At first glance, it looked completely out of context. Two Lethbridge Hurricanes, seated on the home bench, with bouquets of flowers in their hands.
The rest of the scene was as usual, a full house of more than 5,200 fans, the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers occupying their station, waiting for a Western Hockey League battle to ensue, and there sat two young men waiting nervously, as if preparing for a prom date.
This, however, wasn’t a regular game night; instead this was a celebration of hockey – Lethbridge hockey – of which these two young men would play an integral role. Because they would embody a link between past and present that typifies the deep roots that run throughout hockey in this southern Alberta city.
In succession, Brody Sutter and Max Ross would climb over the boards and skate their bouquets to centre ice, presenting them to their grandmothers, Grace Sutter and Marg Ross respectively. Grace, the matriarch of the Sutter family, was there as the Hurricanes paid tribute to the six Sutters who played for the Lethbridge Broncos, the ’Canes predecessors, before embarking on their pro careers. Brody is the eighth Sutter to play junior hockey in Lethbridge and the second grandson.
The Ross family will forever be linked to the Sutters as it was their house that billeted all six of the Sutter boys and now, some 30 years later, the grandsons of these two families are teammates.
Lethbridge hockey is about the Broncos, the Sutters and the Hurricanes but it is also about so much more. Hockey in this town cannot be defined by one franchise, one five-year snapshot of youth because it is a lifelong game that grows and adapts as we age, becoming something different at each stage of life.
Just ask Jerry LeGrandeur, provincial court judge, former University of Alberta Golden Bear player and now, a hockey oldtimer. His Lethbridge hockey experience began when he was a 12-year-old newcomer to Lethbridge, playing on indoor artificial ice for the first time after growing up on the ponds of Pincher Creek.
Hockey for LeGrandeur then, as it surely is for many kids today, was first and foremost a means to meet friends, to fit in and find his place. “There are guys on that first team I played on, the Red Wings, I still run into now,” LeGrandeur says. “Terry Royer, a guy I later ended up going to law school with, and Dan Paskuski, who I’d later play with on the Lethbridge Sugar Kings. I made a lot of friends and I still have them.
“It is a game where, as a young person, you make friends and develop ties that last for years. Hockey is and continues to be not just an athletic endeavour but a means of interacting with people, meeting people, making friends and making contacts.”
Syd Hall has made a few friends through hockey over the years, even some he may have thought were his enemy. Born and raised in Lethbridge, his definition of Lethbridge hockey stretches back to the old Lethbridge Arena and his involvement with the Sugar Kings. He managed LeGrandeur’s team and saw it through the early days of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Now, 80 years old, Hall is still involved in hockey, refereeing the oldtimers every Monday and Thursday morning. He threw the striped jersey on for nine games when the city hosted the 55-Plus Alberta Winter Games and sees no end in sight for his officiating days.
It was at those games where he ran into an old foe, former Red Deer Rustlers general manager and coach Alf Cadman. “He didn’t recognize me but I introduced myself and said I wanted to shake his hand,” says Hall. “I always had a lot of respect for him but we were bitter rivals back then. He told me he didn’t want to shake my hand; he wanted to give me a hug. I guess he had a little respect for me too and I thought that was really neat. That made me feel good.”
Lethbridge hockey is Olympic champion Billy Gibson, the world champion Lethbridge Maple Leafs and the old Arena going up in flames.
It’s the Canada Games Sportsplex, the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, the Maxwells and the Lethbridge Athletic Association. It is one thing to some and so many things to many more.
“My identity of Lethbridge hockey and Lethbridge hockey players is the nuts and bolts kind of guys,” Pronghorns head coach Greg Gatto says. “I think of Ron Salter and Brian McNaughton coaching the bantam AAA teams where hard work prevailed over everything.”
Gatto came to Lethbridge for his final season of midget AAA hockey before graduating to the Western Hockey League, coming back to the U of L and winning a university national title, going on to pro hockey and once again returning to coach his alma mater. Like Hurricanes head coach Michael Dyck, he returned to his roots for the next stage of his hockey career. Gatto now experiences hockey at one of its highest levels, as the U of L coach, and also at its grassroots, as a minor hockey dad.
“Now with my kid in minor hockey you see all ends of it,” Gatto says.
“Your friends now become who is on your hockey team. Your friends in university, who you had a close relationship with, if you had kids at different stages, you don’t see them as much as you do the people you’re at the rink with three times a week.”
Time and again, hockey is seen as much more than a game but a social network, a lifestyle.
“I have a saying in our family that hockey is life,” adds LeGrandeur, who had two sons, Tim and Dave, play for the U of L. “Everything that you have in life, all the challenges you face, all the things you need to meet, you have already found in hockey and it helps you grow and to meet those challenges of everyday life.”
Lethbridge hockey most certainly has an identity but the tough part about defining it is that it varies from person to person and family to family.
“Hockey maintains itself in your life as a fabric of your life as long as you want,” says LeGrandeur.
“It’s just a continual thing in our lives; it’s tied people together with friendships and connected people over the years and always will.”
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