November 14, 2016 NPHL
and "Snapshots" From the PastBy Stan Neufeld
It’s a memory now but my recollections are still vivid - of hockey games I played in the post War Memorial Arena proudly wearing an As uniform – the arena packed to the rafters with screaming fans. Some of the most memorable games that we played pitted us against the Ft. St. John Flyers – games that were sure to bring out every hockey fan in town. Hence it was a strange feeling to walk into the rink last night with camera gear – not a hockey bag over my shoulder. I bear some scars to remind me of the intense rivalry between the As and the Flyers during the 70s.
Last night (November 10) the Athletics lost a well played hard fought over-time battle at the Coca Cola Center to the Flyers. They overcame a 3-1 deficit in the final frame only to fall short in extra time. Ryan Trudeau gave the As an early lead but a goal by Josh Bruha of the Flyers sent teams to the dressing room in a 1-1 tie. The Flyers took a 3-1 lead in the second with goals by Brennen Giroux and Cole Calliou but the As stormed back with markers from MacKenzie Caron and Mark Stojan in the third period to knot the score 3-3 forcing the game into extra minutes. The winning goal came from the stick of Flyers Marshall Sidwell at 4:15 in overtime.
"The first two periods were a little sloppy on our part" said A's president Kurt Robinson after the game. “We hit the post in overtime and they got the rebound, came down and scored.”
Goaltender Dave Larson snags this shot. Photo by Stan Neufeld
After a one-year hiatus from the NPHL the Athletics are back to compete in the West Division of an interlocking league that includes the Dawson Creek Canucks, Fort St. John Flyers and defending NPHL champions - the Spirit River Rangers. The East division has been reduced to three teams – the Grimshaw Huskies, Falher Pirates and the Valleyview Jets. The Jets have returned following a three-year absence from the league. High Prairie dropped out at the last minute.
For me – in the words of Yogi Berra, watching the game last night was “déjà vu all over again”. In spite of the camera in my hand while watching the Athletics play historic arch rivals, the Flyers, my mind consistently wandered back in time to my adventures on the ice against them - even feeling a flood of emotion when one of the As was on the receiving end of a questionable hit. I yearned to be on the ice to take up his cause. There is a long-standing history of fierce contests between the As and the Flyers dating back to the 50’s. One indelible memory is of a bench-clearing brawl that resulted when I was the target of a gang tackle by three Flyers. My teammate Jack Lefley immediately jumped into the fray to even the odds somewhat. That season we were especially proud and rewarded when we won the SPHL championship against the Flyers. In spite of several scars and a crooked nose that are daily reminders of fierce battles with the Flyers my memories of those contests are mostly good.
The Flyers had some outstanding players including outlaw pros who were banished from higher level play for various infractions but to be fair – so did the As. Not surprisingly the South Peace Hockey League was widely known in those days as an “Outlaw League”. It was good hockey but as rough and tough as the game gets. I was a green 15-16 year-old feeling honoured to be playing with my hockey hero and indomitable GP Hockey Legend – Pete Wright. Trying to emulate Pete I was known more for dealing out hits than scoring goals. However, in January of 1979 with standing room only in the Memorial Arena I tied a record for the most goals scored in one game by a defenseman. It was an especially proud night for me as it came during a game against the Flyers.
Gone are the days when Hockey Legend Fran Tanner of CFGP was in his gondola office doing play by play. However, I am pleased to point out that we now enjoy a swanky third floor skybox Legends Lounge at the Coca-Cola Centre where fans can watch the game in comfort. Last night as I was taking my place behind the plexiglass for a good camera angle long time Grande Prairie citizen and faithful volunteer Arnie Severson walked by to his spot in the visitor’s penalty box. For a spell during the 70s Arnie was on CFGP’s advertising staff so it comes as no surprise that he knows something about Grande Prairie’s hockey history. Arnie is one of those quiet, unsung heroes who has been an As volunteer for more than a decade. I was reminded that he was in the stands when I was still on the ice. Today he occupies a place in a long line of largely invisible volunteers who support local senior hockey. That line includes the likes of Johnny Macdonald, Roy Borstad and currently Robinson. I would be remiss if I failed to mention another behind the scenes stalwart - Randy Bearisto who has faithfully provided decades of service. There are others too numerous to mention here. Arnie contends that hockey during the era of the Outlaw League was somewhat rougher and tougher than it is today. He reminisced about one 1970’s Athletic’s line in particular that consisted of Pat Gouchie, Chuck Hesse and Denis Prefontaine. And then there was Murney Nellis who stood up many opponents at our blue line with his “Gordie Howe” bone crushing elbows. Although the games played today in the SPHL may not be as rowdy as the game during the 70s you may be sure that the players are not “wall flowers” - the games are entertaining and worth watching.
This is a new era for the Athletics. They have a new look including a new coach, new jerseys and a fresh young batch of players.
As are in good hands with new coach Glen Watson at the helm. Photo by Stan Neufeld
The game I saw bodes well for this season. Hopefully the League and the As team will catch fire in Grande Prairie and once again the downtown might ring with cheers from fans in the Coca Cola Centre when the As are on the ice on a Saturday night. They are worth watching.
MacKenzie Caron (22) makes a Connor McDavid type move and scored one of the As goals last night. Photo by Stan Neufeld
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