It was a dark day in early 2004 when Red Deer College pulled the plug on the Kings hockey team after almost 40 years.
The team’s alumni chipped in close to $40,000 during the 2003-04 season alone to keep the team alive. But in the end they couldn’t continue to support the team if the college didn’t have funds available.
“It was very much a financial decision but a tough decision that had to be made,” said RDC director of athletics Keith Hansen, who was the Kings volleyball coach at the time.
Over the last decade, there has been much talk about bringing back the team, which was started in 1968. The turning point was a comment by RDC president Joel Ward, after a pointed challenge by former coach Mike Babcock.
“The last three or four years there’s been some serious talk, but honestly it wasn’t until we started the Athletic Leadership Fund (ALF) and until president Ward said they would make it happen that it became a reality. When Joel said that, a lot of people went to work and made it happen. A lot of credit to Joel for making that decision. It was a big call on his part.”
Ward, and the college, were challenged in 2010 by former Kings head coach and current Detroit Red Wings boss Babcock during a speech at the RDC Scholarship Breakfast to bring back the team.
“The challenge got the ball rolling and Joel followed in a positive way,” said Hansen. “And then credit to everyone at the college to come up with a plan where all the money is coming from outside sources. None of it is coming from college dollars. That’s a huge part of getting it back.”
The ALF received a number of significant donations to resurrect the team.
“We couldn’t be where we’re at without those individuals, and companies,” said Hansen. “At this time, and what happened lately regarding provincial funding (to post-secondary education, from the provincial government), it was exactly what we needed.”
A year ago, the final decision was made to bring the team back and Trevor Keeper was named head coach. Since then, Keeper has worked to put together a competitive roster.
And this week, the Kings played their first Alberta Colleges Men’s Hockey League regular season game in more than 10 years.
Hansen believes it was “super important” to have men’s hockey return.
“Hockey is the most important sport in Canada and it’s an important cog in our athletic program,” he said. “I’m a little biased but I believe we have the premier college athletic program in Canada.”
Kings hockey joins such high-profile programs as Queens hockey, and Kings and Queens volleyball, basketball and soccer.
“I believe it’s important to provide Red Deer and Central Alberta kids with a place to combine their academics and athletics. If you look at the alumni, you see individuals who have stayed and filled significant roles in the community. They’re leaders in our community.
“Without a hockey team, these players are going to other teams and other communities and not returning.”
The return of men’s hockey will only benefit women’s hockey, said Hansen.
“I believe it adds to it,” he said. “I was at the first exhibition game and the Queens were all there supporting the men. I’m sure the men will support the Queens when they open their season. I believe it’s important to have men’s and women’s teams in all the sports.”
The return of men’s hockey means plenty of choices for college sports fans.
“It’s part of having a full sports program,” said Hansen. “For the most part, the conference wants games on Friday and Saturday to get away from academic conflicts. At times, we’ll have split crowds but that’s the reality of having extra teams.”
The Kings have received full support from the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, said Hansen.
“They’ve supported us and hopefully they look at us as a place for some of their players to go after they’ve finished junior. I believe we can feed off each other — there’s enough hockey fans to go around. Enough fans who want to watch hockey.”
The Kings will play all their home games at the Penhold Regional Multiplex.
“It’s not overly big, more like our main gym where you fill it and it will be rocking,” Hansen said. “We want the town’s people to get behind the team and I’m sure they will. Once they come and watch the brand of hockey, they’ll want to return. And for $50 for a season ticket, it’s very affordable family entertainment.”
And the Kings shouldn’t be pushovers.
“Trevor did a great job of recruiting and I really believe we will be in the playoffs,” said Hansen.
The Kings have signed an agreement to play in Penhold for several years, at least until the college finds the funds to built its own facility. That could happen sooner if Red Deer is granted the 2019 Canada Winter Games.
“We want to get the facility but I can’t say much right now,” concluded Hansen.