Many are mourning the loss of Central Alberta’s quintessential Santa Claus and a Red Deer hockey legend.
Gary Swanson, 68, died after complications from a stroke Friday and his father Cecil (Cec) Swanson, 93, died the same day after suffering a heart attack while on his way to visit his son one last time at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.
Cec, an Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, is well-known for his 40-plus years of skate-sharpening in Red Deer.
“We just lost an icon. He was Mr. Hockey,” said Al Sim, Red Deer Minor Hockey president. “He was like everybody’s grandpa. He cared for every child, every coach and had a heart of gold.”
Swanson Skate Sharpening opened in the Red Deer Arena in 1975 and still runs today in the Kinsmen Twin Arenas.
Sim said that skate-sharpening shop was “the pulse of hockey” in Red Deer.
“You’d hang out at the counter, Cec would tell you stories and you’d catch the highlights of the hockey game on his small black-and-white TV in between periods or before practice,” said Sim.
Sim said Cec charged much less for skate sharpens than he could have because he loved supporting hockey families.
“He had a 50-cent increase a couple years ago and felt so guilty about it. That’s the kind of guy Cec was,” he said.
Both Cec and Gary were staples in the community, Sim added.
Cec was the Alberta Junior Hockey League president for five years, served as the Alberta Amateur Hockey Association zone director on different occasions and was the coach, manager, and for a brief period, the owner of the Red Deer Rustlers.
The Rustlers won two provincial championships and a Western Canadian Championship while he was with the team.
Gary, who had quite the hockey career as well, playing major junior in Swift Current and Estevan and college hockey in the United States, played Santa Claus at the Parkland Mall for 15 years.
Darcy Notland,who took photos of Gary as Santa Claus with families, said he was a “consummate professional” as Saint Nick.
“When we started all this he’d never did it before … so we kind of fumbled our way through it, but he eventually fell into his own.
“His personality really came through. He wasn’t trying to be someone he wasn’t, he was just a truly kind person and wanted to give people the time to talk and make them feel like they were important,” Notland said.
Notland said he’s taken photos with many Santas over the years, but Gary is one of the best.
“He could connect with everybody – young kids, newlyweds, teenagers, middle-aged people, seniors – he just had an ability in him.
“You couldn’t ask for a better guy,” Notland said. “People would come from Edmonton and would travel through snow storms every year just to see him.”
As Santa Claus, Gary would visit the Red Deer Regional Hospital and Ronald McDonald House every Christmas Eve. He would also participate in many events to raise money for Ronald McDonald House and the Red Deer Women’s Shelter.
Gary was an equipment operator for Border Paving for 35 years.
At Cec’s request, there will be no service. People are encouraged to make donations to the Heart and Stroke Foundation or Ronald McDonald House.