Hockey Pioneers Set AJHL Team on Right Course
Part 2 of 2
A hockey league’s history is comprised of two parts, the present and the past. In the second of this two-part series, we look back to the early days of the Sherwood Park Crusaders and the input two men in particular, Al McDonald and Al Hamilton, had on the franchise.
The following is a recap through the eyes and memories of a longtime junior hockey supporter and contributor, Jim Crosson, who had the fortune to work alongside both men and witnessed the roles they played in developing young talent for one of the best franchises in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
For some reason someone once said good players don’t make good coaches. Apparently, that person didn’t know Al Hamilton.
Hamilton, a well-known and highly respected professional player with both the Alberta Oilers of the old World Hockey Association (WHA) and then with the Edmonton Oilers in their early NHL days, proved in a very short time that no matter where you came from, if you know the game of hockey you know how to teach the game of hockey to others.
Jim Crosson, who was involved with the Sherwood Park Crusaders in the early 1980s along with Hamilton, said the former pro brought a unique mindset to the game when he became the Cru’s head coach.
“He had instant credibility from where he’d played throughout his career. Being such a gentleman, and a good guy to be around and a fun guy to be around, the kids had fun. They loved learning from him. He had lots to teach but you always had fun at the rink. There wasn’t a day where you’d come to the rink and not be laughing by the time you left.
“The kids had fun but they also learned a lot. They’d go through a wall for him.”
What the former pro also did that was different was to use a simple way to illustrate plays — diagramming plays through the use of X’s and O’s. While that’s commonplace today, back then it was something literally unheard of and it had a big impact on how the young men on the Crusaders learned the game.
“It simplified things so they could make changes on the go,” said Crosson of that tactic. “It didn’t take a practice to change your scheme through the games. He’d get a board on the bench, or between periods (to show) what they were doing or you were doing and how to combat it, how to change things to be better. It was a pretty unique thing back in those days. It was unheard of. Motivation was the big thing back then without a lot of coaching and teaching which he brought a lot of to our team.”
An interesting fact in the Al Hamilton saga as a coach in the AJHL was how he helped his stick boy from the Cru also become a successful player and later a coach in the same league. That of course was his son, Steve, who went on to become the head coach of the Fort Saskatchewan Traders and then the Spruce Grove Saints, who he led to two AJHL championships.
As it turned out, father and son both won the Coach of the Year trophy in the AJ, the first and only time that has happened in the league’s long, illustrious history.
“Al presented Steve with that trophy and just to see him go out out on the ice and present that trophy to Steve was phenomenal … I guarantee that meant way more to him than winning it himself. I think he’ such a proud father and just to see Steve had continued on and is the kind of person he is, thrilled Al to death.”
While neither Hamilton nor McDonald are with the Crusaders organization anymore, they did leave a lasting impression behind, one that is perhaps even evident today not only in Sherwood Park but throughout the entire AJHL, Crosson suggested in closing.
“With those two guys it was never about them, never ever about where they’d come from or who they were. It was always about what they could do for the kids and the kids recognized that,” thus inspiring those behind them to carry the same philosophy forward.
“For them, it was about respect, integrity, dignity, treating kids properly, teaching kids what life is about outside of hockey and teaching them how to be just good people. There are kids who went on to play hockey past when they were with the Crusaders but I think no matter what they’ve done in their lives, they can look back and know that a big part of it was the way they were treated by the two Al’s.”
By Gord Montgomery