Top 10 Hockey Players To Come Out of Fort McMurray
READY OR NOT, it’s time to open a big can of worms with the daunting query, “Who is the best hockey player, ever to come out of Fort McMurray?” We are not talking should have, would have, or could have hockey wannabes or new arrivals who had a cup of coffee with the Junior A Fort McMurray Oil Barons, but true blue local Hockey Heroes who laced on their skates in the minor hockey system and went on to withstand the test of time with the best-of-the-best the sport has to offer. Agree or disagree, here is YMM’s list.
1. Chris Phillips
“Obviously the No.1 pick, no discussion needed,” said Bob Campbell, former President of the Northern Alberta Athletic Association (Fort McMurray Oil Barons Junior Hockey Club). “Number one draft pick overall in the NHL, two gold medal Canada Junior teams...and he has played his entire career to date in Ottawa (Senators) where he is truly loved. He will likely stay in hockey when he retires as it is his life.”
Born March 9, 1978, Chris Phillips (pictured left) played his entire youth hockey on local rinks and after two seasons with his hometown Fort McMurray Oil Barons (1993-1995) of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), moved up to the Western Hockey League (WHL).
He was a member of the Prince Albert Raiders for 93 games, ending his Junior career with the Lethbridge Hurricanes as they advanced in post-season action to the final game of the Memorial Cup, losing to the Hull Olympiques.
His WHL accolades included the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy for WHL Rookie of the Year, a spot on the Memorial Cup All Star team and the acceptance of the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy awarded to the WHL’s top defenseman.
Drafted No. 1 by the Ottawa Senators in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, Phillips, a 6-foot-3 defenseman, also performed on Team Canada gold medal squads at the 1996 and 1997 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships (WJC).
Prior to entering this, the 2015-2016 NHL season, Phillips has played in 1,179 regular season games with 71 goals and 217 assists for 288 points while accumulating 756 penalty minutes. He has seen action in 114 post-season games with six goals and nine assists.
In 2004-2005 during the NHL strike, he played for Brynas IF Gavel. Phillips, 37, also represented Canada at the 2000, 2005 and 2009 World Championships bringing home two silver medals.
2. Scottie Upshall
“Scottie’s story is interesting,” said Campbell. “I coached and managed several hockey teams that he played on and every time he moved up, we thought, “Gee, we don’t know if he can meet the challenge?”
“Well, he would meet that challenge and rise to be the cream of the crop. When he first went to the Oil Barons practices, we thought he would not make the team and he made the (1999-2000) team.
“He became the best player that year as a 16 year-old and at the 2000 Royal Bank Cup (RBC) the scouts picked him as the best prospect of the tournament.”
Oil Barons hosted the 2000 RBC, symbolic of Junior A hockey supremacy in Canada, earning gold by defeating Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats 2-1.
Upshall was also a member of silver medal Team Canada representatives at the 2002 and 2003 WJC.
Playing for the WHL Kamloops Blazers, he would be named the 2000-2001 WHL and Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year.
Drafted by Nashville Predators, Round 1 No. 6 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Upshall, a left wing, enters the 2015-2016 NHL season with 551 goals 115 goals and 119 assists having played for the Nashville Predators, Philadelphia Flyers, Phoenix Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and his current team the St. Louis Blues.
3. Dan Hodgson
Dan Hodgson (pictured above) once told this writer “Anything you put your mind to, you can do. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, because you can.”
Hodgson was the first local hockey player to make it to the show, the NHL, suiting up with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1985-86.
A pioneer and inspiration for many local hockey players.
“Hodgy will always be the first. He paved the way and inspired the McMurray boys that made it there after him and many more that he influenced through his record book Junior career in Prince Albert,” said Doug Phibbs. “He always remembered and treated his McMurray friends and family like gold along the path. I think Philly (Chris Phillips) and (Scottie) Upshall picked some of that up from him as well.”
Hodgson took this honour to heart. “I look at it as I’m someone who went out first and that’s a special honour. Fort McMurray was built on pioneers, like Peter Pond, who set the paths for other people and showed what we can do. I’m very proud of that. I couldn’t have asked for a better community as a kid growing up. I think I had the best neighbourhood in the world. I had 50 little friends around and we were always playing something.”
The legend of Danny Hodgson would take root when the WHL Spokane Flyers, who drafted Hodgson as a 15-year-old, folded, leaving it’s 50-man roster intact for the purchase of the incoming Prince Albert Raiders.
During his three years in Saskatchewan, the young gun would play in 202 regular season games, scoring a dazzling 188 goals and adding 305 assists.
Along the way came WHL Rookie of the Year and Canadian Major Junior Hockey Player of the Year status and a Memorial Cup championship where he was named Most Valuable Player.
Adding to the growing list of accomplishments was a gold medal performance as part of Team Canada at the 1985 WJC in Finland.
Drafted in the 1983 NHL draft, 5th round 83rd overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, he would play 114 games in the NHL (29 goals 45 assists) split between the Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.
In the 1990s, Hodgson headed overseas to play in Europe and was he was part of eight Canadian Spengler Cup teams, retiring in 2005 after a 20-year pro career.
“Danny’s story is an interesting one,” said Campbell. “He was only 160-pounds at best but he was one of the most skilled players of his time but he was slight of size and he was injury prone. Once he got to the NHL, they looked at him and saw that he could not handle the rough-and- tumble style of the NHL of that day. He was one hell of a player...probably the most skilled to come out of Fort McMurray.”
4. Nolan Pratt
Although he was born in Fort McMurray in 1975, Nolan Pratt’s Junior A hockey career began with the AJHL Bonnyville Pontiacs.
His talent as a defenseman was evident inasmuch as, only 33 games into the season he was called-up to play with the WHL Portland Winter Hawks.
Following his first full season in Portland, the Hartford Whalers tagged Pratt in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, 5th Round, 115th overall.
Paying his dues in the minor system, primarily with the American Hockey League (AHL) Springfield Falcons, he made his NHL debut with the Whalers in 1996.
Two Stanley Cup rings would come his way with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
After 11 NHL seasons he played overseas for three more years, retiring from the sport after the 2010-11 season.
He is currently assistant coach with the AHL Lake Erie Monsters.
“Nolan really blossomed after he left Fort McMurray,” said Campbell of the fact that Pratt left at the age of 14.
5. Colin Murphy
Named Most Outstanding Forward at the 2000 RBC, Colin Murphy is one of the most popular players in the storied history of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.
As a student/athlete, he played four seasons with the NCAA Division I Michigan Tech Huskies, wearing the “C” in his final season. A season in which he was named to the All-WCHA First Team and a Second-Team All-American by the American Hockey Coaches Association.
Another great honour came his way when he was announced as a finalist for the 2005 Hobey Baker Award, which is given annually to the top male hockey player in the NCAA.
Signed as a free agent by the Toronto Maple Leafs, although he would never play in a regular season NHL contest, he made hockey history in Toronto by scoring the first goal for the new AHL Toronto Marlies franchise October 7, 2005 against the Rochester Americans.
He retired in 2013 after playing a few years in the DEL, Germany’s top level of professional hockey.
“No doubt he was disappointed that he did not get another shot at taking the next step to the NHL,” said Campbell.
6. Brian Shantz
During his first year of local Midget hockey, Brian Shantz (pictured above) scored 40 goals and added 65 assists in only 24 games.
His scoring prowess was also evident during his stint with the hometown Oil Barons, finishing fourth in 1987-1988 AJHL points with 34 goals and 80 assists while playing 57 games.
Like fellow hometown hockey heroes Hodgson and Phillips, Shantz would make it to the Memorial Cup while skating with the Kamloops Blazers.
Turning pro in 1992, signing with the Erie Panthers of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), he would pack and unpack his bags while wearing the sweaters of 14 different franchises the next 12 years, including a stint in Italy.
The majority of his career though was spent with the San Antonio Iguanas of the Central Hockey League (CHL) where he played from 1994-1996 and 1998-2001.
In Iguanas uniform he would receive, in back-to-back campaigns, the Ken McKenzie Trophy given to the CHL top scorer. He would also be named MVP of the CHL with the Bill Levins Trophy.
Shantz, currently resides in San Antonio where he continues to develop the sport of hockey while also holding a career as a real estate agent.
“Brian might have made the NHL, had it been in a different time,” said Campbell. “He has always been underrated. He was always an entertaining player to watch.”
7. Bobby Stewart
By all accounts, Bobby Stewart was a winner in the sport of hockey. Named 1993 AJHL and Oil Barons Rookie of the Year, he would later captain the University of Maine Black Bears to a NCAA Division I title in 1999.
With six years of professional hockey under skate (321 games, 183 goals and 197 assists) he was top scorer for the 2003 United Hockey League champion Fort Wayne Komets.
He would add a third championship with the 2008 Brantford Blaze, winners of the Allan Cup which is awarded annually to the top senior amateur men’s team in Canada.
In an interview with Grant Standbrook - assistant coach of the 1999 Black Bears and the man credited with putting together Team USA that won the ice hockey gold medal at 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York - he said of Stewart, “He was one of the true leaders of amateur hockey both on and off of the ice.”
8. Daryl Harpe
Daryl Harpe played his Peewee to Junior B hockey in Fort McMurray before relocating to Hobbema to play his Junior A hockey with the Hawks (1983-1986) where he became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.
Introduction to the business of pro hockey was bittersweet as he signed with the Erie Golden Blades of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League with the team folding a few games into the regular season.
No agent or scout in his corner, Harpe, a 5-foot-11 forward, signed with the Moose Jaw Generals senior hockey men’s team, assisting them to a spot in the Allan Cup semi-finals.
After a year hiatus, the sport of hockey returned to Erie, Pennsylvania with the creation of the ECHL and the Erie Panthers in 1988-1989 Harpe, who now resides in Edmonton where he works in the sports wholesale industry, would take the fledgling league by storm, totaling an impressive 122 points in only 60 games with 38 goals and 84 assists.
After one more productive season in Erie (72 points in 60 games with 28 goals and 44 assists), the 1990-1991 campaign found him in a Cincinnati Cyclones uniform.
“Cincinnati was great. We would get up to 11,000 fans at home games and they treated us well...giving me an apartment and leasing me a car,” said Harpe, who in 60 games that year had 18 goals and 40 assists.
He would last only two games (1991-1992) with the Knoxville Cherokees.
“It was terrible. It felt like I was back in Junior hockey. I knew that I was not going to go any further in pro hockey and basically it was now time to get a life and a job. I didn’t want to bounce around from league-to-league, team-to-team until I was 40 and then have nothing to show for it. The pro dream was over.”
Campbell was surprised that Harpe never played Junior A hockey locally: “For some reason the Oil Barons and coach Larry Billows did not think anyone in the community was capable of playing for the Oil Barons during their first year in the AJHL (1981-1982). He had great skills but again, size hurt.”
9. Jarett Lukin
Jarett Lukin joined the WHL as a 15-year-old. After five years, he decided to upgrade his education, and as student/athlete joined the University of Calgary Dinos.
University life caught up with Lukin as early into his second year he was selected for a random drug test and the test came back positive with traces of cocaine metabolites in his system.
Banned for two years from amateur hockey, he signed with the ECHL Florida Everblades.
He now enters his 10th season in the minor system, playing for the ECHL Evansville Iceman.
The CHL Allen Americans were home base from 2009-2014 with 238 regular season games under skate with an impressive 74 goals and 88 assists. He was also part of back-to-back CHL Championships in 2013-2014.
Lukin gained national fame as one of the final contestants on Making the Cut: Last Man Standing a reality television series “that followed a group of amateur ice hockey players through a rigorous training session.”
10. Paul Strand
Paul Strand proudly wears a Stanley Cup ring but it is not from the player standpoint.
He had spent six seasons as the Youth and Amateur Hockey Coordinator for the Carolina Hurricanes, including their Stanley Cup championship run in 2006.
During his five years with the University of Alberta Golden Bears, Strand scored 86 goals and 155 assists in 192 games before embarking on a seven-year career in the minors, majority in the ECHL, totalling nearly 50 points on three separate occasions.
In 2012-2013 Strand would become the first coach of the Keyano Huskies men’s hockey team competing in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference.