Another Hockey Legend
Merry Christmas to the Toronto Maple Leafs and good luck clearing a path to the NHL playoffs.
Background: Part 1 of 2By Stan Neufeld
It’s a “cold case” - how a team of hockey players from Grande Prairie came to adopt the Red Devils as their team name along with a colourful logo to match. Billy Bessent and Max Henning, now in their mid nineties know a great deal about Grande Prairie’s senior hockey history but neither of them can recall exactly when, how or why the team came to be called the Red Devils during the 1930s. The name was given up for the duration of WW11 to make way for the National Defense League but when the veterans returned home following the war the senior team once again adopted the Red Devil team name. However, it soon became a controversial lightening rod resulting in a name change to the Athletics in 1954. However, before delving into the Red Devil/Athletics name change in more detail I want to give some thought to the general issue of names for sports teams. It’s an intriguing topic.
Clearly team names and logos become an important aspect of a team’s identity or brand. Team names borrow from many sources such as geography - The Islanders, birds – raptors and eagles, animals – lions and tigers - weather phenomenon, thunder and lightning, the industrial roots of a city or town - steelers and oilers – ethnicity, especially First Nations groups – the Blackhawks and Chiefs, political identity – The Canadiens or Habs as they are often called, and flora and fauna – the Leafs – my favourite NHL Team. Often team names have such a strong identity that only a team name needs mentioning without any reference to the town or city in which the team is located. Typically the names imply fierceness, power and strength and team names are the basis for choosing logos and team colours. As such they are important marketing tools. Team names and logos become so deeply imbedded in a team’s identity that it often spells trouble to tamper with them. In this regard I am reminded of some “Leaf” history. Parenthetically, since my youth when I dreamed of playing for the Leafs I have been a dedicated fan and I pay a price for that loyalty. I have a standing bet with two GP Legend Board members, Marty Tingstad and John Lehners that any time the Habs and the Leafs play against each other (they are Hab fans) lunch is on the line. I have purchased a great many lunches during the past couple of years. However, I know that with several new faces in their line up, under the leadership of Mike Babcock and some tweaking of the logo my fortunes are destined to change. Keep in mind that the Leafs won the first ever Lord Stanley Cup challenge and history is about to repeat itself. But now – back to the topic of “name change” and some Leaf history.
The Toronto Arenas, one of four teams in the newly formed NHL in 1917 played their first game on December 19, 1917 against the Montreal Wanderers. The Wanderers and the Arenas – where do those names come from? The Arenas scored a total of nine goals but still lost the game to the Wanderers by a score of 10-9. Ironically, it was the only win for the Wanderers as the team folded when their arena burned down after only six games. That left the new league with only three teams - the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Arenas to compete in that inaugural season. A mere 700 people attended the first Toronto home game - and many of those were soldiers in uniform - guests of team management. It wasn’t an auspicious start for the Toronto team, but that game was the beginning of a rich tradition of hockey in Toronto (and Canada for that matter) known today as the “Leafs Nation”. John and Marty – please take note that the Toronto Arenas won the Lord Stanley cup the first year of the NHL and there are omens to suggest that the cup is destined to find its way back to Toronto. As the Toronto Maple Leafs and it’s legion of faithful fans prepare to celebrate the club’s Centennial season, the franchise unveiled a new logo. The new logo that was introduced to fans in this year’s season opener represents a return to the classic Maple Leaf. It adorned Leaf sweaters from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, and is regarded by many as the most iconic and popular logo in team history.
“As an organization, we wanted to get back to our roots, when Conn Smythe first changed the team logo to the Maple Leaf in 1927,” said Brendan Shanahan, Toronto Maple Leaf President and Alternate Governor. “Inspired by the badge that he and his fellow Canadian soldiers wore during World War I, Smythe wanted his team to wear the badge with “honour, pride and courage. This is our goal for the next chapter in Leafs history. We are committed to restoring the Toronto Maple Leafs to a proud and prominent place and this classic logo will connect the team’s championship legacy with an exciting and proud future for our players, our city and for our fans.”
Conn Smythe, started his career with the New York Rangers but was dismissed in favour of Lester Patrick. Following his dismissal Conn raised enough money to buy the St. Pats and prevented the team from moving to Philadelphia. Smythe, a military man, immediately had the Toronto franchise name changed from the St. Pats to Maple Leafs and switched the uniform colours to blue and white from green and white. Said Conn, “The Maple Leaf to us, was the badge of courage, the badge that meant home. It was the badge that reminded us all of our exploits and the different difficulties we got into and the different accomplishments we made. It was a badge that meant more to us than any other badge that we could think of... so we chose it... hoping that the possession of this badge would mean something to the team that wore it and when they skated out on the ice with this badge on their chest... they would wear it with honour and pride and courage, the way it had been worn by the soldiers of the first Great War in the Canadian Army." That is a powerful and emotionally laden tradition.
So – what’s in a name? Like the Toronto Maple Leaf tale every team name and logo has a story. In the case of the Grande Prairie Red Devils – as legendary as that team name has become its origins are lost. The Devil is in the details BUT the details are lost. In the second of this two-part blog I will deal with the name change of the Red Devils to the Athletics. My crystal ball suggests that like recent changes in the Leaf logo we are in store for a change in fortune for the Leafs and I have a hunch that the same good fortune is in store for this year’s Grande Prairie Athletics. This year the As have returned to compete in the North Peace Hockey League after a one year hiatus and in the process have adopted a new logo and colour changes.
Netminder Dave Larson with the new look jersey and logo. Photo by Stan Neufeld
I predict a new and exciting season for our Grande Prairie senior hockey team. Like the “good ol’ days” when the Red Devils so faithfully represented our town we hope that fans will come out in droves to watch our seniors compete.
Red Devils vs. Athletics: Part 2 of 2The Devil is In the Details but the Details are Lost
By Stan Neufeld
WW11 had come to an end. Our veterans had come home and introduced Grande Prairie to its “Golden Age” of hockey playing under the prewar name of the legendary Red Devils. According to history there may have been some other team names i.e. the Maroons but the Red Devils was the first team name that captured the imagination and loyalty of players and fans alike and the first team name that had staying power. It hung around for over two decades. The jersey was red and white with a distinctive logo – a horned figure with a spear shaped tail and wielding a stick instead of a pitchfork.
Grande Prairie Red Devils - 1951. Stan Neufeld photo library
This Red Devils sweater worn by Bob Neufeld appears in the Legends display at Revolution Place. Photo by Doug Duplessis
As mentioned in an earlier blog nobody – not even veteran’s Billy Bessent and Max Henning (now in their mid-nineties) can recall the origins of the team name. It’s my guess that it dates back to the late 1920s when local players such as Rusty Black and Frank Edmundson were the backbone of Grande Prairie senior hockey. Grande Prairie along with several nearby towns organized the first iteration the South Peace Hockey League (SPHL) and the team needed a name more imaginative than simply the Grande Prairie Hockey Team. For whatever reason the lads from Grande Prairie chose to be called the Red Devils. Undoubtedly it was the most imaginative and colourful team name in the league and it gained legendary status in the annals of Grande Prairie hockey. How much of that status was rooted in the name deserves debate. What we do know is that the name stuck until WW11, was resurrected again following the war but became a lightning rod for controversy in the 1950s.
As mentioned, the name Red Devils was abandoned for a short time during WW11 when the SPHL was unable to operate. It was replaced during the war by the National Defense League (NDL) consisting of three military teams, nearby Hythe and D-Company, a team consisting of players from town that were either too young or too old to be recruited. However, when Billy Bessent, Max Henning, Bob Card and other veterans returned home from the war the hometown senior team was resurrected as the Red Devils. Then - in the mid 1950s the team name became a lightening rod. No one who is still around from that era seems to know exactly why, or if they do, they are unwilling to discuss the matter. One rumour alleges that a local minister thought the devil image sent the wrong message to young people but the name had roots that were not about to be dislodged without resistance. Another theory is that the recently organized GP Athletics Association were lobbying for the team to be re-named to identify with the Association that owned and sponsored the team. Whatever the reason – the name change issue created a firestorm. Enter – Orm Shultz – he was then a Herald Tribune employee. My relationship with Orm dates back to the 1950s – almost five decades ago. I delivered the Edmonton Journal and the Herald Tribune to his door and I admired him. Unfortunately Orm had moved on by the time I served as a Sports Reporter for the Tribune – my first full time job. As far as I am concerned Orm was a senior statesman in the local newspaper industry.
A current stalwart in the local newspaper industry and hockey history is Bill Scott. I am grateful that he is always ready to put his oar in the water to provide helpful information when I attempt to piece together our hockey history. He is a veritable encyclopedia of information. Neither Orm nor Bill were able to provide specific information regarding the origins of the Red Devil name in Grande Prairie but both had fascinating related stories. Bill sent me an article from the WW1 Archives of the 1st. Canadian Division. Canadian military forces earned recognition early in WW1 as a mighty fighting force when they drove the German Sixth Army from Vimy Ridge, something neither British nor French forces were able to accomplish before them. During the Somme a red patch appeared on the shoulders of the Canadian uniform and it became or badge or symbol that Canadians have worn ever since. Recognizing the Canadians as a formidable foe the Germans nicknamed the Canadians as “the little red devils”. There is no evidence that this had any bearing whatsoever on the naming of the GP Red Devils but it is an interesting story – thank you Bill.
Brother Ron and I were recently in Nova Scotia and made a stop at the hockey museum in the Windsor, Nova Scotia - hockey’s birthplace. Until that visit we thought that Grande Prairie had the only hockey team named the Red Devils. The Curator and a staff member took us on a very informative tour and in the process we learned that in the 1930s Windsor’s senior hockey team was named the Red Devils – this in Canada’s Bible Belt. As far as we know there is no connection between the GP and Windsor Red Devils.
Back to Orm - on December 9, 1954 he wrote an article challenging plans at that time to drop the Red Devil name. “What’s wrong with the name Red Devils?” he asked and went on to argue that continuity of identity is an important issue. “A change in the name of the Grande Prairie hockey club is in the making for some reason or another. We don’t see why? Is it because recent comments on the name which was used only for an example has rousted the feeling that the name was slightly sinful? The whole thing is, when a team gets a name and plays under it they should keep it. Otherwise people will loose interest in their progress. Fans here have first cheered for the Red Devils, then the Key Club, D-Coy, Legionnaires, and Red Devils once again. After a while they refer to their team as the whatchamacallits Devils. Devils is a well know name now in the South Peace and there has been no comment before and its adaptability. Why change it? Let's hope the colour doesn't mean anything. The r- -, d- - - - - are now the Athletics and will be skating on the ice soon with solid yellow uniforms and black trim.”
Orm Shultz wrote a column in the Herald Tribune during the 1950s called Sports Talk
It was my privilege in Orm’s later years to have him as a neighbour and often, after shoveling snow from his driveway he would reminisce about his years in the newspaper industry. I remember him as a sports reporter but according to Orm, “I wasn’t even part of the sports department back then. I was actually in the Advertising department but the only way certain businessmen would buy newspaper advertisements was if I promoted hockey and the Athletics in the sports page. So that’s how the Sports Talk column came about, and why I was writing sports.” He did not hold this position very long but In my view Orm covered sports very well and wrote one of the finest sports columns to ever appear in the Tribune. If I had been around at the time Orm was lobbying to keep the Red Devil name I can think of a number of arguments I might have offered to support his preference. For example, one could change the logo just a bit to include not only horns but hooves as well and replace his hockey stick with the Devil’s traditional pitchfork and argue that it is an agricultural image in keeping with Grande Prairie’s agricultural identity. Or, one could argue that the team name was derived from religious symbolism. After all, historically all of this world’s major religions describe epic battles between good and evil. In the Christian tradition Satan or the Devil, although embodying evil is a formidable and clever foe. Whatever the logic behind the Red Devils moniker the team has become legendary in Grande Prairie hockey history. As indicated earlier how much of the legendary status is in the name is anyone’s guess.
Alas! an article on December 16, 1954 entitled “Red Devils Shed Horns” Orm acknowledged that his efforts favouring the Red Devil team name had failed. “Ascending from the fiery depths Grande Prairie Red Devils dropped their scarlet garb to become a new team under the banner of Grande Prairie Athletics. The new uniforms will be solid yellow with black trim.
Grande Prairie Athletics: 1954-55
Sweater worn by Bob Neufeld appears in the Legends display at Revolution Place. Photo by Doug Duplessis
The decision was brought about after a meeting of hockey players and members of the Athletic Association decided it was in the best interest to take up a new name. Athletics are under new sponsorship of the Athletic Association this season with playing coach Bob Neufeld steering the club’s operation. Johnny Macdonald also said he had some influence on the name change. “ From my view point none of the Red Devil/Athletics controversy is intended to diminish the Athletics. The Athletics name has become even more durable than the Red devils and they have an enviable sixty-two year history.
When you come to see a game the season you will note that the team colours have changed just a bit. Fortunately the change did not create a firestorm. Like my predictions regarding a promising season for the Leafs supported by a logo change I am forecasting an exciting season for the As. They are fast – talented and well coached. It takes a great deal of dedication on the part of both staff and players to participate. The team deserves our support - GO As.