Thirty five years after capturing the Canadian junior A championship, the 1979-80 Red Deer Rustlers will be honoured this summer as inductees into the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame.
“And 35 years later, everyone from that team is a contributing member of society. There wasn’t a bad egg among the group,” Graham Parsons, the general manager of the ‘79-80 squad, said Wednesday during a press conference at the Red Deer Rebels Centrium office.
“It was a great group, a great group of guys,” added Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, who was the Rustlers’ premier player during that championship season.
Parsons, Sutter and the likes of local resident and former player Bill Blanchard, who also attended the press conference — along with Gary Seher of the Hockey Alberta Foundation — are still tied together due to that magical run.
The Rustlers defeated the North York, Ont., Rangers 3-2 in the Centennial Cup final in May of 1980, their 100th game of the season. They lost all of 12 times that season en route to winning the Alberta Junior League, Alberta/B.C. and Western Canada titles.
John Chapman was the team coach and the squad featured a unique blend of talent and toughness.
“We had a little bit of everything,” Sutter reminisced. “If you wanted to play a skill game, we’d beat you that way. If you wanted to play a physical game, we could be successful that way too.
“I was talking to Chappy (Chapman) the other day and we agreed that it’s pretty amazing that 35 years later the team still holds AJHL records, both team and individual records.”
One such mark that still stands is Sutter’s 171 regular-season points. The following September, with Chapman recently hired by the Lethbridge Broncos, Sutter headed south as an 18-year-old to play one and a half seasons with the Western Hockey League team.
Already property of the New York Islanders, who made him a first-round selection in the 1980 NHL draft, Sutter joined the big club part way through the 1981-82 campaign and enjoyed a long and illustrious career that included a pair of Stanley Cup championships.
To this day, he credits his experience with the ‘79-80 Rustlers as the definitive jump-start to his playing career.
“Chappy was a superb coach. He taught the key details and fundamentals of the game,” said Sutter. “I was already groomed for pro hockey when I got there. I wasn’t awestruck when I joined the Islanders, even though they had already won two Cups. I already knew what a championship team was about.
“We had an awesome team in Red Deer that season. When you win as a group, and it doesn’t matter at what level . . . whenever you do accomplish something together and win a championship, it sticks with you. When I lived in New York, Chicago and New Jersey through the years, I would think back to that year and what it took for that team to be successful.
“Playing on that team, personally, taught me how to win and the importance of how you have to be a close-knit group off the ice to have success on the ice. It was all about everyone pulling on the rope together. No one went off track. We battled and played like champions.”
For Sutter, the Rustlers’ championship run was extra special considering the train wreck that was the previous season. The team suffered from numerous injuries and player malcontent and went through three coaches.
“It (1978-79) season was a sad point in Rustlers history because of the type of team we had,” said Sutter. “There was no organization, we were all over the map. People were brought in from the outside, people who had never had a clear understanding of the AJHL and how tough of a league it was.”
The Ferguson family sold the franchise following the season to a group that included Brian Sutter, Reg Kinch, Brian Ogilvie, Alf Cadman and Al Pruss, with Parsons also on board as a shareholder.
“No disrespect towards the Ferguson family because they had owned that team for years,” said Sutter. “It had run its course with Lawrence and Sheldon and they decided to sell the team.”
The new ownership group brought Chapman — who had coached the Rustlers two years previous before being cut loose — back into the fold and the rest is history.
“They did the right thing and brought Chappy back,” said Sutter. “He had time to recruit and bring in players. Chappy and Pars (Parsons) had a lot of contacts and they were able to put together a dominant team.”
Chapman and Parsons headed to northern Alberta and B.C. and brought back the likes of forwards Bob Bedier, Ray ‘Cowboy’ Houle — who died in an auto accident in the late ‘80s and is the only deceased member of the team — and Ivan Krook. Red Deer products Blanchard, Randy Moller and Garth Hildebrand also made the club, as did the Pierce brothers — goaltender Darryl (Tiger) and defenceman Roger — from Stettler.
“One thing that stood out with our team was the size of our defence. It was massive,” said Sutter. “Guys like Darrel Anholt, Randy Moller, Glenn Johannesen and Darren McKay were all over 200 pounds.”
The Rustlers ventured into British Columbia on a preseason, three-game road trip and defeated Kamloops, Merritt and Kelowna with ease.
“It was the kickoff to our season and it really helped groom us as a group,” said Sutter. “Every player was a significant part of the team as far as how we played and the roles we played. We had a neat group. The one thing that was common with everybody was character, everyone’s character was top notch. The players would go through the wall for each other.
“We just kept growing as a team as the year went on. We just got better and better.”
Rich and Ron Sutter, Brent’s younger twin brothers, were the youngest players on the team and in 1982 were selected in the first round of the NHL draft, one year after Moller was a first-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques. All three were drafted out of Lethbridge.
Sutter played three seasons in Red Deer despite being courted by the Broncos following his second year with the Rustlers.
“The reasons why I didn’t leave after the second year were that Chappy had me convinced we would have a good team here and my mom and dad didn’t allow any of the boys (Brian, Duane and Darryl played for the Rustlers in earlier years) to leave Red Deer until they graduated high school,” he said.
“After we won in 1980 a bunch of us went to Lethbridge, including the twins who were allowed to leave and complete high school in Lethbridge because Chappy was coaching the team.”
When Sutter bought the Rebels franchise in 1999 he considered changing the name from Rebels to Rustlers, then decided against the notion.
“I could have done it, although there would have been some hurdles to go through,” he said. “But at the end of the day I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do. The Rustlers have their own legacy in the city and they will 100 years from now.”
• The Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame induction banquet will be held July 25 in Canmore . . . Tickets, tables and sponsorships can be purchased online at www.hockeyalberta.ca/foundation or by contacting Danielle Nystrom at 403-967-0041 or by email at email@example.com.