What’s In a Name?
December 01, 2016 Features
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.