Hockey Legends

of Grande Prairie

Rung # 3 – The Minor Hockey Player in Grande Prairie

Facing the prospect of competing against and playing with boys from the metropolis of Grande Prairie was certainly intimidating for a farm boy from Wembley. Murray was one of the last to be selected but he was excited to have made the cut to play for the Grande Prairie Midget Knights. He would have the great honour of wearing a green melton hockey jacket with white leather sleeves bearing the team logo.

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Murray wearing his melton jacket, the young hockey player’s most sought after garment. Photo courtesy of Dr. Joe Dragon

Ray Prefontaine started the program and was then in his seventh year of coaching the team. “Our home ice was the Dave Barr Arena. I was fortunate to have some great teammates like Murray Head, Alan Young, Brad Kezema, Scott Peace and just a lot of good hockey players. This was my first competitive league where scouts were starting to show up and I realized we could compete with some of the best hockey players in the Province. I had one year with the Midget Knights. We won a lot of league tournaments at the double AA level but we were not quite good enough for the triple AAA level back then.”

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Grande Prairie Knights 1982-83
Back row from left: Francois Guenette, Alan Young, Todd Schweitzer, Dennis Kellner, Ray Savage, Allen Pauze, Murray Toews, Ken Wald
Middle row from left: Murray Head, Scott Wallace, Russ Wlad, Eldon Coney, Wade Strandquist, Brad Kezema, Ian McKay, Colin Clements, Andrew Knapcik.
Front row from left: Scott Peace, Art Schweitzer, trainer, Ray Prefontaine, coach, Bob Wallace, manager, Ron Strandquist, assistant trainer, Gerald Richard

During this period Murray’s hockey skills were strengthened and his confidence as a hockey player elevated by attending hockey schools in the Okanagan Valley in B.C.  His grandparents, Peter and Annie Toews lived in Kelowna. Tim and Murray would visit their grandparents and then proceed to Penticton for hockey school. When the boys were between the ages of 11 and 16 they and several other hockey buddies from Grande Prairie who also gained self-confidence knowing they had the ability to compete with some of the most talented players in the game. A great deal of emphasis was dedicated to fitness training that included a mile run where Murray excelled. The experience of attending hockey schools in the Okanagan during this period further increased their love of the game if that was even possible.

Rung #4 – The Junior Hockey Player

Murray Toews is endowed with an unusually charitable disposition. He is quick to deflect praise from himself to others – giving credit to teammates, his coaches and most importantly to his family. That became apparent during interviews with him concerning his accomplishments in hockey. His five years as a junior player with the North Stars of the Peace Cariboo Junior Hockey League were a watershed in his development that opened new worlds of opportunity including a number of potentially life changing crossroads and an indication of his superior skills in the game he loved. Junior hockey represented a long step upward on his hockey ladder.

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Murray proudly showing off his North Star uniform. Photo courtesy Murray Toews

It was 1982 and a group of hockey enthusiasts including Ray Prefontaine, Roy Kezema, Grant Haiste and Shawn Impey got together and formed a junior A franchise - the Grande Prairie North Stars - to compete in the Peace Cariboo Hockey League. Their bid was accepted the following year with Ray Prefontaine as coach. Yes! junior hockey is considered minor hockey but it is an enormous step to move from the bantam level to the junior ranks – especially the jump to a junior A team. The North Stars were re-named the Grande Prairie Storm competing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) that feeds players directly into the professional leagues, the WHL and the NCAA.  During initial tryouts for the team Murray narrowly missed the cut. However, as chance would have it Murray Head was unable to participate during the first week of the season and Toews was called up to take his place as an affiliate player. He was only 15 years old. Much to his delight he played well enough to be reconsidered and earned a place on the team. We might say “ the rest is history” and that history is worth following.

The 1983 season started badly for Murray. History repeated itself and during the first game of the season a skate blade severed his Achilles tendon. The doctor informed him that it was unlikely he would play hockey again. Murray was undaunted. Three months later he defied his doctor’s prognosis and was back on the ice contributing in meaningful ways by Christmas. It is difficult to know how much of Murray’s recovery is due to his medical treatment and how much one might attribute to Murray’s attitude. He credits Dr. John Case for treating him effectively. He rounded out the remainder of the season playing with linemates Colin Clements and Dennis Kellner. With the North Stars, Murray played one season under coach Simon Jukes. For the last two North Star years Ken Head was his coach.

Neil Isnor, one of Murray’s North Star teammates, presently a phys ed teacher and coach in Camrose, sheds light on Murray’s attitude and determination. Isnor and Murray who he nicknamed “Squeak” played together for three years as a North Stars and then Isnor played against him at the College level. Neil, a fine hockey player in his own right, was the first North Star to win the PCJHL league scoring title. He fondly remembers:“You often hear stories about players who never took a shift off but never seem to need one. I can say without a doubt that I played with one such player and that was Murray Toews. It didn’t matter if it was a summer hockey game or a Junior playoff game, Murray only knew how to play one way and that was to treat every shift as if it may be his last. “

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North Stars 1984-85
Back row: Ray Prefontaine, coach, Keith Souverwald, Brian Brick, Orion Donison, Morgan Hall, Norm Trembley, Kevin Hamelin, Craig Clements, Ray Savage, Shaun Impey, Andy Travis.
Middle row: Murray Head, Murray Toews, Dennis Kellner, Greg Hartman, Neal Isnor, Jim Morrison, Lee Wiebe.
Front row: Gerry Richard, Dwayne Hommy, Dean Eastman, Milton Antypowich, Colin Clements, Scott Peace.

“Under Ken Head’s leadership we started talking about winning championships. Ken would see pieces of the puzzle that were missing. We were fortunate enough to have a very strong local core that included my brother Tim but we were missing some pieces for a championship team and Ken knew where to find them,” recalls Murray. An important part of the story is the coming together of the feared “Dragon Line” consisting of Joe Dragon, Wade Wallan and Murray Toews.

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The famous Dragon line-then. Photo courtesy of Dr. Joe Dragon

Joe was a skilled player from Fort Smith, NWT who had been offered a scholarship to play hockey for Cornell University in the US but was returning to the Peace for another year. In speaking about Murray, Joe reminisces: “ So many good memories…I was very lucky that Ken Head decided to put us together as a line.  That experience of the “Dragon Line” has been the only time in my hockey career (Junior, NCAA and semi-pro) that I really didn’t need to think about where my linemates were on the ice. With our line, it became very instinctual where each of us was playing and I think this is what made us hard to defend but also so proficient at scoring goals.  I can remember Ken Head saying when a penalty would come up, ‘Dragon line - you’re up!’ and this was our power play strategy.  No X’s or O’s, no working different zones of the ice or trying to capitalize on another team’s weaknesses… only the  ‘go do your thing’ message that never had to be said.  It was only years later, when I was playing in the NCAA and later as a coach, that I realized that Ken knew that if we played an offensive ‘system’, other teams could develop another defensive ‘system’ to defend us. Playing with Murray and Wade was the most fun I had playing competitive hockey and I fondly remember hearing the referee delivering the combinations of  – ‘11-10-7’ or ‘7-11-10’ or ‘10-7-11’ at the score table…those were great days.” 

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The famous Dragon line-now . Wade, left, Joe and Murray. Photo by Darren Foley

According to Murray, “Wade was Mr. Hythe - the fifth of five Wallan boys who made a name for themselves not only in Hythe but throughout the Peace Country. Wade was short, stocky, tough, could shoot the puck and score goals. He played the body at every possible opportunity. Pound for pound the Wallans had a reputation for being the toughest of tough to play against. You certainly wanted to play with them not against them.”

When asked what kind of a teammate Murray was, Dragon replied: “Murray was a great leader – both on and off the ice. As our Captain, Squeak knew when our team needed to be serious and when our team needed to have fun and was very adept at finding ways of doing this with all the players on the team. Although it was a lot of pressure, he took a lot of pride in the organization and what it meant to be Captain for our Junior team – players always respected him. “

Like Joe, Murray had also been offered an NCAA scholarship to play college hockey but in San Diego. However, at home he had an opportunity to play one further year with brother Tim. Also, Murray had tallied a total of 144 points as a North Star so why not remain at home and further pad those statistics?   

There was however a problem in the minds of some hockey critics – Murray, Wade and Joe were all right hand shots. Ken had the answer. He converted Murray to his “off wing”. He had always played right wing or centre ice until Ken converted him into a left winger. From that vantage point he could see more of the net and it worked. It is exciting even today to dig into the archives and review reports of the final series between the Spruce Kings from Prince George and the North Stars. The North Stars were down three games to one. By sheer determination they “stormed back” – no pun intended – to win the championship. “Winning a championship with my brother, Tim, Wade and Joe was a career highlight - my final year of junior hockey playing with the North Stars and being captain for three.

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Grande Prairie North Stars. Peace Cariboo Junior Hockey League champions 1987-88. Photo courtesy Ken Head

As a twenty year old my eligibility as a junior was over. It was time to move on.” Murray recalls a brief flirtation with the Vancouver Canuck organization. Following a game in Prince George he had a conversation with a Canuck scout but nothing came of it. While Tim played for one more year under Ken - Murray left home for Red Deer College.

Murray completed his tenure with more recognition and honours than any previous or subsequent player in the history of Junior hockey in Grande Prairie. In his years as a North Star he established records for most points as a North Star, most goals in a single season and most assists. His five year point total total during 217 regular league games included 190 goals, 271 assists for 461 points. In the process he received more votes for All Star recognition than any other player in the League. In an article by Randy Poulis of the Herald Tribune staff he quotes League Commissioner Bob Leer, “ Not only had Toews made himself the best in 1986-87, his three records have likely made him the best player ever to suit up in the PCJHL. That’s got to be the most phenomenal record.” (Herald Tribune Feb 26, 1986).

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A full page story appeared in the Grande Prairie Herald Tribune on Friday, March 25, 1988 highlighting all Murray’s records including his history as a North Star

What perhaps escapes notice is that Murray blossomed and was identified as a leader while playing junior hockey. He was Captain of his team for three out of the five years he played with the Stars. This attests to the high regard he was accorded by both coaches and peers. In the years ahead leadership would surface as an important Murray Toews characteristic.