What’s In a Name?
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.