This past weekend, I was a participant at “WHA Fan Day” at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary.
I had initially planned to risk being beheaded and go via Greyhound, but the 21-hour bus ride across the continent caused me to have second thoughts. Instead, I made the bold step and booked what would be my first plane trip.
My first instinct was to fly WestJet, but after seeing the high fare, I decided to check into QuebAir and eventually booked with them. I saved over $70 by going with Quebec’s airline rather than the supposed low-budget carrier. Go figure.
Anxiety over the flight caused me to lose an awful lot of sleep over the preceding week and I arrived a nervous wreck at the Winnipeg airport on Friday morning. To say the least, I did not need the alarm clock to get me up in time.
Still wondering what I had got myself into, I got in line and submitted to the standard security checks. Being what seemed to be the only newbie in the entire airport, I went with the flow and grabbed a bucket like I was in line at the Stupid Store. With all of my possessions unloaded from my person, I went through the line without incident while being served by a trio who each needed a bowel movement in the worst way.
After passing through security, I breathed a sigh of relief and took the opportunity to stroll around the part of the airport that I had never been in before. From there, you can see all the planes like you used to be able to do from the observation deck at the old terminal.
Sadly, not only is the old terminal gone, but there is no observation deck for non-passengers in the new one. It remains a gross oversight on the part of the Winnipeg Airport Authority.
After unloading my bladder and bowels, I took my seat near Gate 12 and waited for boarding.
Among the first to assemble at Gate 12 was a middle-aged princess carrying her dog in her purse. At least I am assuming that it was a dog. It could easily have passed for a brown rat that had stuck one of its paws into an electrical outlet. Mike Masterson and the team on the popular Discovery show “Verminators” have probably caught many such creatures in their T-Rex traps.
It became plainly obvious after only a few minutes that this princess cared far more for her dog/rat than her daughter who was seated at her side.
This was hardly a pleasant sight, but what was far more annoying were the terminals at each gate blasting CBC. I had always thought that it was the job of airline personnel to keep their passengers calm, yet if there’s one thing that can push someone over the edge of sanity, it’s repeated, long-term exposure to CBC. This is a policy that needs to be seriously re-evaluated by the WAA.
My nerved were not calmed by the sight of a QuebAir training van pulling up to the side of the plane that I was minutes away from boarding.
As we boarded, I was surprised by the fact that the size of our carry-ons were not checked. On their Web site, there is much made of how large your carry-on bags can be and there are many sizers around the airport, yet no stringent checks were made. I was a little concerned about this since I wasn’t checking any baggage and was instead stuffing two days worth of clothing into my backpack.
The aircraft seemed a little underwhelming and I had the feeling that I was flying with Bearskin Airlines instead. It was at this time that I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the movie “Major League” where Roger Dorn had asked if there were any stewardesses aboard their vintage “Indian Express.” Willie Mays Hayes countered with the line, “I wonder if there are any pilots.”
Before takeoff they told us that there were two washrooms, one up front for executive class, the other in the back for those of us in steerage. After takeoff, they would even draw a little curtain between the two classes, separating those of us who were more careful with our money and those who spent three times as much for the same product. I was glad to be on the right side of the curtain.
We took off with little fanfare and I was able to recognize various places from the air as we headed west.
The north Perimeter at PTH 6.
Portage la Prairie. Ironically, I would meet someone on my return trip who hailed from Portage.
At times, I felt like we weren’t going anywhere and that the plane was going to start falling from the sky. I tried not to think of the second “Die Hard” movie or the Gimli Glider incident remake on Discovery’s “Mayday” series.
The skies were mostly cloudy as we crossed the Farmers’ Republic of Saskatchewan and on into Alberta.
I was glued to the window for the entire flight and I was almost disappointed to hear that we were a half hour ahead of schedule. Nonetheless, that would mean extra time for my day-long adventure exploring Calgary. I had planned to go downtown, go up the Calgary Tower, get some shots of the Corral and possibly the Saddledome, then take the CTrain.
My day wouldn’t exactly go as planned.
After disembarking, I wandered around the airport for a while.
I soon stumbled upon a teenager wearing a Niagara IceDogs jacket. Only those who know me will understand the full significance of that sighting.
I made it to the Mac’s store on the arrivals level and purchased a Calgary Transit day pass for $8.50, then waited outside for the bus to take me downtown.
Once the bus arrived, I got on. While punching out the card, the driver asked if I was going downtown.
“No, you’re not. City Hall is flooded out. Nothing’s going downtown.”
He explained that he was just going as far as 16th Avenue, which was the Trans Canada Highway. Since I wanted to stop there anyways and get some highway pictures, it was no big deal. I would just walk downtown afterwards.
No, I wasn’t in Winnipeg.
After a brief layover, we took off and headed south on Deerfoot Trail, part of Highway 2 that connects Calgary to Edmonton. Though it was effectively a freeway, the posted speed limit was a shocking 110 km/h. Even in the U.S., it is common to have to reduce speed on Interstate highways within a major metropolitan area.
On 16th Avenue, or “16 Avenue” as the street signs say, I spotted this character:
Then, right above him, I got my first shots of Alberta highway signs.
It’s a big deal to me.
As I proceeded west, I saw this police car headed east in the westbound median lane:
The eastbound lanes were so clogged that the only way the police car could get through was by crossing the median.
Another reminder of Winnipeg.
Once I got my fill of shots along 16th Avenue, I went back to Center Street and headed south towards downtown.
A typically Canadian scene – a lineup at Tim Hortons all the way to the door. Even the massive flooding that was so close by that I wasn’t aware of yet failed to dampen Calgarians’ need for Tim Hortons.
As I continued south, I was curious as to why all the traffic was headed north out of downtown. I soon found out why.
The Bow River was raging out of control and streets were flooded.
Once I crossed the Center Street Bridge, I saw that all the buildings were closed and that there was no power anywhere. It was like a war zone. On Facebook, I would use the phrase, “Beirut of the foothills.” So much for those plans of exploring downtown.
As the rain began to fall once again, I went back across the Center Street Bridge.
This is a shot of the washed-out Prince’s Island that I was hoping to visit.
I then headed north back towards 16th Avenue, where I got this shot from McHugh Bluff Park:
I stumbled upon this SUV with New Brunswick plates:
There was a tag at the back indicating that the car was purchased from a dealership in Moncton. Message sent. Message received. Only those who know me will understand the significance.
As always, I had prepared ahead by studying maps and I knew that I would find the Banff Trail Station by heading west on 16th Avenue. From there, I could catch the CTrain that would take me to within a 2½ mile walk of my hotel, assuming that the train was running. To borrow a line from the movie “Under Siege 2,” chance favors the prepared mind. It did for me this weekend.
After a lunch break at Subway, I continued west towards the North Hill Shopping Center, where I had hoped to stop and dry out for a while. Unfortunately, the entire mall was closed due to a lack of power.
Interestingly, there was a collection of Greyhound buses idling in the parking lot. It looked as though the shopping center was being used as a substitute depot since the regular depot was downtown. Despite all my anxieties about flying, for the first time, I was relieved that I had chosen that option.
As I continued west, I saw a train emerging from a tunnel, so I breathed easier knowing at least part of my journey would not have to come on foot in the torrential rain. I took the time to walk around McMahon Stadium as well as the baseball stadium where the Calgary Cannons had once played.
I made my way to the Banff Trail Station and waited for the train across from a series of hotels. In my last visit to Calgary nearly 40 years earlier, we had stayed at one of them.
The train came quickly and I took a seat.
Within minutes, we were at the Crowfoot Station, which was the end of the line.
Armed with a day pass, I decided to get back on board and take a ride back to the Lions Park Station, the last stop before flooded-out downtown.
Interestingly, during that trip, I was talking with someone who used to live in Winnipeg. He also used to own the resort next door to the Crystal Harbor Resort in Sioux Narrows, where I was in 2008 and might be visiting again in August.
After returning to the Crowfoot Station, I got out and began the final leg of my journey to my hotel.
While passing through the Park and Ride lot, I noticed one of many signs warning thieves that bait cars are everywhere. I was most impressed. Obviously, Albertans actually want to catch criminals, not wrap their arms around them like the Winnipeg chief of non-police.
Keeping an eye on Canada Olympic Park high in the background as a reference point, I proceeded south along Nose Hill Drive.
One interesting sight was the Crowchild Twin Ice Arena and a sign for Morris Lukowich’s maxgoalscoring.com. Lukowich had been kind enough to share many stories with me over the phone last year for my next book and one of the reasons that I came to Calgary was the chance to meet him in person.
As I approached the bridge over the Bow River at 85 Street, my heart sank when I saw that police had closed off the bridge. Playing the part of the weary, helpless tourist, I managed to convince the officer to let me across. I must say that this officer, along the one I encountered when crossing Center Street near downtown, was very courteous. This was another strong indicator that I was no longer in Winnipeg, where police officers are almost universally snotty and rude, just like the many of the citizens who they pretend to serve.
Shortly thereafter, I made my triumphant entrance at the Sandman hotel.
While catching my breath and drying out in my room, housekeeping staff made two unannounced visits in short succession. I quickly put the deadbolt on to prevent more.
The hotel room was clean and I can’t complain about it overall, but I did notice a fair bit of, um, deferred maintenance.
Flies that appeared to have been taped to the ceiling.
It’s not what I would have expected from a first-class hotel.
Later that evening, I joined Tim Gassen, his wife Sarah, and legendary WHA player Pat Stapleton for a dinner at a nearby pasta restaurant. I had already eaten, but I kept them company and enjoyed some conversation. I had last seen them in person three years earlier at the Hot Line reunion in Winnipeg, yet it seemed like it had been just three days ago.
Saturday was the big event at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame a short distance across the highway.
I met many of the staff, including Mario Siciliano, President of the CSHoF, then toured their impressive facility that included a section dedicated to the WHA.
Wandering around, I took many other shots around the facility:
As a fan of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, this display was of particular interest to me:
WHA merchandise, including the paper version of my first book, was on sale:
After a brief lunch break, players began arriving. Sadly, a few were not able to make it on account of the flooding. Featured WHA Hall of Fame inductee Al Hamilton was unable to make it from Edmonton and Gerry Pinder’s basement was flooded. Nonetheless, many did make it, including Ron Anderson, Dave Inkpen, Jamie Hislop, Mike Rogers, Rich Preston, Brian Carlin and Steve Carlyle. Morris Lukowich would join the gathering at the private dinner afterwards.
Anderson and Inkpen hold up a vintage Edmonton Oil Kings jersey. For those who are unaware, it was Anderson who scored the first goal in the history of the WHA.
Introductions began in the theater at noon. I was there shooting video and taking pictures. The still shots would turn out very well, but the video in the poorly-lit theater would not fare as well.
In addition to the players, Jimmy Stewart came in from Edmonton to display many items from his vast collection of Oilers and WHA memorabilia:
Here, Sarah works the table:
At right is a man who later asked me to help identify a Jets’ playoff ticket from 1979. He was unsure as to which game it was from and though I couldn’t be certain, I probably narrowed it down for him.
Players chatted among themselves and with fans. There were also lengthy question and answer sessions in which players shared many priceless stories from that era.
A group shot. From left to right are Dave Inkpen, Jamie Hislop, Brian Carlin, Ron Anderson, Steve Carlyle, Mike Rogers and Pat Stapleton.
Unfortunately, due to the tragic circumstances in Calgary and across southern Alberta, the turnout was light. Tim was crushed, but as I reminded him, this is part of a process of honoring and preserving the legacy of the WHA. Having a display dedicated to the WHA appearing in a major national institution is a very significant step forward in achieving that goal. Everyone involved with the WHA, be they players or fans, should be immensely proud.
After the main event was over, we gathered in their café, where a private dinner was held.
Before eating, a couple of women dropped by, one of whom was from Winnipeg. She was asking about my book and upon hearing who I was, she said that I was a bigger celebrity than Dancing Gabe. I’ll take that as a compliment.
Morris Lukowich joined us soon afterwards and I was among the first to greet him at the door to thank him personally for all the great stories he shared with me over the phone. Many of them will be in my next book, which will be a detailed history of the Jets’ NHL years.
I spent much of the time chatting with the players while Game 5 of the finals of that other major league was on the big screen. I was the only one of the group not to pay attention to it.
From left to right, Tim Gassen, Rich Preston, Pat Stapleton, Mario Siciliano.
The evening wound up after the game was over, bringing a long and eventful day to a close.
The next morning, Ruth Cowan of the CSHoF was kind enough to pick me up and take me to the airport for my flight back to Winnipeg. I stop short of saying that I would be returning home.
On the way, I got my best pictures of the trip along Stoney Trail and Deerfoot Trail that will soon be appearing on a Web site near you.
I passed through security quickly and settled in at Gate 9. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of not having CBC shoved down my throat. There was also no one toting their dog/rat.
At boarding time, it genuinely hurt to walk through that tunnel to an aircraft that would take me back to Greg Selinger’s Banana Republic. Being in Calgary for the weekend only made me want to leave the SPRM even more.
On this flight, I had someone seated next to me and we struck up a conversation. She is a paralegal from Calgary, originally from Portage, whose husband is an Oilers fan. She was quite interested in hearing about WHA Day and I showed her some pictures on my camera.
Having only five hours of sleep spread over the past two nights, however, I began dozing off. Unfortunately, the attendant call bells woke me up. The turbulence that we ran into as we crossed back into the SPRM made sure that I was wide awake.
Despite the turbulence, we arrived safely back in Winnipeg. It was an event-filled weekend that I’m coming to appreciate more and more with the passage of time.
I would like to thank all the players who attended and made the event so memorable. I would also like to thank Tim Gassen for making the event happen as well as Mario Siciliano and the staff at the CSHoF for being such gracious hosts.
For any of you that have any interest in the WHA, I would highly recommend a visit to the display if you happen to be passing through Calgary.