned to skate on Bob skates. In my opinion anyone who can master anything more than balancing and skating forward in a straight line on Bob skates might well be the next Barbara Ann Scott of figure skating or the Guy LaFleur of hockey. I failed to ask Billy if he and his brother ever used Bob skates.

This highly condensed version of the earliest account of skates brings us to the early part of this century and Canada’s contribution to the finely tuned skates hockey players currently wear. It is the product of competition between Bauer and CCM for supremacy in the market for skates and hockey equipment today. CCM dominated the skate market in the early part of the century with their “Automobile Skate” (it utilized the material that was used in the manufacture of the Russel Motor car). For a brief period the Bauer Supreme skate took over first place with the introduction of the first skate with the blade already attached to the boot. CCM responded quickly with a boot to match or surpass the Bauer Supreme. It was the Tackaberry - named after Manitoba’s George E. Tackaberry (1874 – 1937). George Tackaberry from Brandon, Manitoba was a maker of orthopedic shoes for people with mobility disabilities. In 1905 Tackaberry’s neighbour, a tough and rugged NHL hockey player, Joe Hall presented Tackaberry with a challenge to which he responded and has made his name famous in hockey circles. Hall complained that the skates he wore could not withstand a full season of the punishment they took on the ice.

The boot Tackaberry designed featured a lower boot, snugly fitting reinforced heels and toes, arch supports he designed, a thicker tongue and moisture-resistant kangaroo hide that would not stretch out of shape. In 1927 CCM took over Tackaberry’s operation and seven years later introduced a skate that featured the Tackaberry boot attached to their new heat-treated Prolite blade made of Sheffield steel – the strongest tube skate that CCM had ever made. NHL super star Conacher endorsed the skate as “light and lively enabling you to skate fast, shift quickly or stop instantly and it fit like a glove.” The competition between Bauer and CCM for supremacy in skate and hockey equipment sales is ongoing. When Billy Bessent, and I (Stan) were still playing the game our preference was the Tack and we were wiling to make sacrifices to obtain them.

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Close up look at Billy’s Tackaberry. Photo by Stan Neufeld

Billy was a product of the Great Depression. The Bessents were not poor by standards of the day. Their father Bert owned a car, one of the few in Grande Prairie at that time and he had a good job as a salesman. However, everyone had to pinch pennies to make ends meet and to many, skates were an unnecessary luxury. To make things more difficult for the Bessent family, two of everything was necessary as the twins Billy and Bobby did everything together. During winter in Grande Prairie when Billy and Bobby were growing up sledding, skating and hockey were THE games in town. One could make one’s own sled but skates had to be purchased if you wanted to skate and play hockey. Billy and Bobby loved hockey. They were 5 ½ feet tall and less than 150 pounds – featherweights - but athletic, fast, feisty and mischievous. Hockey was the twins “go to” activity during the winter. Skates were a big deal and there was no way their Dad, Bert could avoid getting involved and equip the twins with hockey equipment. Bert who came from England knew little about hockey until the twins drew him into the sport. He provided transportation and became active in organizing hockey activities and coaching.

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Bert Bessent’s Grande Prairie Midgets. Photo courtesy of Billy Bessent.
Back: Bert Bessent – coach
Front row: Bill Card, Frank Stojan, Max Henning, Jackie Bromley, Herb Shields, Charlie McAuley, Bob Bessent, Bill Bessent, Unknown, Norman Boyce, Fran Tanner

The twins graduated to play senior hockey in 1941 and were picked on the South Peace All-Stars. That year they won the Peace River championship against the North Peace.  If we had the Legends program back then Bert probably would have been named as a builder along with the likes of Frank Edmundson. We now honour these legends in a pioneer category.

Billy and Bobby defied age restrictions signing up with the RCAF at age seventeen.

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Hand shake between father and son (Bert and Billy). Photo courtesy of Billy Bessent

The skates Billy and Bobby used when they enlisted were an important part of the luggage they took to their first postings in Canada - Edmonton, Manitoba and then Quebec. In Souris Manitoba they played on a team that won the Station Championships. Two other Peace River boys, Danny Rycroft and Simon Haakstad played on the same team. It was the last hockey that Billy and Bobby would play together.

They graduated as gunners and in Halifax boarded the Queen Mary for England and active service overseas. As far as we know Billy and Bobby did not play hockey overseas like their buddies, Charlie Turner, Roy Wright and several others. The wartime teams in England did not know what they missed by overlooking the Bessent twins. Perhaps they were considered too small to play the game with the big boys. How wrong they were. Billy and Bobby could hold their own in any company and I would be willing to bet that their skates made the journey overseas with them and they would have been available. Sadly Bobby did not survive the war. Following a bombing mission his plane crash-landed in heavy fog. Except for the pilot and tail gunner the crew perished as the plane burned. The pilot watched in horror.

Max and Billy’s Legacy

Two veterans of WW11 and Grande Prairie ice hockey heroes are still with us here in Grande Prairie - Billy Bessent and Max Henning. Both are decorated war veterans having received the Distinguished Flying Medal of Honour.

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Max Henning and his medal. Photo by Stan Neufeld

Billy was midgunner in a Lancaster Bomber that flew missions to liberate Berlin from the Nazis.

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Billy and his crew. Photo courtesy of Billy Bessent

Max was pilot of a B-52 Bomber that drove the Germans out of Vitry France. Both are honorary members of the GP Hockey Legends Committee. Both have played hockey for teams like the Red Devils, D- Company, the Key Club, the Legion, and the Athletics and both have contributed to Grande Prairie hockey history in more ways than we can recount here.

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Billy Bessent and Max Henning wore sweaters like these representing five different local senior hockey teams-think of the history. Photo by Stan Neufeld

In fact, they planted the seed for the creation of our legends project back in 2002.

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Billy and Max presented this photo to Stan Neufeld in 2002 and planted a seed for creation of the Grande Prairie Legends of Hockey project . They are founding committee members who have now passed the torch to sons Bill and Cam so the Bessent-Henning legacy lives on. Photo by Stan Neufeld

Billy was fast and tricky on the ice and fans revelled to see him switch from shooting right to left while in full flight. He was ambidextrous. Hockey fans who watched Max recall rising from their seats when Max, a defenceman made one of his end-to-end patented rushes using the boards to pass the puck to himself as bewildered opponents watched him fly by. Post WW11 hockey and the Grande Prairie Defence League that was organized during the war for soldiers and the RCAF stationed in Grande Prairie during the war are arguably the golden years of hockey in Grande Prairie. PTSD was not yet diagnosed when Max and Billy returned home. There is no way to measure the trauma that they and their comrades experienced during the war and there were no treatment programs awaiting them upon their return. Hockey was enormously valuable in the process of reintegrating them into civilian life. All else was forgotten when they were playing hockey for their hometown.

We don’t know if Max ever owned a pair of Tacks. I (Stan) do recall a conversation with Max in which he reported that during the depression funds for hockey equipment and skates were very limited. He wore magazines for shin pads held in place by tire tube rubber rings and fought with other kids for sticks that were broken during senior games they watched. “I remember my first pair of skates. They were old style tube skates that my Dad purchased for $4.95 – three sizes too big so I would not quickly grow out of them. We could trade in our old skates for new ones at the local hardware store but that was too expensive so old skates were repaired as long as they fit. I was a “trend-setter” when I purchased a new pair of CCMs with diamond shaped tubes. I was flattered, when others including hockey Legend Charlie Turner who was twelve years older followed my lead.” (Max).

What’s In A Skate? - Modern Technology

So you ask again – What’s in a pair of skates? Here’s what – the ability of a hockey player to rush down the ice and in the confined space of a hockey rink (200 X 85 ft) reach speeds of up to 20mph while dipsy doodling around a defenseman. Conversely skates enable a defenseman to make quick lateral moves preventing tricky forwards from reaching the goalie. What would a hockey player do to own a pair of Tacks? How about splitting a mountain of wood for a neighbour? How about shoveling tons of snow from driveways in town? or spending hours on the corner of 101st and Richmond Ave. in the numbing cold as a street seller of Edmonton Journals for a few bucks? - anything for a pair of Tacks.

Billy – when you are no longer with us we will proudly show off your skates. They will remind us your story and our hockey history.

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Billy Bessent with his Red Devils photo on the wall of the Legends Lounge at the Coke Centre. Photo by Stan Neufeld

Grande Prairie Hockey Legends is researched, written and presented by Stan and Ron Neufeld