SLIDESHOW — Red Deer's hockey roots run deep
The Red Deer Rustlers’ history was filled with financial struggles, coaching and ownership changes.
But the franchise also produced a pair of national championships (1971 and 1980) and some of the best players ever to come out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
The Rustlers played a major role in Red Deer’s sporting history, one that the Red Deer Rebels will honour tonight.
The Rebels will wear replica jerseys from the 1979-80 national championship team, as they host the Prince Albert Raiders at the Centrium at 7:30 p.m.
Rebels owner/GM/head coach Brent Sutter was the leader of the 1980 Centennial Cup championship team that beat the North York Rangers 3-2 in the nationally televised final.
Sutter and his son Merrick, who is the senior vice-president of the Rebels, wanted to honour the Rustlers, who folded for good after the 1988-89 season.
“We’ve talked for a couple of years about having some sort of vintage jersey night, so we decided on the Centennial Cup jersey and it worked out,” said Merrick Sutter.
“They were definitely the pioneers of junior hockey in Red Deer and when they folded, it left a void. Looking back, they were a major historical point for the city.”
The Rustlers were born in 1967, thanks to Alf Cadman, who wanted to enter a team in the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League (the forerunner of the Western Hockey League). However, that move had to be accepted by the Alberta Amateur Hockey Association, whose board voted 44-40 against the move and instead put them in as a sixth team in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Despite losing several players, and eventually coach Buster Brayshaw, because of the decision, Cadman didn’t let it deter him. He took over behind the bench and guided the team to a first-place finish. They eventually lost in the league final to the Edmonton Movers, but it was the birth of an organization that went on to win eight AJHL titles and two Centennial Cups.
The team captured its first Canadian title — in the first year of the Centennial Cup — in 1971, beating Charlottetown Islanders 4-2 in a best-of-seven playoff, all in the P.E.I. capital.
They won the 1980 crown in Toronto.
Wynne Dempster, who coached the team from 1980-85, was a second-year member of the team in 1970-71 and remembers what winning the first national crown meant to the city.
“We flew back to Edmonton and bused to the Parkland Mall,” he explained. “We were told we’d have a parade and we thought ‘Oh sure, who would show up for that?’ But we did it and were amazed. We travelled from the mall to the Arena and for the most part people were two and three deep most of the way. We get to the Arena and there’s 4,000 people packed in there. It showed what it meant winning a national championship.”
Two years ago, the Rustlers were inducted into the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame, which brought back many fond memories for Dempster.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal until we got there and heard the comments and the people clapping,” he said. “You realize it was something special.”
Dempster is one of many former Rustlers who have made Red Deer home. The native of Grimshaw moved to Red Deer to play with the team. In 1972, he went to play pro in the States, but 10 years later he was back to stay.
It was while he was in the U.S. that he saw what the Rustlers meant to the city.
“I was in the East Coast and most of the players were from the east, but they knew the Rustlers. Everywhere you went the Rustlers, and Red Deer, were held in a good light. Winning the national title was a big thing for the team and the city. It was like when the Rebels won the Memorial Cup.”
The Rustlers also reached the Centennial Cup final in 1972. After winning the AJHL playoffs, they played Vernon. During a tight game at the Arena, with the Rustlers trailing, the lights mysteriously went out. Many joked that Cadman turned them off just to get his team refocused. He said he didn’t but if he did, it worked — the Rustlers won the series 4-2.
The Rustlers eventually lost to Guelph 4-0 in a best-of-seven final in the Ontario city.
The 1971-72 season was the end of an era for the team as Cadman sold the club to the community. Eleven shareholders ran the team and they had some success over the next several years, winning a fourth league title in 1973-74, but also missing the playoffs for the first time the following season.
The team’s financial struggles continued, and several coaching and ownership changes were made.
Cadman returned as a part owner in 1975 and in 1979, Sheldon Ferguson sold his shares to former Rustlers Brian Sutter, Reg Kinch, Brian Ogilvie and Graham Parsons. Cadman, Clarence Koch and Chris Mundle remained in the ownership group.
The move, combined with the naming of Parsons as GM and John Chapman as coach, paid dividends: they won the league, then beat Penticton and Prince Albert to advance to the 1980 Centennial Cup tournament.
Dempster came on board as coach the following season and saw first-hand the financial struggles.
“I really enjoyed the coaching part of it, but the hard work was trying to generate enough money to get paid,” he said. “There were stretches when it was tough to make sure you got a paycheque.”
The problems persisted and following the 1984-85 season, the team asked the league for a year’s leave of absence.
The Rustlers returned in 1986-87, after a new ownership group of Parsons, Kinch, Cec Swanson and Dave Cuming agreed to purchase the team if they could sell 500 season tickets. Brian de Bruyn started the season on the bench, but after a slow start Larry Billows came on board and took the team to its seventh league title.
Financial problems were front and centre again in 1987, when a new group of owners asked the players to take a reduction in their honouraria. The players refused and the team was shut down in midseason.
However, Billows and Marv Siebel stepped in and found owners in Greg Noval and Gary Unrau.
But despite winning the league title in 1988-89, the team continued to lose money and it was disbanded and expelled from the league.
“It got so that a lot of the fans were disillusioned because players would be here a year or so and move up to the Western League. Plus, fans didn’t want to sit in the cold Arena,” before it was renovated, said Dempster. “We needed a facility and we were trying to get a tier I team. But there was no way we’d get one without a new facility.”
The Centrium was completed in 1991 and the Rebels joined the WHL in 1992-93.
Dempster is proud of his time with the Rustlers and knows they’ll always be a foundation of the Red Deer sports scene.
“They are a major part of our history,” he said.
Dempster will be among the former Rustlers on hand for the Heritage Night tonight at the Centrium.
“We’re looking for as many Rustler alumni to be on hand as we can,” said Merrick Sutter.
The Rebels will have jerseys, programs, newspaper clippings and memorabilia from the Rustler days on the concourse.
Finning Canada will be a major sponsor for the evening, along with the Rebels. Replica jerseys will be auctioned off and presented to the winners following the game. All proceeds will go to the Central Alberta Chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society.
The Regina Pats are also playing a part in the evening as they have sent shells for the pants the Rebels to wear tonight, to add to the uniform look.
“The Prince Albert Raiders would have used their old jerseys as well, which would have been awesome, but they don’t have white, only green,” said Merrick, who said the club will look at honouring other Central Alberta teams down the road.
“Not likely every year as it would get stale, but we certainly will look at mixing the old with the new. It’s a year-by-year thing and we’re open to whatever comes up down the road.”