Hockey Legends

of Grande Prairie

Back Row: Bob Rigler, Charlie Turner, Max Henning, Johnny MacMillan, Cliff Guitard, Roy Bell
Front Row: Billy Bessent, Al (Skinner) Bell, Harvey Merryfield (Manager), Mike Malarchuck (goalie), Lou Giroux, Carl Gudryn, Lawrence Blais

Max Henning: Tales of Armed and Unarmed Combat

I watched, spell bound from a position of advantage along the corner boards as directly in front of me Max soundly thrashed an opposing player. Max was an airman, home on furlough playing a game with his old team, the local D-Company before heading overseas. Ironically he was squaring off against a member of an Air Force team of service men stationed at the local airbase. Fate might well have decreed that the following week they would be serving the Allied forces overseas on the same crew. The benches emptied and all members of both teams were “duking” it out. Spectators supporting both sides spilled onto the ice to join the fray. The scene was anything but a graceful dance what with military issue great coats and thick-soled army boots meeting the ice. Fuelled by mickeys and White Horse over-proof rum it was an accomplishment just to remain upright: forget throwing or taking a punch. All was bedlam and well beyond the ability of the referees, the local Constabulary and the Military Police to stop the conflict. In an attempt to restore order all of the lights in the arena were extinguished but that failed to squelch the testosterone. Combatants fought on in the dark. Finally the National Anthem was played and unlike the casual and unpatriotic attitudes of players today who shuffle, shift and star gaze when National Anthems are played, everyone on and off the ice came to attention never moving a muscle. I can’t remember for sure but it may have taken two renditions of the Anthem before tempers cooled, equipment was sorted out and before the game continued.

While Max was big and strong he was not known as a fighter. He could look after himself but he was on the ice to play hockey. Unlike professional hockey today with its enforcers and agitators there were no formal role players other than forwards, centers, defense and goal tenders. Fights certainly did occur but they were spontaneous outbreaks and at times, as illustrated above, even the crowd became involved. Interestingly, apart from split lips and black eyes I don’t ever recall serious injuries. (Ron Neufeld).

The year is 1951, and the team pictured above is the revived Grande Prairie Red Devils. The team was structured around three veterans, GP Hockey Legend Max Henning, Charlie Turner and Billy Bessent. Further details concerning Billy and Charlie are recorded in a previous article “Heroes and Legends In the Making”. When this picture was taken all three men had been home from WW11 for six years and had played a major role in reviving and re-structuring hockey in Grande Prairie.
Max was a hero on several fronts. He was a pre-war hockey favorite who played at every level of hockey the town supported culminating in an invitation to play for the legendary pre-war Grande Prairie Red Devils at age seventeen. He was a skilled defenseman who played rugged hockey, a Grande Prairie hockey trademark. He was tough to get around and tough to stop when he gained momentum on one of his crowd rousing end-to-end rushes. At age eighteen, he made his case to Air Force recruiters to join the war effort against Nazi Germany as an airman. Max went into basic training and became certified as a pilot before heading overseas.

In the Tactical Bomber Command overseas Max flew a B-25 Mitchell first as a Pilot Officer and then as a Flying Officer – he was nineteen. Max made thirty-eight flights during his three-year military career (1941 – 1944). They were a crew of four: himself, two gunners, and the “old man” of the crew, a twenty-year old wireless operator/navigator. “I knew a young gunner from Grande Prairie that I requested as one of my crew but they would not allow other Grande Prairie youth to fly with me, reported Max. Within ten minutes following a call from the army we would be on-site providing air support for troops on the ground. The formations were all close and dangerous and I had a number of close calls including two crash landings but somehow we survived.” Max and his crew were among the first to land on French runways. Unlike a number of other Grande Prairie lads Max was not able to play hockey overseas but he was an all around athlete and while in France he played English Rugger with an Australian team. “I played with and against some rugger pros from Australia and if you emerged from a scrum with all of your limbs intact you were lucky. It is a form of unarmed combat.” said Max. But wait Max - how does that differ from a hockey melee involving all members from both teams and spectators? Clearly Max was very durable having walked away from the unarmed combat zone of rugger and the armed combat context of crash landings.

Max’s early recollections of hockey include trips as far away from Grande Prairie as Sexsmith (22kms. – 14 miles) that took 3 ½ hours one way in Jimmy Miller’s hay filled horse drawn sled. Today one could travel to and from Chicago in the same time. All away games and most home games and scrimmages were played on open-air rinks. There were several outdoor rinks in Grande Prairie, back yard rinks, and hockey was played on Bear Creek, and nearby lakes and ponds. Occasionally games were played on the old Wapiti arena but Max reports,

"Except for better ice conditions the breezy old barn was not much better than outdoor venues. We were colder coming out of the arena than when we went in. However it was exciting to play in a covered area, in front of a crowd where the legendary senior Red Devils and local heroes like Charlie Turner and the Wright brothers performed. As a goal judge at ten years of age I watched my heroes play from a dangerous but privileged vantage point. Perched on the base of a net I dodged pucks that whistled past my head and raised my hand when goals were scored. It was a ringside location to watch the scrums and scraps that frequently took place around the net." (Max).

Zambonis were unheard of. A fifty-gallon fuel drum on a hand drawn sled was used in the Wapiti Arena. It was an art to control a bouncing puck on the ice surface of Bear Creek and lakes or ponds where the ice was typically rough and rippled. Conditions for skating were improved by cutting a hole in the ice and using pails to distribute water over the surface. Max recalls that sometimes water tanks on horse drawn sleds were used to flood community rinks.

Max inherited interest in hockey from his Dad, Leonard, who supported hockey as a volunteer at all levels, not just for Max and his friends but for all kids in the community. Although there is no record of Leonard playing hockey, he was a speed skater competing in ice carnivals when he lived in Ontario. The prize for winning was a sack of flour or a box of apples. “Every winter my Dad flooded the back yard and I scrimmaged with friends on ice covered ditches, Bear Creek, and sloughs: wherever a patch of ice could be found”, said Max.

In Max’s youth Depression era financial conditions limited the amount of money available for hockey equipment.

"We used magazines for shin pads, tied up our pant legs and used rubber rings from inner tubes to keep the magazines in place. At senior games we would scrap with other kids for broken sticks and wire them together as best we could. Skates, magazine shin pads, a puck and a stick were all we needed to mimic our hockey heroes. I remember my first pair of skates. They were old style tube skates that my Dad purchased for $4.95 – three sizes too big so I would not quickly grow out of them. We could trade in our old skates for new ones at the local hardware store but that was too expensive so old skates were repaired as long as they fit. I was a trend-setter when I purchased a new pair of CCMs with diamond shaped tubes. I was flattered, when others including hockey Legend Charlie Turner who was twelve years older followed my lead as quickly as they could.

It was a dream for local kids to play for the Edmonton Athletic Club (EACs) one of the top junior teams in the Nation. It was a hockey high light in Grande Prairie when the EACs came for an exhibition game and integrated players from the Northern Lights, our local Junior team into their roster and two teams were formed. Names of other WW 11 veterans that played with and against me prior to the war were Eddie (Baby Face) Nelson, Billy and Bobby Bessent, Art Weist, and Cliff Wright. Hockey was an important aspect of growing up in the pre-war, depression era Grande Prairie." (Max).

If hockey was an important activity in Max’s pre-war, growing up years it was even more important in helping Max and other WW11 veterans adjust to civilian life in post war Grande Prairie. Bob Card was one of Max’s friends and hockey buddies before the war. Max reports that on two occasions Bob saved him from drowning while swimming in the murky waters of Bear Creek. Bob Card was also a pilot overseas. With Max as President they teamed up in Grande Prairie after the war to form the Key Club that sponsored a hockey team to accommodate returning veterans who wanted to play. Several other vets formed a team the played under the Legion banner. Casualties during the war had thinned the ranks of players so the returning vets gathered younger players around them and before the South Peace Hockey League was re-established a five-team league with three teams from Grande Prairie was formed. On the ice the vets were guardians of the younger players discouraging opponents from taking liberties with their younger protégés. On and off the ice they were heroes and role models.

Hockey Legend Bob Neufeld reports that he was among the younger set that benefited from Max’s leadership. “I was in High School, very impressionable and Max made sure I behaved myself and kept me on an even keel. Max was instrumental in arranging for me to go to Edmonton and try out for the EACs. I played senior hockey with Max for a number of years on teams that included the Key Club, Red Devils and Athletics. His contributions in other ways just go on and on.” (GP Hockey Legend - Bob Neufeld). Max played Old Timer hockey after he retired from the Athletics but his involvement and influence on the game did not end with playing or with Bob Neufeld’s generation. Since Max returned from England in 1945 there has been a continuous thread of volunteer activity to the present – sixty-eight years.

Shortly after the war the old Wapiti arena was condemned leaving the senior team without a home and there were not enough outdoor rinks to serve the needs of kids wanting to skate and play hockey. Max was among the army of volunteers who were determined to remedy the problem. Max played with and against Hockey Legend and former Mayor Oscar Blais but their most noteworthy teamwork was not on the ice. It revolved around volunteer activities and accomplishments as they served Grande Prairie on the town council. Hockey and other sports were a proving ground for cooperative behavior and leadership abilities. They scored hat tricks and hit home runs both on and off the ice. An important priority for both men was the building of infrastructure to serve the recreational needs of kids in town. For example, materials and labor crews were mobilized to replace the condemned Wapiti Arena with the War Memorial Arena, dedicated to veterans of the war. Later, “Max was influential with the development of outdoor rinks on the Bear Creek Flats in the late 50’s – one of the first guys I talked to and who helped and went on to coach.” (GP Hockey Legend - Roy Peterson). Max could often be seen operating the fire truck and flooding outdoor rinks throughout the town. He coached, refereed, was a fund-raiser and served in a variety of leadership roles that promoted hockey and other sports. For years he operated a concession stand to raise funds for the Senior Athletics. He is a founding member of the Legends Committee, is now an honorary member and continues to be an invaluable source of Grande Prairie Hockey history.

Call him a chip off the old block or acknowledge that acorns land close to the tree. A generation later, like Father – like son, Max supported his son Cam and his friends in the same way that Leonard had supported him. Max was a “natural” as a coach and mentor – he loved kids, he knew the game and he was part of the process that saw Cam play his way through the minor hockey system in Grande Prairie. Stan Neufeld and Cam were contemporaries and for a number of years were defence partners while playing with the Athletics. Playing against Hythe Mustangs the Athletics goaltender- turned- coach, Dale Gaume, made a puzzling decision moving the defensive pair of Stan and Cam to a forward line and it paid off. Both players scored hat tricks that night and they defeated Hythe by a score of 9 -3. As a team mate and Sports Reporter for the Tribune Stan had occasion to evaluate Cam and he reports that Cam was “An outstanding athlete and model ambassador of the game in every respect. He perpetuates the Henning legacy and bears tribute to a dedicated Father. Cam was an All Star in the South Peace Hockey League, named MVP, played in the Alberta Junior Hockey league in Ponoka and left his mark in the Beaver Hockey League as playing coach with the Sexsmith Generals. Cam’s accomplishments as a player are significant but most importantly he returned to Grande Prairie and like his Father now gives back to the community that nurtured him.

Max has a long record of supporting young hockey players. Goal tender Jack Barton grew up in Beaverlodge, played for the Junior Athletics and was subsequently indentured to the Edmonton Oil Kings for $500.00. Jack returned to Grande Prairie after a winning season with the Quesnel Kangaroos and immediately suited up to play with the Junior Athletics against Dawson Creek with Max as Manager. Following the game, Dawson Creek lodged a protest claiming that due to his association with the Oil Kings, hockey’s version of peonage, he was ineligible to play and they were right. Max immediately went to work to resolve the matter by purchasing Jack’s rights from the Oil Kings for $500.00 – the first Junior player to be purchased in the Peace River Country. But for Max’s intervention Jack would have been prevented from played the game he loved. “He’s a wonderful man and I’m grateful for his support during that time.” (Jack Barton). Cam, Stan, Jack and other young people too numerous to mention are monuments to Max.

Max’s relentless efforts and ambitious ventures as a public servant and volunteer in Grande Prairie bear witness to a returned vet who believed that if we could defeat the formidable Nazi German war machine of WW11 you can do anything. “Max is one of the Godfathers of all things hockey in Grande Prairie.” (GP Hockey Legend - Terry Bangen). Cam Henning has replaced his Dad on the Grande Prairie Hockey Legends Committee where once again he is teamed up with his old defense partner Stan Neufeld. The Henning legacy has passed hands into a third generation.

Information for the above article is the product of research and interviews conducted by Stan Neufeld.

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