It's the Olden Bears!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:56 AM ET

LLOYDMINSTER -- Edmonton Oilers governor Cal Nichols would have been proud.

The club representing his home town - a tiny Saskatchewan berg called Paradise Hill - trounced Thunder Bay last night in the opening game of the Allan Cup senior hockey championship.

But former Alberta Golden Bear coaches Clare Drake and Billy Moores would have been even prouder. After all, it's their legacy that helped build the Mid-West Islanders into the best team money can't buy.

PATHS TO SUCCESS

The Horse Lake Thunder, rumoured to be paying a quarter-million for the services of ex-NHLers Theo Fleury and Gino Odjick, might be the class of the tournament, but the U of A Olden Bears are proving that chequebooks and star power aren't the only paths to success.

"There's no question there's a pretty strong U of A influence,'' said former Golden Bear Russ Hewson, after the Bears' alumni chipped in 10 points toward the 8-3 decision.

"The U of A ties are nice because for the most part everybody I know from the program is a good guy and a good teammate. It makes it easy to get guys to come in and play.''

So who's here that used to play there?

"There's about nine of us,'' said Hewson. "Murray Bokenfohr, Serge Lajoie, Mike Thompson, myself, Geoff Lynch played there for a bit. Kelly McClain, Mike Hurley. Derek Shybunka ... and (former U of A quarterback) Blair Zahara, but we keep bugging him because he played the wrong sport.''

They're older now, some pushing 30, others pushing 40, but every weekend they pack up their gear, minus the steps they've lost along the way, and drive the 250 kilometres to Paradise Hills for their "home'' games.

"We get two vans or a big 15-passenger one,'' said defenceman Serge Lajoie, an All-Canadian who came out of retirement two years ago to take part in the Islanders experience. "They always make the old guys drive, so it ends up being me quite often. But it's fun. If it was one or two guys going you wouldn't make that trip, but when you have 10 or 12 guys going it's pretty easy to do.''

Isles owner Pete Clayton says it's about as good a feeder system as you can possibly ask for.

"It started three or four years ago,'' he said. "My son played down in the States against a lot of these guys and we just started phoning. Once we rounded up a few of them, they started saying, 'we know another guy who'll be interested, and this other guy would be good.' ''

Clayton was thrilled to staff the team with as many as he could. And with two Allan Cup appearances in two years, who can blame him?

"Golden Bears know how to win,'' he said. "And you know you're getting character people. Sure they're great hockey players, but they're great in the community, everybody fits in, nobody is selfish. Everybody gets along and everybody knows how to win.

"Then you throw some Saskatchewan Huskies in there and some Saskatchewan junior guys and it's a great mix.''

And pretty much a labour of love. Nobody on the Islanders is making six figures.

"We pay their gas and their hotels and rent vans for them, that's it,'' said Clayton. "They stay with the people of Paradise Hill, who put them up and feed them meals. Everybody enjoys it.''

The only thing that would make it better is if they could find a team like this a little closer to home.

SIMILAR MINDSET

"You want to go where the guys have a similar mindset and philosophy,'' said Lajoie. "That's what we have here. It's unfortunate we have to travel so far to be able to put all that together. But I don't regret one bit making the decision to come out of retirement to play here.''

Not when Paradise Hill reminds them so much of where they came from.

"It's very comfortable,'' said Hewson. "It really says something about the U of A program. A lot of these guys I've never played with. We're from different years, but you feel like you know them because they're similar people with similar work ethic and character.

"When the Bears won Nationals this year the Alumni were just as happy as the guys that won. It's a great place to play, there's something really special about being there.''

- Lloydminster Border Kings beat the St. John's Cobras 7-0.


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