Hockey Pioneers Set AJHL Team on Right Course
Part 1 of 2
A hockey league’s history is comprised of two parts, the present and the past. In 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.
Al McDonald’s spirit lives on in two ways since his passing in 1996 from cancer. The first is an in-house award to a member of the Crusaders for academic and athletic excllence; the second is a scholarship awarded annually by the AJHL in his honour. While there is no official criteria spelled out for why the winner is chosen, Crosson feels it likely has much to do with the recipient’s love for the game, the same way the man the trophy honours felt.
The way Crosson sees it today, McDonald was all about the Sherwood Park Crusaders when he was their general manager from 1983 through the 1996 season. But even more than that, Crosson suggests, he was all about the young men that pulled that team’s jersey on over their heads.
McDonald’s background in the game ran deep. He was heavily involved in the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club program, and “knew the kids coming up,” to junior hockey, his friend recalled. He also worked as a scout for the then Victoria Cougars of the WHL and eventually was the Alberta scout for the Vancouver Canucks. Said Crosson, “He knew a lot about hockey and had a good eye for talent … and a real compassion for the kids.”
More than that though, Crosson noted, McDonald cared deeply about the young men on his teams.
“His dedication was to the kids. To me, it was always about the kids with him.”
“He was a real good guy but a fiery guy, too. He wouldn’t just agree with people. He’d do the right things for the right reasons which wasn’t typical. He pretty much did anything that needed to be done (in order to have his Crusaders succeed). He did what was needed to get better.”
In McDonald’s time, the AJHL was made up of 10 teams not 16 like today and Crosson suggests that along with others McDonald was one of those who brought the league to the forefront and in doing so made communities in the province realize what a valuable symbol such a team was.
“You look back at all the franchises (in those days) and see what it took to run those them. You scrambled to get people in the seats; you scrambled to do fundraising, find corporate sponsorship, all those things to try and balance the books at the end of the year. All those smaller guys or teams kind of got together and understood what each other was going through. It was the only game in town in those small centres and in the larger communities there was lots of competition for the entertainment dollars. It was a hard thing to keep those teams going,” but McDonald, like so many others, persevered through their tenures in the AJHL.
“Al and Bob Green and Al Hamilton were really prominent guys trying to keep that thing going (in Sherwood Park). People don’t understand how hard it is to run those things and the money it takes to have a product on the ice.”
As to what McDonald’s view would be of today’s league, and the number of players moving onto higher levels of play such as the CIS, NCAA and even the NHL (the Park has had 15 alumni make it to that level), Crosson summed it up simply.
“He would be ecstatic. That was the nice thing with him … it didn’t matter where the player (who advanced) was from. It would be great if he was from Sherwood Park and got a scholarship but he was proud the Alberta Junior League produced kids who got scholarships,” no matter what team they played for.
“He’d be ecstatic today to see the growth of the league and where these kids are going. It would be a huge thing for him.”
In regard to McDonald’s legacy with the Crusaders, and the AJHL for that matter, where that yearly honour now bears McDonald’s name in tribute, Crosson didn’t hesitate to state what he felt stood out about this AJHL icon.
“His honesty, his hard work, his dedication to the team. He was a real humble guy and it was always about the kids, never about Al. It was about his honesty and integrity in the game.”
By Gord Montgomery