Long before the Pronghorns men's hockey team skated away with a national title on Maple Leaf Gardens ice, another group of young athletes brought glory to the University of Lethbridge.
The 1971 U of L Chinooks women's basketball team won the institution's first national crown, the Canadian Junior Women's Basketball Championship, 23 years before Mike Babcock and company claimed the school's second. It was a monumental achievement that went relatively unnoticed, both then and over the ensuing years.
Only now are we beginning to realize just what this motivated group of small-town overachievers accomplished and fittingly, their induction into the Pronghorns Hall of Fame is finally shining a spotlight on their legacy.
"The very best fans we had were the janitors at the Civic Centre," laughs Joan Langille (Cannady) (BASc, BA '73). "We didn't have a lot of people come to our games. What really struck us though, was when we arrived back in Lethbridge from winning the championship, the only people at the airport to greet us were the boyfriends, the parents and the janitors; they supported us right to the end."
With a roster stocked by southern Alberta products, the Chinooks proved that small could play big if given the opportunity.
"Basketball was a comfort zone for many of us from the smaller communities," says Langille, a Taber native. "Those of us from high school, it seemed pretty daunting to make a university team but we managed."
Linda Joncas (Dogterom) (BEd '72) grew up in Broxburn, went to McNally School as a youngster and then finished high school at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute. The majority of the rest of the team came from the Coaldale area and the powerful Kate Andrews program.
"It was really neat because we all kind of knew each other growing up, either playing with or against one another and then we reunited once we got to university," says Joncas.
"For me, it was a struggle to go to school. I ended up being in a single parent home after my parents divorced, and I had to get student loans and an academic scholarship to get me through. Basketball and the team meant so much to me, it really helped me through what was a tough time for my family."
Langille and Joncas were co-captains of the Chinooks in 1971, both playing out their final years before graduation. Each used their U of L degrees to carve out satisfying careers, Langille as a longtime provincial government employee and Joncas as a teacher and guidance counsellor. They both laud the personal learning environment the University offered.
"There's really something to be said for small schools and it was exciting to be a small school playing against the big universities. In terms of education, it was also such a great experience and years after, I would recognize that both in my career and when I would see other U of L graduates applying for positions in the provincial government," says Langille. "More often than not, they were very successful."
Joncas says she is an unabashed supporter of the U of L experience, and was for years in her role as a high school guidance counsellor.
"I remember coming back to the University 10 years after I'd graduated and as I was walking down the hall, somebody called my name and it was Dr. Petherbridge and he remembered me," she says. "That was very significant to me, 10 years after this man still knew who I was. There's a real student-centred focus at the U of L and in my experience, there's nothing much that compares."
That the University has now recognized the Chinooks for their significant contribution to the school's sporting history, brings the team back into the fold.
"We're very appreciative, honoured and in a way humbled," says Joncas. "You don't realize at the time that it was a big deal. We were all young and it was fun and it was a "Wow, we did it" feeling, but in terms of the bigger perspective, I don't think we really understood the way we do now."
The only regret the two have is that their coach, the late Wilma Winter, is not around to reconnect with her team and enjoy the long overdue accolades they are receiving.
"It just breaks my heart actually," says Joncas before pausing to gain her composure. "She should have been here because she was some lady. She would have loved to be honoured, she would have loved it from a coaching perspective and been proud that her institution recognized her girls."
GET THE FACTS
· The Chinooks only adopted the Pronghorns name in the fall of 1971 when the campus moved to its westside location.
· They very nearly won consecutive national titles, losing in the championship game the year before when Lethbridge hosted the event.
· The Chinooks won the 1971 provincial title with a 66-29 rout of Red Deer College and a 71-25 blowout of Mount Royal College.
· In the national championship tournament, hosted by UBC in Vancouver's War Memorial Gymnasium, the Chinooks beat UBC 46-45, topped University of Ottawa 70-59, and then won the national title with a 52-40 decision over University of Victoria.
This story first appeared in the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.