Legends in the Making: The Fort McMurray Oil Barons
Arriving in town in 1973 from Nova Scotia, Ches Dicks became a community leader and the ultimate volunteer. He gave of his time to emcee numerous events and was president of various local adult leagues, be it gentlemen’s hockey or men’s fastball. He was also the Founding Father of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons
Ches took a dream and vision and turned it into reality, by securing the rights to an Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) franchise for Fort McMurray, Alberta, with the team skating out onto the ice for the 1982-1982 AJHL season.
Here is a brief history of one of the most storied Junior A hockey organizations in Canadian history.
Following 11 years of lacing up the skates in the rough-and-rugged world of North American semi-pro hockey, Larry Billows returned to his home province of Saskatchewan to coach the Moose Jaw Canucks to back-to-back 40-plus win seasons in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL).
With an SJHL regular season winning record of 75 per cent, Billows would venture further west to become the Oil Barons first coach.
In his lone season in Fort McMurray, Billows would guide the Oil Barons to an impressive 31 wins and 29 losses in 60 games.
A record which was second best in the five-team AJHL North Division, with the St. Albert Saints at 46-14.
Advancing to the AJHL postseason semi-finals, the Oil Barons would be swept by the Saints four straight.
Saints would go on to claim the Centennial Cup, symbolic of AJHL supremacy, defeating the Calgary Spurs.
Billows would be named AJHL Coach of the Year, later guiding the Red Deer Rustlers to an AJHL crown in 1986-87.
“They were able to get a coach that was well-known (Billows) and he was a no-nonsense guy and he knew exactly what he wanted,” recalled Jerry Skowronski, Fort McMurray TODAY Sports Editor (1980 – 1984). “He wanted toughness. In practice, he would have them fire the puck from centre, past the net. Then one player from the left and one from the right would skate in after the puck and he would have them crash into each other going after the puck.
“He helped establish the team in my mind. He was the right man at the right time for that team.”
Several players on the Oil Barons initial roster, would go on to hockey acclaim: Greg Squires would play three years in the American Central Hockey League, of which two were with the Carolina Thunderbirds; Blaine Rolling would later become an assistant coach with Oil Barons in 2004-05 and 2007-08; Kermit Ecklebarger, a native of Littleton, Colorado, would play three years for University of Denver 1983-86 while teammate Pat Ryan, would wear the jersey of the Western Michigan University Broncos followed by a lengthy pro hockey career in Europe.
Ecklebarger is also credited with the first ever regular season goal for the Oil Barons.
A few years later with the team in financial straits, a group of community leaders including Terry Conroy, Willie Hoflin and more importantly Bob Campbell, formed the Northern Alberta Athletic Association, a registered Not-For-Profit, which would takeover operations of the Junior A franchise.
“We basically acquired the franchise for $1,” said Campbell, who would also serve as the Oil Barons’ President (1984-87). “The private owners were in hock for big money and we had to go to the AJHL and say, “Hey. Here is what we are able to do.”
“We went to people in the community as said “We need help to keep them (Oil Barons) here?” and we had great support from the community and we were able to pull it out.”
On the coaching front, It would be a revolving door for the rest of the decade, with seven different names to be listed in the game programs: Gary Braun, 1982-84; Dick Olson 1984-85, Barry Gibbs, 1985; Roger Cuzner, 1985-86; Ivan Prediger, 1986-88; Rick Pankiw, 1988-89 and Terry Masluk, 1989-90.
The regular season records reflected the turnover, with 1984-85 and 1988-89 bottoming out with only nine and 10 regular season victories respectively.
The highlight of the decade was 1982-83, when the Oil Barons advanced to the AJHL championships, losing to the Calgary Canucks 4-2 in the best-of-seven series.
The 1980s’ also established several AJHL records, for and against, that stand to this day upon entering 2016-2017.
Most Goals in One Period: (5) Oil Barons’ Rod Slatten vs. Hobbema Hawks February 27, 1983, in the third period. Hawks win 8-7 in overtime.
Most shots on goal, One team, One Game: (81) Red Deer Rustlers in a 7-1 victory against the Oil Barons, January 6, 1985.
Most Saves in One Game: (74) Oil Barons’ Jamie Stewart from the above-mentioned game.
Most Shorthanded Goals, One Game: Oil Barons’ Daryl Romano, December 1, 1991, vs. Sherwood Park Crusaders. Oil Barons win 8-6.
Stability in the coaching ranks and rise to national recognition would highlight the 1990-2000 decade.
Coaches Terry Masluk, 1989-90; Rick Pankiw, 1990-91, who had also coached in 1988-1989 and Bob Murray, 1991-93 would precede the Oil Barons into finding a coach in their own backyard with Fran Gow.
Moving to Fort McMurray in 1994, Gow found time from work to coach Bantam AA and Midget AAA hockey before landing a position as Murray’s assistant coach for two years.
In his first year as head coach, Gow would guide the Barons to 1993-94 AJHL final, losing to the Olds Grizzlys.
The 1996-97 season would have the Oil Barons winning their first AJHL crown, beating the Calgary Canucks to advance to the Doyle Cup, where they lost to South Surrey Eagles of the British Columbia Hockey League.
“We finished fourth in the regular season that year and we had a great series against St. Albert which was a tough one and which brought us as a group together,” recalled Gow, who is now AJHL Vice President of Hockey Operations. “Then we took Calgary in a seven game series. It was pretty exciting.
“We had always been there and to finally get it done in 1997 was very satisfying. We were now at a point where we wanted to keep going. The program was running very well at the time. It also meant a lot for the town as there were parades and such. It was an exciting time for the Oil Barons and the community.”
The excitement would only get better.
For the 1999-2000 season, the Oil Barons were awarded the hosting of the Royal Bank Cup which is symbolic of Junior A Hockey supremacy in Canada from coast-to-coast-to-coast
Gow would go out and recruit and sign Western Hockey League vets Tyler Brough, Scott McQueen, Chad Ketzel, Craig Strain and Quinn Sherdahl.
He would mesh local talent with Travis Gladue, Colin Murphy, Nick Roberts, Ron Staudinger and Scottie Upshall.
Behind the goaltending of Mike Brown and Brent Zelenwich, allowing only a 2.55 and 2.63 goals against average respectively, the Oil Barons would achieve a franchise best 52 wins. They would also set a standard for AJHL unbeaten streaks with 26 in a row.
Heading into the 2000 Royal Bank Cup, held May 5-14, 2000, there were three main questions to be answered.
Question 1: Would the Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats, of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, live up to their season long No.1 billing?
Question 2: Were the host Fort McMurray Oil Barons a team of destiny? A team with an AJHL title and Doyle Cup – symbolic of Alberta-British Columbia Junior A hockey – already in the trophy case. Also a team with a powerful seventh man behind them in the fans.
Question 3: Or would it be a millennium miracle on ice for either of the three other competing teams: the Chilliwack Chiefs, Cornwall Colts or North Battleford Stars.
After 10 days and 14 hard fought contests, it would be discovered who the champion would be.
A discovery that originally found its energy three years prior with the vision of two men – Guy Boutilier and Bob Campbell – who along with 650 volunteers, nurtured this challenging experience in earnest to the point that it was championed by the entire community of Fort McMurray and never relinquished.
Fort McMurray finished first in the round-robin with a 3-1 record, and beat the Stars 5-2 in the sudden-death semi-final while the Sabrecats edged the Chiefs 2-1.
In the championship final, held Mother’s Day, and watched by a national television audience, it would be a battle of goalies.
Sabrecats’ Sebastien LaPlante ranked No. 1 in the nation and Oil Barons’ Zelenewich, ranked No. 7.
Both goalies were up against scoring machines.
The Oil Barons having notching 321 goals in 64 regular season games and the Sabrecats an amazing 315 goals in only 40 contests.
The Sabrecats knew how to win and so did the Oil Barons.
Rayside-Balfour was the top performing Junior A team percentage wise in Canada during the last five years.
The Oil Barons reached a No.2 ranking at one point during the 1999-00 campaign which was a 51 ranking improvement from the previous year.
After 60 minutes of play, the score was 3-1 and Oil Barons were “Kings of Junior Hockey”.
Of interesting note, of the 25 Oil Barons players, all but one went on to post secondary education and several others semi-pro and the NHL for Upshall, where he remains today with the St. Louis Blues.
“Obviously we knew it would be challenge,” recalls Gow. “Hosting the tournament we wanted to be a team that was worthy of representing the AJHL.”
The Oil Barons had advanced to the Royal Bank Cup sweeping the Camrose Kodiaks for the AJHL crown and then the Chilliwack Chiefs for the Doyle Cup.
“I’ve said it before, many times, I don’t know if you will ever see a team like that in the AJHL again,” continued Gow. “A team that could play any way you wanted. We could play the skill game and if you wanted to play in the back alley, we could do that also.”
Gow would leave the Oil Barons after the championships to coach the AJHL Grande Prairie Storm.
Coaching stability in the coaching ranks would once again prove fruitful with Gord Thibodeau taking the reins from 2003-14.
During his 11 years, Thibodeau teams would qualify for the AJHL Championship finale an unprecedented six times from 2003-04 to 2011-12.
With a franchise best of fewest goals allowed with 110, they would claim their third AJHL title in 2005-06 beating the Camrose Kodiaks.
Jimmy Bernier would also record an AJHL record 10 shutouts.
Oil Barons would lose the Doyle Cup to the Burnaby Express who featured current Ottawa Senators centre Kyle Turris and defenseman Brad Hunt of the Nashville Predators.
The 2005-06 Oil Barons team also featured several players that would go on to earn a paycheque in the minor-pro hockey ranks, including Jesse Craige, Matthew Glasser, Tyler Helfrich, Jody Pederson, Mike Schreiber and Chevan Wilson.
The year prior, 2004-2005, the Oil Barons allowed only 117 goals. In back-to-back seasons they set records that stand No. 3 and No. 5 in AJHL annals.
November 26, 2010, the Oil Barons hosted Canada’s first-ever outdoor Junior A regular season hockey game.
Tabbed as The Northern Classic, the Oil Barons defeated the Drayton Valley Thunder 4-2 in front of an AJHL attendance record 5,726 fans at the outdoor rink built adjacent to MacDonald Island Recreation Centre.
A few months later, August 2011, the Oil Barons would travel to Omsk, Russia to play in the World Junior Club Cup Tournament.
The highlight of the trip was an exhibition contest against the 2011 Russian Champion Red Army team.
Bolstered by the positive vibes and team unity of the trip, the team would go on to the AJHL finals for their eighth time in the last 16 seasons, losing the 2011-2012 banner to the Brooks Bandits.
The Oil Barons had a high-scoring team with Justin Rose, 38 goals, 37 assists; Markus Gerbrandt, 32 goals, 32 assists and Killan Hutt, 23 goals and 38 assists, all managing to pass the 60-point plateau.
These Oil Barons have not made it to the AJHL finals since, suffering a five-year drought.
Oil Barons management continued to raise the bar, with the hosting of the 2015 Western Canada Cup.
This past season 2016-2017 was perhaps the most unique for the Oil Barons franchise.
Tom Keca named the Oil Barons head coach for 2015-2016, guided the team to one of the best turnarounds in AJHL history this season.
Going from a 2015-16 performance of 10 wins and a franchise low 137 goals, the boys in blue-and-yellow regrouped to win 44 games; a 34-win improvement!
They would be knocked out April 9 in the North Division final by the Whitecourt Wolverines.
“The biggest thing (turnaround) was the leadership,” said Keca, a former Oil Barons player, later to be named assistant coach in 2001-02, with his first AJHL head coaching duties for the Lloydminster Bobcats (2007-09).
“We had guys like Brandon Ralph, a 20 year -old with WHL experience and he understood what it means to be part of the organization. We had everyone buy in...not just one or two guys…but everybody.”
The emotions were also high earlier this season, February 3, 2017, when Thibodeau, now coaching the Whitecourt Wolverines, returned to Fort McMurray to secure a 2-1 victory.
The win made him the winningest coach in AJHL history with 833 victories.
Passing Calgary Canucks’ coach Don Phelps, Thibodeau had only recently, for the fourth time, faced off against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which he had been first diagnosed with in 1989 when playing hockey for the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
What do the Oil Barons mean to the community?
“I feel very proud that I have had some hand in building character and assisting in getting an education for these kids (Oil Barons players). They come to us usually as kids and leave as young men….hopefully with a scholarship and an education to a USA college or even a chance to attend a Canadian college,” Nick DeHoog , Oil Barons president from 1993-2008.
It established the community as a place for people to come live and enjoy just like the people in Edmonton have the Oilers, we have the Oil Barons, ” said Jerry Skowronski .
“It means a lot. It is a connecting point for the community. The importance of the Oil Barons is so far reaching. It is a good rallying point for the community,” added Fran Gow.
“First it is a flagship to the community. It is an ambassador for the community and it brings people together. It is important for community morale. It is a goal for the young guys playing hockey in the community to strive for. They can have goals that they can see right in front of them and then achieve. That team in 2000 which won the Royal Bank Cup, put it all together for me,” Bob Campbell.
The final word is to the team’s founder Ches Dicks: “The Oil Barons have paid off they are a real tribute to the community. People say to me what are your rewards, Rewards are getting a team here that the people really support and they are a trademark in this town now. It has been a real symbol for the town…a positive symbol.”
Fort McMurray Oil Barons Team Recognition
- AJHL League Championships: 1996-97, 1999-00, 2005-06
- Doyle Cup Champions 1999-00
- Royal Bank Cup Champions 1999-00
Fort McMurray Oil Barons AJHL Awards
- MVP: Greg Squires 1982-82, Randy Keller 1987-88, A.J. Aitken 1995-96, Trevor Anderson 1996-97
- Scoring Leaders: Lubo Dzurilla 1986-87, Harry York 1994-95, Jeremy Cheyne 2000-01
- Top Goaltender: Trevor Anderson 1996-97, Mike Brown 1999-00, Rob Nolan 2004-05, Jimmy Bernier 2005-06, Tanner Jaillet 2013-14
- Top Defenceman: Chris Lafreniere 1991-92, Chris Phillips 1994-95, Darren Tiemstra 1996-97, Craig Strain 1999-00
- Rookie of the Year: Bobby Stewart 1992-93
- Coach of the Year: Larry Billows 1981-82, Bob Murray 1991-92
- Playoff MVP: Trevor Anderson 1996-97, Brent Zelenewich 1999 -00, Jimmy Bernier 2005-2006, Branden Gracel 2009-10
- Most Dedicated Player: Randy Keller 1987-88, Russell Sharp 1995-96, Brent Coutu 1998-99, Jayson LaBossiere 2004-05, Michael Perry 2008-09, Carson Cooper 2011-12
- Oil Barons Coaches: Larry Billows 1981-82; Gary Braun 1982-84; Dick Olson, 1984-85, Barry Gibbs 1985; Roger Cuzner 1985-86; Ivan Prediger 1986-88; Rick Pankiw 1988-89; Terry Masluk 1989-90; Rick Pankiw 1990-91; Bob Murray 1991-93; Fran Gow 1993-00; Kevin Higo 2000-01; Gord Thibodeau 2003-14; Curtis Hunt 2014-15; Tom Keca 2015-present
- Oil Barons Presidents: Ches Dicks 1981-84; Bob Campbell 1984-87; Mike Fillion 1987-90; Brian Blackburn 90-1993; Nick DeHoog 1993-08; Andrew Boutilier 2008-15; David Fitzgerald 2015-present
Oil Barons Alumni to play in the NHL
- Dale Kushner, Bradley Mills, Rich Parent, Chris Phillips, Colton Parayko, Garret Stroshein, Scottie Upshall, Harry York, Sergei Varlamov
Ches Dicks: Oil Barons founder and president 1981-84.
Chris Phillips – Former Oil Barons Chris Phillips played with the Ottawa Sentaors 1997-2016.
Colin Murphy – Former Oil Barons Colin Murphy member of Royal Bank Cupo champion went on to eight years of pro hockey Courtesy Augsburger Panthers.
Nick DeHoog Oil Barons president 1993-08.
Bob Campbell – Oil Barons president 1984-87
Oil Barons’ Bobby Hineman and goalie Paul Dainton celebrate a 2006-2007 AJHL victory.
Former Oil Baron Brian Shantz would go on to have an illustrious career in the pro ranks.