Roy Peterson right out of RCMP training, 1953
I was 10 years old. Nothing was more exciting and important to me and other kids of my era such as Barry Edgar and Dave Emerson than to lace up our skates and hit the ice to play hockey. Unfortunately, prior to 1957 ice for kids to skate and cobble together hockey scrimmages was very limited. There was no organized minor hockey: no one advocating for ice dedicated to kids and no centralized rink for public use other than the Memorial Arena that was dedicated largely to games and practices of the senior Grande Prairie Athletics and high school hockey. It is small wonder therefore that the year 1957 is forever etched in my memory and the memory of my peers. It was the first year of the Bear Creek Flats rink the first year when we had our own ice surface: the year when Roy’s dream of a hockey facility for kids materialized.
The Bear Creek Flats rink was to Grande Prairie what the baseball diamond in the movie Field of Dreams, was to small towns in Ohio. “Build it and they will come,” was Roy’s mantra and come we did. It was close to the center of town on the banks of Bear Creek near the location of our Museum. Roy and a handful of volunteers had carefully chosen the space and early in the winter of 1957 fire hoses began the process of making ice. It was a simple ice surface with no boards just a snow berm to contain the water while flooding. Hockey players know there is a down side to berms versus boards. Boards serve to maintain flow in the game and a player rushing along a wing position can pass the puck to himself/herself using the boards. Pucks were not plentiful in that era and many hours were spent by players hunting for the black discs that were launched into snowdrifts beyond the berm. Even today you might get lucky and find an old puck buried in willow crowns adjacent to the Museum. Simple – yes - but it was ours – Roy’s gift to kids like me that asked for nothing more than a sheet of ice to do our hockey thing. It was Roy’s rink of dreams.
Pete Eager, the town’s Fire Chief and Roy’s boss as a volunteer fireman made the pumper truck available to flood the rink regularly and Roy along with other volunteers made it their business to become proficient at using a hose and cold water to make new ice. To make ice under these circumstances was a challenge. It was much more difficult than making ice in the Memorial arena because the water was cold and would freeze the moment it met the ice. For the volunteer holding the hose it was a wet, uncomfortable assignment to flood the rink especially when the mercury hung low in the thermometer. The ice may not have been Olympic quality but Roy observed that the facility provided “unorganized recreational hockey in its purest form for several years.” Countless kids acquired basic skating and hockey skills on the banks of Bear Creek. It was one thing to be able to stickhandle on the well-groomed surface of the Memorial arena. It was quite another thing to keep a puck on your stick while it was performing gymnastics over the cracked and rippled surface of the outdoor rink. Most importantly there was no admission fee and no prescribed schedule. This is where kids who loved hockey came any time they wanted to skate, rag the puck or participate in an informal pick up game of shinny. We would proudly show up whenever possible in odd assortments of sweaters and passed down, makeshift equipment. Obtaining new, state-of-the-art equipment was not affordable for many. Second hand shin pads and skates were common: all that most of us could afford. My most memorable and treasured possessions were hockey hand-me-downs from older brothers Bob and Ron – maybe even remnants of my Dad’s old gear from his hockey playing days during the 1920s in Manitoba – he was a fast talented rover in that era.
Three years after the first rink was flooded on the Bear Creek Flats, the Grande Prairie Minor Hockey Association was formed, with Roy as its first Commissioner, a post he occupied for eight years. Roy was not one to spend time writing plans and conjuring up eloquent purpose statements. He was a man of action. Throughout his tenure as Commissioner, the Association’s major stated objective continued to focus on the simple notion of enabling kids to have fun. However, the Association quickly recognized that the single Bear Creek rink was inadequate for the number of kids like me who wanted to play. Also Roy and his volunteers recognized that kids in town were ready for organized minor hockey. Expanding Roy’s rink on the Bear Creek Flats was the obvious answer for more ice and again it was Hockey Legend Roy Peterson who responded to the need. In the fall of 1959 due to his promotion and “hands on” leadership two full-fledged rinks were constructed to replace the single ice surface. Lumber for boards was provided by Canfor, Alberta Power donated four power poles and overhead lights so the facility could be used at night. Joe Benoit, a local business man had a skid shack pulled into place adjacent to the two rinks. The shack was equipped with a wood burning pot bellied stove. The boards were assembled, volunteers provided wood for the stove to warm frozen feet and hands, and the Bear Creek Flats became a major winter recreation area: the setting in which organized minor hockey was launched. If Roy were here he would insist that RCMP officer Bill Shaw receive recognition as a person who shared his dream and with whom he worked to implement the concept.
I remember the Peterson home on 106th Ave. Minor Hockey’s office was Roy’s front room. It was littered with registration forms in preparation for drafting the teams. I had inside information about the planned hockey program and recall rushing to the back door of his house where Roy had posted a sheet of paper for kids to register for that first organized season of hockey on the Bear Creek Flats. The fee was $1.00 (if you had the money) and if you wanted to play but lacked skates or other equipment it was provided. Roy was determined that any kid who wanted to play the game would not be denied the opportunity. Two hundred and forty eight kids signed up for and played hockey in that first season of the two rinks. A number of kids from that era became career hockey players as the Legends roster shows. More importantly the Bear Creek rinks provided recreation for literally hundreds of kids during the time they existed. It was a place where they learned the principles of good sportsmanship, to be members of a team, and it was a program in which leadership skills were developed. Roy believed that the development of skills and values should go hand in hand. The Bear Creek Flats rinks are long gone but not the memories and not the legacy. Roy – I have but one “beef” that I feel compelled to air now that I have the platform. When I registered almost half a century ago I thought I had an “in” with you and made it known that I wanted to wear the colours of and play with my favourite team – the Toronto Maple Leafs. Shockingly you signed me up with Canadiens and for that entire season I wore a Habs uniform and played against my favourite team.
Along with hundreds of others I played through the minor ranks on the Bear Creek Flats rinks in that program created by Roy. Some of my friends were in the Catholic school system but it did not matter to Roy what school or church we attended, nor was socio-economic background considered. I also learned that having a special relationship with Roy was no advantage. Roy had a strong sense of fairness and ran the program without prejudice toward anyone. He made sure that anyone who wanted to play received that chance: an equal chance. This was the major winter recreation facility for my friends and me during the critical formative years of our development. It was our training ground for things to come but most of all, in keeping with Roy’s major objective, a place for fun.
I don’t recall any written policies for using the facility but there were certain expectations including an unwritten rule that we ought not to skate or play hockey at the flats if the thermometer dipped below 25. I suppose adults had heard stories of frozen lungs and people losing fingers and toes due to frostbite. However, the league found it impossible to keep us off the ice at any temperature and I can’t ever remember games being cancelled due to cold weather. There were a few other unwritten rules including the practice of the losing team having to scrape the ice. That seemed to some like punishment for losing but league officials pointed out that scraping the ice would strengthen the players skating ability and help produce a better team. They had a point – more ice time and an effective power skating exercise.
Roy recognized that in order to reach the number of kids that wanted to play hockey he needed support and fortunately there were many Grande Prairie citizens eager to chip in. They were adults from many different backgrounds and varying abilities who shared Roy’s values and beliefs about kids but they needed leadership along with some organization and infrastructure to activate their interests. Roy provided that leadership and volunteers too numerous to mention came forward. He possessed a quiet but firm and completely unselfish leadership style and that led to a remarkable and effective volunteer force not seen before or since in Grande Prairie. Roy was quick to give credit to the army of volunteers that shared his values and his dreams. They included Bernie Braun, Herb Gitzel, Ernie Radbourne, Bill Walters, Roy Borstad, Bill Leslie, Harold McKay, Dick Beairsto, Fred Dobbyn, Max Henning and Bill Shaw. By 1961, seventy-five men served as coaches, assistant coaches, referees, and others content to work behind the scenes in less obvious roles. They all deserved medals.