While the banner that hangs in the rafters of Nicholas Sheran Arena pays tribute to the accomplishments of the 1994 University of Lethbridge Pronghorns men’s hockey team, the true legacy of that group of young men is still being realized today.
With as many as 15 players and coaches from the U of L’s first national championship team contributing to hockey from the Timbit level all the way to the National Hockey League, the tangible impact of that special season cannot be captured by a dusty piece of cloth.
“I think of all the things I learned from Mike that year and the importance of never forgetting where you came from and what it means to be a part of a community was right near the top,” says former Pronghorn David LeGrandeur (BA/BEd '00, MEd '10) on his then head coach, Mike Babcock, now the bench boss of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.
“You look at all the guys from our team, and then from many of the teams that followed, who are involved with hockey at the grassroots level and it’s remarkable.”
Perry Neufeld (BSc '01) was in his fourth year when the Horns embarked on their championship run, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. He’d been on teams that finished last in the conference and had never advanced to playoffs, but he said those struggles steeled him and his teammates and prepared them for success. Now, coaching with a group that includes four other Horns alumni, he looks to pass those lessons on.
“For me, coaching is about having a good perspective, being grounded and making sure the kids are having fun and learning to love the game of hockey,” says Neufeld, a senior development manager for an Alberta-based real estate developer and coach for both his son and daughter. “It’s not so much about the skills of being a better hockey player, it’s also the lifelong values that they are going to carry forward in terms of hard work, dedication, perseverance, commitment and working as a team. Hockey is the medium to pass along some of these values to children.”
Babcock is now a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning coach for Team Canada and Stanley Cup champion, and the highest profile name from that 1994 group. However, his method for success and ability to see the bigger picture has not wavered.
“Mike Babcock has not changed one bit from 1994 to 2014. He spoke about his family the same way in 1994 as he does today,” says alumnus Peter Rajcic (BA/BEd '96), a middle school teacher who currently coaches with a group of four Horns alumni at both the novice and atom levels.
“He found a way for us to commit to his program and to believe in ourselves and I know it’s been a part of all of us in regards to following through and making the most of what we were intended to do in our lives, both in hockey and outside of hockey.”
LeGrandeur has been coaching for five years and currently is involved in both novice and atom programs. A school principal, LeGrandeur sees himself as a teacher as much as he is a coach. Ironically, it is the same way that Babcock has always described himself.
“When I read his book, one of the things he talks about is that he and his wife are raising difference makers and he brings that to everything he does,” says LeGrandeur. “I had never really thought about it until I read it but that’s what I’m trying to do too.”
Success, says LeGrandeur, can be determined in many different ways, but he recognizes something special came out of that 1994 team – something far greater than the trophy that was won and the banner that was raised.
“I think everyone on that team has become successful in whatever they are doing beyond hockey, and finding a way to make an impact on their community – that says something.”
And our communities are better for it.