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Game on!

Hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer: these two sports have been mainstays in Sturgeon County's 100 year history, and are the subject of this month's Roots of History feature.
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HOCKEY CHAMPS — Hockey continues to be an important part of Calahoo, says Lyle Quintal of the West Sturgeon Agricultural Society, with many storied players and teams skating it out in the local arena, shown here. Like many rural sport facilities, this arena was built mostly with local labour.

Roots of History
The Gazette is digging into a different part of Sturgeon County’s history each month this year to commemorate the county’s centennial. Do you have a topic you want covered? Email kevinyma@gmail.com with your suggestions.

Remi Cyr spent last Friday night doing what county residents have done for decades – watching a hockey game.

In this case, he was at St. Albert’s Servus Place to cheer on his grandson, Dominique Cyr. But for many of his 73 years, Cyr has been on the ice himself, playing against teams like the Vimy Rockets and the Westlock Eagles.

“It’s been good to me,” he said of hockey.

“I still play the game and I still enjoy it.”

Like many county residents, Cyr grew up listening to the slap of the puck and the crack of the bat. Sports have been a constant presence in his history and that of Sturgeon County, drawing people and communities together for decades.

The start of the game

Hockey and baseball arrived in Alberta in the late 1800s along with settlers and prospectors riding the railroad, reports the Alberta Sports History Library. Baseball teams were active in Alberta and Saskatchewan as early as the 1860s, with northern Alberta seeing its first hockey game in Edmonton on Christmas Day, 1894.

You didn’t have Nintendo or other distractions back then, so pretty much every kid would play hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer, said longtime Legal resident and hockey player Raymond de Champlain, 56.

“The hockey team and the baseball team when I was growing up ... was the glue that held the community together,” he said.

Games were big social events, and everyone would come out to watch the senior teams play, de Champlain said. Sports and community involvement often went hand-in-hand, and you’d often see the same parents who were cheering on their kids at games be the ones volunteering for Fête au Village and other activities.

Paul Riopel, who grew up in Morinville and is the commissioner of the North Central Alberta Baseball League, said baseball was often played during the large Sunday picnics typically held by church groups in the early 1900s. These early games were very informal, and were played by whoever showed up. Town-versus-town games started up as communities grew more confident in their identities and rivalries developed.

Early 1900s ball diamonds would have been rough, unfenced areas with sacks for bases and maybe some posts and chicken mesh for a backstop, Riopel said. By the 1950s, you saw permanent diamonds with actual bases turn up.

De Champlain said most hockey games in the county were played on outdoor rinks prior to the 1960s. These were open-air affairs with natural ice and tiny players’ shacks that were freezing in the morning and boiling by mid-game.

De Champlain recalled how many of his games happened during snowstorms. One game had so much snowfall during it that they had to stop playing and start shovelling every five minutes.

“The puck was going under the snow. You could see a trail, and that was it.”

Where they played

Weather concerns pushed many county communities to build enclosed arenas, the first of which was Morinville’s.

Work started on what is now the Ray McDonald Sports Centre around 1959, said Morinville resident Lucien Houle, 83, who helped build it.

Hearing that the Edmonton Exhibition ground owners had plans to demolish a Second World War-era hangar on their property, town fire chief Ray McDonald led a push to have Morinville buy the place for “next to nothing,” Houle said. With the help of about a hundred local volunteers, McDonald tore the place apart, hauled every board and nail back to town, and over the course of two years rebuilt and expanded it into an arena.

“Everyone was pretty gung-ho to do this thing,” said Houle, as pretty much everyone had someone involved with hockey.

Businessman Joseph H. Perras donated vehicles, while Morinville Hotel owner Hymie Klein raised some $30,000 for the project through hockey and baseball game pools, Houle said. Omer Houle and Ferd Steffes, both in their 70s, spent almost an entire summer pulling nails out of boards.

Cyr recalled how teams started playing games in the arena before the roof was complete. Which team got to play on the side not covered by snow was often a point of contention.

Calahoo’s arena came about in 1972 as a project of the West Sturgeon Agricultural Society, said longtime resident and society board member Lyle Quintal. Local families co-signed the loan for the project, while volunteers stepped up to build the rink boards and (for many years) run the Zamboni. Many NHL players came out of this rink, including Craig Berube, Frank Banham, and (most recently) Ian Mitchell of the Chicago Blackhawks.

“We’re proud to say we’ve produced some pretty good talent out here,” Quintal said.

Leagues and sponsors

Big business was a frequent sponsor of the county’s sports teams. A Legal GM dealership backed the Legal Pontiacs, for example, while the Morinville Manufacturers were supported by that town’s Craig’s Manufacturing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, businessman such as Joseph H. Perras started bringing high-powered players up from the U.S. each summer to supplement local ones and hold a county-wide tournament circuit, the games of which played out at county fairs such as Frontier Daze and Fête au Village, Riopel said.

“That was where baseball really showed its glory years,” he said, with almost every village, hamlet and town fielding its own team.

You had the Bon Accord Tigers, the Rochester Royals, the Vimy Blues, even the Alexander Braves, the latter of which would perform a victory dance around the pitcher’s mound whenever they won a game.

“It was a very colourful spectacle,” Riopel said.

Sturgeon County has seen many sports leagues come and go. One of the longest-lived ones is the North Central Alberta Baseball League, which formed in Morinville in 1967 under the leadership of Riopel, Westlock’s Chuck Keller and Bon Accord’s Hugh Allen, and is still active today.

The league allowed players to play more games and improve their skills, Riopel said. It also led to the creation of the Morinville Pioneers, who, with the help of coach Ray Brown (who now coaches the Edmonton Prospects), crushed pretty much everyone they played against in Alberta for much of the 1970s.

Tomorrow’s game

Today, sports are a major focus of life in Sturgeon County. Hundreds of kids and parents zip to and from practice games every day, many at sports facilities supported through cost-sharing agreements signed with the county. One of the biggest issues now before county council is how much Sturgeon should contribute to the new Morinville rec-centre, which could soon host athletes from across the region.

Hockey and baseball aren’t as dominant as they once were, but Riopel said they’re still very much part of the social fabric.

“Who does not own a baseball cap? Who doesn’t like to soft-toss with their sons in the backyard?”

Calahoo’s arena is now a major community centre, busy every day of the week with weddings, trade shows, concerts and various sports, Quintal said. It also hosts an active men’s hockey league that draws players from throughout the county as well as St. Albert.

“It’s not only brought our community together, but the county as a whole and the surrounding areas.”

Cyr said eight of his 11 grandkids now play hockey, with a few of them trying out for junior teams. As for himself, he still laces up for the occasional game, and often runs into other players from his amateur days.

“It’s a good feeling to be able to see people on the ice again where we had so much fun together.”





Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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