Red Deer. We call it “The Memorable City.”
I often wonder, what if I had come to know hockey some place else? What if my coming of age in the sport was with someone as aimless as me? Blessedly, my dad’s Air Force career brought us here in 1972.
In my first month at school my fellow students and I were gathered in the gym at St. Thomas Aquinas watching Canada versus the Soviet Union in Game 8 of the Summit Series. At the end of the second period, with the Soviets ahead 5-3, the boys went outside with our gym teacher Mr. Ackerman to play a scheduled touch football game. Mr. Ackerman brought along a transistor radio to monitor the hockey game, and when he hollered “Hey, Esposito has scored, it’s 5-4… let’s get back inside,” we rushed to the auditorium and shared with the rest of the country, if not the greatest, at least the most important victory in our sport’s history.
Paul Henderson will tell you that winning the Memorial Cup 10 years earlier with the Hamilton Red Wings gave him the feeling he could accomplish something special.
After the Summit Series, Al Ferchuk, the Dean of Athletics at Red Deer College, went to Russia to study their program. He was amazed to find that they were using the teachings of Canadian Lloyd Percival. Percival’s 1951 publication “The Hockey Handbook,” and his radio show, CBC’s Sports College on the Air, which debuted in 1944, influenced a generation of followers. Those followers included one Donald S. Cherry, who devoured the book and never missed a broadcast.
Ferchuk was a disciple of Percival. I used to sneak into the Red Deer Arena and watch Al run practises. He mixed Percival’s methods with the Russian approach. Like the Russians, Al’s power play came from soccer, a series of small two-on-ones. He used a volleyball bump back to start the offensive attack. Ferchuk’s Red Deer College Kings won three national titles.
In 1988 he decided to stop coaching. He hired a kid fresh out of McGill University in Montreal to coach the Kings. A kid who used to sneak into the Montreal Forum and watch Scotty Bowman run practises: Mike Babcock. Red Deer was like that. A wellspring of wisdom and opportunity. That was the academic part.
I would also need to understand courage, intensity, and role-playing. Well, in 1972 right after Henderson scored, I first laid eyes on Brian Sutter. I got to see all six of the Sutters as they played for our Junior A Red Deer Rustlers. I witnessed the scars of the workplace, I learned about sacrifice.
It’s funny, Red Deer’s first hockey hero was Oscar Asmundson, who won the Stanley Cup in 1933 with the New York Rangers. Oscar, or Ossie as he was known, drew a penalty against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the deciding game and Kingston’s Bill Cook scored the Rangers’ Cup-winning goal. A Red Deerian and a Kingstonian, a very Canadian coming together.
The same mix as our little foxhole, Coach’s Corner. Don, A Memorial Cup champion himself with The Barrie Flyers and I, are inspired for today.
Here in “The Memorable City,” we have the two teams still standing at the end of this eternal trench that leads straight from the heart into our past.