Friday, 20 September 2013

Giants Honour Braves

The WHL season kicks off tonight with a pile of games, but none will look better than the game in Vancouver featuring the host Vancouver Giants playing the Victoria Royals. The jersey in the image to the left is what the Giants will take to the ice in, and there's a rich history behind the uniform they will be wearing. While not a throwback, it does honour one of British Columbia's finest teams to ever have laced up the skates, and I am proud to see the Giants doing something like this considering the history.

Alkali Lake sits about 500 kilometers north of Vancouver, and about 250 kilometers northwest of Kamloops. It's basically right in the middle between Prince George, BC and Vancouver, BC, and features the Alkali Lake Indian Reserve No. 1 as the primary settlement in the area. The name of the area actually comes from an outcropping of alkali on the hillside above the lake. The lake itself is not a true alkali lake. From that small community, an aboriginal team of hockey players emerged in 1931 to challenge BC's best teams, eventually toppling the Prince George club for the BC Northern League championship and earning them a shot at playing the all-star powerhouse squad in the Vancouver Commercials!

The one man who was the star of the team was Alec Antoine. The scouting report on Antoine, included in the book Hockey: A People's History, read, "He skated backward with the puck better than most of the players could carry it going forward. He had a natural talent for shooting as well. His accuracy was uncanny." Antoine would be the man that many would marvel at with his speed, apparent tirelessness, and fantastic shooting ability. But the Braves were more than a one-man show as they became one of the best teams in the BC interior in 1930.

The team was formed from the aboriginal men of the Shuswap nation who worked at the Alkali Lake Ranch which featured a large cattle operation. Needing a way to keep in shape in the winter, the men took up hockey as their sport. Not being content with scrimmaging amongst themselves, the men would travel twelve hours by sled over fifty-six kilometers to get to Williams Lake where they competed against teams of Caucasian players. Because of their obvious racial differences, their welcome to Williams Lake for the Alkali Lake team was less than friendly, but they persevered.

After trekking all day to the Williams Lake outdoor rink, the men would camp outdoors near the fire, eating deer meat and keeping their horses from the cold bite of the winter air. The next day, the team would don their worn and ragged green-and-white uniforms, provided by the Woodward Department Store owner who was married to the daughter of the Alkali Lake rancher, and they would dazzle the crowd with their speed and skill.

After honing their skills against local teams, the Alkali Lake Braves did the unthinkable in beating perennial BC Northern League champion Prince George in 1931! This brought notoriety for the team, and Squamish nation chief Andy Paull arranged for them to come to Vancouver where they would meet the Vancouver Commercials, an all-star team of semi-professionals from the Commercial League. The two teams battled furiously, but the all-star teams would prevail in both games against the amateur squad. What surprised most people, though, was the final scores in the two games were 2-1 and 1-0!

Amazingly, the details about this team makes them even more impressive. One team member was 50 years-old and a grandfather! They averaged about eight games per season as most of their time was occupied with work at the ranch. They had never played in an indoor rink before their visit to Vancouver, and had never played in front of fans, let alone 4000! Needless to say, to lose by one goal in two consecutive nights to an all-star team of semi-professionals while facing these odds is simply outstanding!

Of course, during this team, the Patricks were operating leagues and had scouts all over the place in BC. Lester Patrick, who was in charge of all things New York Rangers, came to Vancouver to offer Alec Antoine a contract to join the Broadway Blueshirts! While it isn't known what the terms of the contract were that Patrick offered Antoine, the young man turned down the NHL deal, opting instead for his $15-per-week ranch job.

While the ranch was somewhat immune from the Depression of the 1930s, the financial crisis caught up to the Alkali Lake Braves in 1933 as the team folded under financial strain. While it isn't clear as to what strain was placed on the team, the Braves faded from the hockey scene in British Columbia until tonight.

In saying that, the WHL's Vancouver Giants are wearing a uniform that was never worn by the Alkali Lake Braves, but represents the team very well. The "lazy cross" on the logo was the brand of the Alkali Lake Ranch, and the name is prominently displayed on the logo's circular edge. These uniforms are simple and classy. I love the striping on them, and I may have to break the bank and pick up one of these game-worn jerseys. They are absolutely gorgeous, and the honouring of one of BC's most notable teams has been done in a most excellent way. Well done, Giants!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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