Crusade Has Gone 35 Years
Only two communities can boast that they have been host to Alberta Junior Hockey League teams for 35 years.
One of those teams is the Sherwood Park Crusaders.
Likewise, only one person can say he has been with the Cru for their entire run in the Park.
The Crusaders joined the AJHL in 1976 as the Edmonton Crusaders before moving to Sherwood Park two years later.
Larry Verheun moved with them.
He has since served as a goal judge for all 35 years in the Park.
“The very first game the Crusaders ever played, I was up in West Jasper Place and a fellow named John Fisher asked if I would goal judge for them that night,” Verheun said. “I hesitated because I had never done it before, but he said that there was nothing to it. He said just put the light on when the puck crosses the line, so I said I’d try. We moved to Sherwood Park at the same time the team did, and I have been here ever since.”
Verheun said he has relished every part of being with the team as a volunteer over the past three-and-a-half decades.
“I love it. I love every minute of it,” said the 73-year-old. “Win, lose or draw, this is terribly exciting hockey. This is a volunteer crew of great people. Nobody is making any money out of it, they are all here out of the good will of their heart and for the sake of the young hockey players.”
When asked what his cherished memories over the years have been, one name leapt immediately to mind.
“Billy Warwick,” Verheun said of the former NHLer and Crusaders owner and who lived in the Park and was a mainstay of the Edmonton hockey scene before passing away in 2007 at 82. “As well as being a hockey personality, he was also my friend.”
The mainstay at the Arena on Crusader game nights hopes he will celebrate many more anniversaries with the team in the future.
“My last game here, they will be carrying me out in a box,” he laughed.
Verheun is just one of many personalities and stories that have graced the team in its long run in town — the longest stay of any AJHL team other than the Calgary Canucks.
The Crusaders, who have won five North Division titles over the years, have retired two numbers.
No. 11 permanently belongs to Brett Pearce who suffered a major injury which left him paralyzed. Also retired is No. 10, which was worn by Crusaders captain Trevor Elton who passed away in 1980 from a body check in a game against the St. Albert Saints.
A banner also commemorates former Crusaders G.M. and part owner Al McDonald who died in 1996.
The latest chapter began in 1998 when a group of Sherwood Park businessmen registered the team as a non-profit society in order to keep the team in town and promote opportunities for local hockey players to stay in town for their Junior A hockey careers and to help them attract educational opportunities for their futures.
Current Crusaders head coach and G.M. Tim Fragle said that the society members are really unsung heroes of the community.
“I have really learned to understand what goes into the behind the scenes operation of this team,” he said. “For us to have a good program and recruit and attract good players, you have to have a focus on developing players. I have seen such a good commitment from our Crusaders Society members, putting their own money on the line to give the players everything that they can to succeed. We are very fortunate to have this group of people committed to keeping the team in Sherwood Park and giving us so much support. They aren’t getting cheques or working as paid employees. They are just about keeping Junior A hockey in Sherwood Park. It’s their own money on the table and I don’t think many people realize just how much they have done. It’s something they should be recognized for.”
Since the society took over, a significant portion of the team has been made up every year of kids from Strathcona County.
“That was one of the things that they wanted to get back to,” Fragle said. “They thought that they had lost that connection to Sherwood Park kids. It’s a good hockey community and we have to keep as many of the Junior A level players in town as we can. It’s good for the community and for the program.
“It’s great that they have a place to play in their own backyard. We’ve usually had eight or nine local kids on the team per year of late, which I think is a good number.”
It’s not just Park kids that are now clamouring to join the Cru. With teams in Fort Saskatchewan and St. Albert moving elsewhere in the province in recent years, the Park and Spruce Grove are the only two Edmonton-area teams with a wealth of local players looking to remain in the region.
“There are so many good Edmonton-area players who need a team as well, and in my mind they are still local because they are still bringing in their family and friends to our games,” Fragle said. “Now that there are just the two teams in the area, it has really made our recruiting a lot easier.”
Another thing making the Crusaders a much more attractive program of late is the team’s ability to advance its young players on with scholarships to college programs.
In recent years the Crusaders have managed to send 33 players on to the WHL or American and Canadian university teams.
“There is a real source of pride here in our commitment to developing players,” Fragle said.
“Whether that is developing them for college, the WHL or wherever they end up going. Only one team can win at the end of the year. Outside of that, you have to have other ways to measure up your program. That’s why I say that if we don’t win the league that year, we better offer a good developmental program so parents know that their son is going to get better because they came here.
“ I believe the word is out that Sherwood Park is that kind of team now. Over the last couple of years, my phone has been ringing off the hook from NCAA teams and WHL clubs. Other programs have also wanted to send players here because they know that we’re not afraid to develop a kid, even if it is just for one year.”
The Crusaders were second only to the defending champion Brooks Bandits in AJHL teams landing their players scholarships last year.