Hockey Legends

of Grande Prairie

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

Heroes and Legends in the Making

This picture, taken in 1934, is the face of Minor Hockey in Grande Prairie during the Great Depression five years before the onset of WWII. In this article we feature the Bessents (identical twins Billy and Bobby at age 10 – the shortest players in the picture – number seven and eight from the right) and their father Bert, (the adult in the photo). Bert was an English emigrant, who never donned a pair of skates but loved kids and became a passionate supporter of hockey in his adopted country. He was involved with both minor hockey and the Senior Red Devils.

The Bessent family and townspeople always knew it was possible but shock waves reverberated through the town in December of 1943 when the Herald Tribune posted the photo of a dejected Billy standing beside a coffin in England that contained the body of his twin brother Bobby. They were just eighteen and the twins had been inseparable. Bobby was a Mid-Upper Gunner on a Lancaster Bomber returning from a successful night raid on Berlin. They crashed in a dense fog that enveloped the landing strip. In addition to Bobby, two other Grande Prairie boys, Gerald Strang, and Harold (Sandy) Saunders lost their lives that night. Gerald was another outstanding Grande Prairie Hockey prospect. The RCAF labeled the day as “Black Thursday”. Bobby, Gerald and Sandy were buried with full military honors in the military cemetery in Cambridge England. Within several days another Grande Prairie boy lost his life in active combat: M.R. (Kelly) Wright, older brother of Grande Prairie Hockey Legend Pete Wright. Like Pete, Kelley was a skilled hockey player.

Because they were brothers, Billy and Bobby were not allowed to fly on the same aircraft. On December 24, just eight days following Bobby’s death, Billy’s Group Captain Bomber Pilot asked Billy if he wanted to fly a mission. Billy’s response was, “If my crew is going I’m going”. Billy was a member of the famous Pathfinder Squadron that preceded air strikes by dropping incendiary bombs to ignite targets for the bombers that followed hard on their heels. Perfect timing to the minute and precise navigation was essential. It was a hazardous but effective procedure. Billy was exceptionally good at what he did and finished his tour of duty as an instructor in the “Pathfinder Procedure” first in Yorkshire and later in Greenwood Nova Scotia. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.

In a recent interview that Stan Neufeld conducted with Billy he reminisced about his youth and expressed fond memories of growing up during the depression in pre-war Grande Prairie. The twins had a reputation – not malicious but mischievous is an apt description and Billy reports, “due to our reputation we were often unfairly accused of misdeeds.” He goes on to say, “As kids we had two sources of income – selling newspapers and boxing. We were pros. A local businessman organized boxing matches and between main bouts he would have Bobby and me entertain the crowd by punching it up with each other. From time to time this earned us a five spot.” Their success as newspaper vendors is attributed to their team-work that involved getting to the train station before other street sellers, pick up their allotted papers and while one twin detained their competition the other twin would rush to the best corner in town and get the early sales – five cents for a copy of the Edmonton Journal. Maybe these two activities account for the nimble feet and quick hands of the twins.

Hockey and the Wapiti Arena were important elements in Billy’s early years. Most hockey scrimmages took place on outdoor rinks and ponds but organized home games against teams from nearby communities such as Sexsmith, Clairmont, Five Mile Creek and Twilight were played in the Wapiti Arena. To purchase equipment team members canvassed local businesses but handouts were meager during the depression. Billy remembers one businessman who donated ten cents when asked to contribute. The donations they received enabled them to purchase matching sweaters and socks but other than that the equipment the team is wearing bears witness to the economic circumstances of the times. By today’s standards: not fashionable but functional enough. Only one player has hockey gloves. Shin pads are likely folded magazines held in place by rubber bands cut from auto inner tubes. There are no helmets and no elbow or shoulder pads. One-piece straight wooden sticks were used protected by bits of tape. Sticks were precious commodities and kids would fight at senior hockey games for the broken sticks discarded by the players.

The advent of the war resulted in a depletion of young men to play on the local senior team and at age sixteen the twins were invited to play for the senior Red Devils. In terms of camaraderie and communication between friends there was no Facebook, tweets, or e-mail and home phones were scarce. “Chat sessions” between the twins and their friends was face-to-face on the steps of the centrally located Court House. In addition to the typical chatter of adolescent guys they discussed the war that was into its third year. Patriotism ran strong among youth in the town. One day during a “chat session” they learned that an Air Force Recruiting Team was in town. The twins and several of their friends seized the opportunity and signed up – the twins were seventeen. After joining up they went home to tell their parents. Whatever turmoil this may have instilled in the minds of the twin’s Mother and Dad we don’t know but Birth Certificates in hand Bert “swore them in”. Their military career with the RCAF began in November of 1942.

Billy came home in the fall of 1945 without his twin. The rink and hockey provided continuity to Billy’s pre-war past and was important in helping him adjust to civilian life. During his first year in Grande Prairie he returned to his pre-war playground the Wapiti Arena. He agreed to a contract of $200 to operate the arena for the winter and using half of his earnings hired fellow Veteran and Hockey Legend Fran Tanner as his assistant. Fran is the first person on the left in the picture. Fran was in the Tank Corps and but for his athletic ability he would not have survived the war. When his tank was hit and disabled by a bomb Fran jumped and ran for cover but his partner who was not as agile was shot and killed. In addition to managing the Arena Billy played hockey with the Key Club in a six team Wheat Belt League that consisted of the Key Club, D-Company, the Grande Prairie Flyers (players from the RCAF and Army Signal Corps), Sexsmith, Beaverlodge and Hythe.

As mentioned earlier Billy was quick of hands and feet. A distinguishing feature of his play is that he was ambidextrous. Defending a rush by Billy was very difficult as he could change from a right to a left-handed shooter while in full stride. The teams Billy played for reads like a history of senior hockey in Grande Prairie – the Red Devils, Key Club, Legion, and the Athletics. Although Billy was typically one of the shortest players on the ice he was a fearless, feisty and determined competitor contributing both physically and on the scoreboard.

In many ways pre-war and the immediate post war years were the golden years of hockey in Grande Prairie. Billy and his contemporaries played the game for sheer pleasure and although they played a rugged style of hockey and although equipment was spare by today’s standards there were relatively few injuries. Players respected the reality that each of them were expected to report for work the following morning. The game was unadulterated by money and complex sports politics. There were no walk-outs, lock-outs or contract disputes. Apart from a small salary set aside for the operation of the rink hockey at all levels functioned with remarkable efficiency supported by volunteers like Billy’s Dad, Bert. The rink was the largest gathering place in town and consistently there was standing room only for hockey fans. For spectators and players at all levels hockey was affordable. Local athletes were heroes and role models for local kids. Relative to the population of the city today hockey in the golden era had a much greater impact on its recreational, cultural, social and economic characteristics.

More important than Billy’s participation in hockey is his dedication to domestic and other civic responsibilities. He married Vine Allison and their family consists of one daughter, Bonny, and two boys: not twins but named Billy and Bobby. Until his retirement Billy ran several business ventures, including a partnership with his Dad until his death. Billy is a founding member of the Legends Committee, now an honorary member and along with Max Henning (third from the right in the photo) is an invaluable source of information. Max, is a WWII veteran, Grande Prairie Hockey Legend, a charter member of the Legends Committee and will be featured in our next article. Billy Senior’s son, Billy Jr. perpetuates the family tradition of involvement in hockey as the newest member of the Legends Committee.

We are deeply grateful to Billy Sr. for sharing his story and his insights.

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