When retired hockey players share stories of the glory days, typically they’re to be taken with a grain of salt.
Every game, it seems, was the biggest ever played, while every goal and every save was more breathtaking than the last.
Dale Henwood and Perry Pearn make no such claims, they didn’t play for the championship of the world and that’s just fine.
What they did do was help the Red Deer Rustlers hoist the Centennial Cup as Canada’s first national Junior A champions in 1971, a victory that began a rich tradition of junior hockey in one of the most respected tournaments in the country.
The 2010 RBC Cup in Dauphin marks the 40th anniversary since Henwood, Pearn and company first set the standard for championship-caliber hockey; over the years 27 different teams have taken their turn in the spotlight, led by the Vernon Vipers, who have won a record five national titles, and the Prince Albert Raiders, who won four titles in a six-year span in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with legendary coach Terry Simpson behind the bench.
Over 100 players who appeared in the National Junior A Championship have gone on to play at least one game in the NHL, including current big leaguers Rod Brind’Amour, Scott Gomez, Willie Mitchell, Scottie Upshall and Mason Raymond.
Every championship player and team has their own story of glory, but they don’t get any better than the Red Deer Rustlers versus the Charlottetown Islanders in 1971 when the national final was a best-of-seven affair.
Henwood and Pearn were young, 20-something pups when they captured the inaugural Centennial Cup; both were as wild as the gun-slinging cowboy on their jerseys. Not surprisingly, they each remember Red Deer’s run to supremacy like it took place last week.
“It’s a funny feeling that it’s that long ago, the good part about it is that there are still some vivid memories too from those times,” said Pearn, currently an assistant coach with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.
“I remember in the Alberta/B.C. playoff we met Penticton and I know that we lost the first two games out there, it was a wild and woolly series and there were a couple of bench emptiers early on, then we came back to Red Deer and played hockey and we won the next four straight.”
Red Deer carried that momentum into a sweep of the St. Boniface Saints in the western final en route to a date with Charlottetown in the east vs. west national championship, a series the Rustlers won 4-2.
“One of the things that stands out the most is that the annual Silver Buckle Rodeo was in Red Deer so during our series in Winnipeg, our home games were in Taber, Alberta,” recalled Henwood, who today serves as president of Canadian Sport Centre Calgary.
“Then we played all six games on the road in Charlottetown in the final. I remember it being close and rough and we weren’t a stacked team by any means, I’d say we might have been underdogs from the standpoint of playing all the games on the road. That was difficult.”
The Rustlers won eight of their final 10 games, all away from home, to claim the title of national junior A champions, a distinction that is still as dear to Henwood and Pearn today as it was 40 years ago.
“As a 19- or 20-year-old guy, I didn’t realize how significant it was until now, these many years later, I’ve watched the tournament become part of the fabric of hockey in Canada,” said Pearn.
Added Henwood: “We just had a good group of players that played well together and really supported each other. That made it absolutely special and something to be proud of even all these years later.”