Flyers fever 50 years on

MURRAY GREIG -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:18 AM ET

A few decades before names like Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and Fuhr became synonymous with Edmonton's hockey supremacy, others blazed the trail.

Guys named Hall and Horvath. Stankiewicz and Zeidel. Melnyk and Ullman. Bucyk and Coflin.

And there were more.

Stasiuk. Poile. Allen. Arbour. Haley. Holmes.

The list goes on. A combination of gifted kids, cagey veterans and career plow horses who together formed arguably the greatest team in the history of minor professional hockey: the 1954-55 Edmonton Flyers.

"Not only do I remember their names and numbers ... when I close my eyes I can still see them playing," says James Vantour, author of The Fabulous Flyers.

In association with the Hockey Alberta Foundation, Vantour's book commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Flyers winning the President's Cup, emblematic of the Western Hockey League championship when the WHL was only a half-stride below the NHL as the best pro loop on the planet.

"You could say I was bitten by Flyers fever when I was a kid playing at the old Eastwood rink, pretending to be Bronco Horvath," Vantour chuckles in a telephone interview from his Ontario home.

"Growing up in Edmonton in the '50s, the Flyers were like gods. When my dad took me to my first game at the old Gardens, I was absolutely enthralled. Later my mom gave me the best advice any mother could give a 13-year-old player when she told me, 'If you want to learn how to score goals, just watch Bronco.'

"The price of a kid's ticket was only 25 cents with a Knothole Gang membership card, but the memories were priceless."

Vantour spent years researching his book, tracking down and interviewing virtually everyone still alive who played for, or was associated with, the club.

The result is a highly entertaining history of the Flyers franchise from its inception in 1945-46 until the team ceased operations in 1963.

For that one magical season the Flyers dominated the WHL the same way the Oilers would rule the NHL 30 years later.

"It was a case of us just coming together completely as a team, in every aspect of the game," recalls goaltender Glenn Hall, who won 38 games and posted five shutouts for the 1954-55 club before embarking on a stellar 18-year Hall of Fame career in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.

Now 74 and living near Stony Plain, Hall says he's delighted to see the Flyers finally getting some long-overdue recognition.

"For me, I just couldn't believe how lucky I was to be playing hockey for a living; the fact we had such a great team only made it more fun.

"Edmonton was sponsored by Detroit in those days, but the Flyers were a great organization on their own. Tiger Goldstick was our trainer, and we had the best of everything ... better than some of the NHL clubs.

"The key to our success, I think, was that we all loved the game so much, and we wanted to win for each other and for the fans. We had 25 guys who always put the team first."

Horvath, who led the team in scoring with an astonishing 50 goals and 60 assists in 67 games, likewise cites chemistry as the cornerstone of the Flyers' championship campaign.

"Lemme tell you, that was the finest collection of hockey players I was ever privileged to play with," says Horvath, 76, from his home in South Yarmouth, Maine.

"With Glenn in goal we never had to worry about playing defence, so it was run-and-gun, all-out offence ... a lot like what the Oilers were doing so many years later.

"My wingers were Eddie Stankiewicz and Johnny Bucyk, and boy could they fly. Bucyk was just a baby ... 20 years old. But he popped 30 goals and close to 100 points. We knew he was headed for greatness. Normie Ullman, too. What a skater! And if anyone got behind us, they had to deal with the Rock - Larry Ziedel. Toughest S.O.B. that ever played the game, bar none."

For Vantour, reconnecting with the heroes of his youth was both a way of saying thanks for the memories and preserving what he rightfully believes is an important part of Edmonton's sports history.

"It's been more than 50 years since I watched those guys, and I feared that one day there would be no record of what they meant to Edmonton and to the sport of hockey," he says.

"My book is for everyone who ever sat in the old Gardens on Friday nights to watch this fabulous team perform, and who cheered for Bronco, Chief, Rock, all those great players."


Photos