Ches Dicks: Setting the gold standard for Junior A hockey
While it may not seem like a lot of time in other regions of the country, like so many in Fort McMurray, the five-year plan has become codeword for a lifelong commitment in the boom town that has subsequently become a hometown to so many.
With the help of founder Ches Dicks and that five-year plan, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons have established a lifelong legacy of Junior A hockey in the region that has become a symbol for success for junior hockey sustainability within Canada.
“Without the cooperation of all the people in town that helped and everything and there’s so many that I wouldn’t even try to name them,” said Dicks.
“As the team became a reality, important figures like Larry Billows and Gary Braun became a part of the picture and suddenly the Oil Barons were full stream ahead. Dicks joked that if any cost was out of place during his first few years with the team, it was the phone bill.”
Dicks, who arrived in Fort McMurray in 1973 after leaving his native Cape Breton, discovered a city that yearned for a source of stable entertainment. To him, that meant bringing an Alberta Junior Hockey League franchise to the northern city. While that dream became a reality in 1981, the hard work was far from over.
From purchasing seats from the University of Alberta and securing sponsorships to running up huge phone bills to recruit players to Fort McMurray, Dicks helped to lay the groundwork for what has become one of the most successful AJHL franchises in league history and a top contender in the North Division on an annual basis.
“Everyone likes the Oil Barons so that’s kind of a treat,” said Dicks at his home in Athabasca. “It makes me feel good. If you mention the Oil Barons, everyone knows it.
While Dicks mentioned that the team often was run “on a wing and a prayer” for the first half-decade of their existence, the Oil Barons have become synonymous with the town’s culture of steady production and blue-coller work ethic.
“I think what kept us going was the people from Syncrude and from Suncor and from the town of Fort McMurray that came up to us and thanked us,” Dicks added.
“That’s what made it for me. I realized in the end that I did something very worthwhile and today it’s really showing how valuable it is to the community.”
In small communities throughout Alberta, Junior A hockey shown for the past 50 years how integral the teams can be to the community. Behind each team’s logo are builders like Dicks who worked around the clock, never giving up on the project they gave life to because of what each team means the community is calls home.
Andrew Boutilier, who served in almost every position imaginable through his tenure with the Oil Barons remembered Ches as an energetic personality who was passionate about bringing the team to town and keeping them alive.
“He was certainly a colourful guy, a very likeable sporting figure in the community,” said Boutilier.
“He had a very deep presence and certainly was not shy with the words. He spoke very candidly to anyone and everyone but that’s how you knew Ches liked you. If he didn’t speak that way to you then chances were you weren’t on the inner circle.”
Recently announced as the first inductee into the Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2014, there is no questioning what Dicks and the Oil Barons have meant to the city of Fort McMurray and the sport of hockey in the region.
“Everyone likes the Oil Barons so that’s kind of a treat,” said Dicks. “It makes me feel good.”
Over the past three-plus decades, the Oil Barons have become that community team, helping to unify and breathe life into the northern Alberta community, one goal and glove save at a time.
That feeling of unity, that each junior hockey town attempts to emulate as best they can, wouldn’t be possible in Fort McMurray without a builder committed to the team and community like Ches Dicks was when he founded the Oil Barons.