Hockey Legends

of Grande Prairie

Rung # 5 – The College Hockey Player

When Murray met Colleen Bonnett in Junior High and they became best friends: little did they know that they would later become husband and wife. Colleen’s father, Gerald Bonnett was an entrepreneur in the oil field business and during the hockey off-season Murray worked for him. Considering a career beyond hockey, it was a logical decision for him to focus on the oil industry. With that in mind Murray enrolled in the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) Petroleum Engineering Program. He tried out for their hockey team but failed to make a positive impression on the coaching staff and was cut. He was lost without hockey. Fortunately, at the same time that Murray had applied to SAIT he had also been accepted at Red Deer College. So, he transferred to Red Deer College initially enrolling in Hotel Management but later moved into and graduated from their Business Diploma program.

Meanwhile at Red Deer College, Mike Babcock, then in his early twenties and aiming at a career in coaching, had just been hired to coach the Red Deer College Kings. It was September and his team for the up-coming season had already been selected. However, Murray had spoken earlier with Athletic Director, Al Ferchuk, about playing with the Kings and so Babcock included him with the team in a limited role for the first three months. They competed against NAIT, SAIT, Camrose and Mount Royal College. Red Deer concluded the season with 24 wins ,7 losses on their way to winning the ACAC Championship. Murray had contributed more than Babcock had expected he could. He reminisces about going to the national ACAC championships a week later only to lose in the Gold medal game to NAIT, the team they had beat for the League Championship. Babcock’s pronouncement that “Silver Sucks” has stayed with Murray to this day.

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Red Deer College Kings. Photo courtesy of GPMH

The following season he was selected captain of the team. Much to Murray’s satisfaction Tim enrolled in Red Deer College during his second year and earned a place on the team. Once again the brothers were teammates. Tim was well received due in no small part to his superior skating ability and speed. Comparing himself to Tim, Murray described himself as a straight legged skater while Tim flew over the ice with the speed and grace of a gazelle. During his first year with the Kings, Murray played on a line with Bill Peters, currently head coach with the Calgary Flames. It was the foundation for a lasting relationship.

It was Babcock’s hope that Murray who he had dubbed “The King” would return to Red Deer the following season for a third year, suggesting that there were other options in hockey that were open to him such as playing in Europe, for example. Murray stood at another important cross roads. Gerald Bonnett with backing from his daughter Colleen, won the day. Bonnett made the point that,“If you get good at the wire line business you will be able to make more money than most NHL hockey players. You just have to pay attention, understand people, learn the business and it will all work out.”

In conversation Murray acknowledges, “There are times while following Babcock’s and Peters’ successes in their coaching careers, I wonder if I did the right thing not trying coaching at that level.” However, it was Gerald Bonnett’s counsel that prevailed - talk about coaches. Reflecting on his father-in-law Murray stated, “He was my mentor off the ice with the business. Financially he was the big reason for our success and the reason why Bonnett’s is still here. Sadly he passed away in January, 2018.”

Rung # 6 – The Senior Hockey Player

Murray returned home in 1991 following the completion of his business diploma at Red Deer College and began his business career with Bonnett. In Murray’s words, “In the end I made the decision to get serious about my future and my career here and that led me to come home to work full time for Gerald. Colleen and I were engaged that summer and we married on August 3 of 1991.” Likewise, Tim returned to the Peace and married Marcia Mayer who grew up south of Wembley. The Toews brothers were reunited and were eager to play senior hockey back home.

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Brothers Greg, left, Tim, Murray and Jeff reunited with Hythe Mustangs. Photo courtesy of Murray Toews

They re-connected with the Wallans from Hythe.and for six out of the next ten years Murray, Tim and Wade Wallan played on a line. Looking at a map, the Peace River country appears to exist on the outskirts of civilization without access to amenities and entertainment that are commonplace further south. As it relates to hockey many Peace River Country residents failed to realize that there was no need to flick a TV switch to see outstanding hockey. As long as no blizzard was blowing most residents in the Peace country had ready access to live hockey at its best. Players were talented, well coached and rugged. However, playing hockey in the North country was not for the faint of heart.

For a lengthy period hockey leagues north and south of the Peace River were labeled as Outlaw Leagues. Talented players who, for one reason or another were banned from playing elsewhere found teams in the north that embraced them. Although the North and South Peace hockey leagues were no longer regarded as outlaws by the 1990s they were none-the-less wolf pack tough, fast and efficient. It was by any standard – good hockey. The Wallan boys in Hythe were legendary for their tenacious playing style – like the Wright brothers, Pete, Cliff, Roy and Kelly who played for the Grande Prairie Red Devils five generations earlier. In terms of speed and finesse, the four Toews brothers played in the tradition of the well-known Oakford brothers who skated for the Hythe Mustangs several decades earlier but are still remembered. According to Murray “Tim could really fly and Wade just did it all.” Although Murray fails to describe his own abilities on the ice one needs but to reflect on the records he established as a junior with the GP North Stars to remember – he was a highly talented and furious competitor who knew how to score goals. He embraced his father’s ideals – the will to win. For a number of years the Central Peace championship cup was passed to and from the Hythe Mustangs and the Grande Prairie Athletics. While playing for the Mustangs they won the cup four times.

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Hythe Mustangs, Central Peace Hockey League champions: 1996-97. Photo courtesy of Alec McPherson

There was no room however to be complacent, Murray reports, “We thought we had a pretty good team.” The mainly twenty-something Mustangs were perhaps a bit cocky – in the prime of life – who had played with and against some of the finest hockey players in Canada and then - they encountered a team from the tiny, isolated village of Tumbler Ridge, just across the BC border.  Playing against that team from Tumbler Ridge consisting of several former NHL players was a real eye-opener as to how really big, strong and skilled a player needs to be to compete against them.

Playing senior hockey in the Central Peace Hockey League Murray was not tethered to Hythe alone. He was in fact very ecumenical in his loyalties.  At one point he played for the Spirit River Rangers and while suiting up for them, the Rangers became North Peace champions.

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Spirit River Rangers. North Peace Hockey League champions 2005-2006. Missing from photo is Wade Wallan and Tim Toews. Photo courtesy Mel Vollman

Historically there has been a robust rivalry between the Mustangs and Grande Prairie teams harking back to the GP Red Devils and later the Athletics. However, Murray has a rich hockey tradition in Grande Prairie that includes his five-year stint with the GP North Stars organization. After several years of playing senior hockey in Hythe and Spirit River he took a turn with the Grande Prairie Athletics. There he was reunited with men he remembered from his midget and junior days. They were men that had not left their hometown for college or to play hockey elsewhere. They remained at home - secured jobs with local organizations - played for the local team and volunteered as hockey coaches, referees and in other ways supported the community.

In time there was a notable change in Murray’s attitude toward hockey that involved a significant shift in loyalties. On this rung of the ladder hockey was not Murray’s main focus.

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Bev and Bob Toews with grandson Ty. Photo courtesy Murray Toews

In the tradition of his parents, Bev and Don - first was family – a wife and three children - second – a demanding and rewarding job and then hockey and all it entailed. Playing the game – yes but more importantly giving back to the community through coaching and providing leadership on various boards and committees related to hockey.