By Rob Ficiur
Forty Five years ago this week my father took me (age 9) and my brother (age 6) to our first and last Lethbridge Sugar Kings hockey game. My hockey expert uncle came along with us to add his expert analysis. (He was a teenager so I thought he knew everything).
In those days the Lethbridge Sugar Kings and the Alberta Junior Hockey League was as big league hockey as there was in our area. The Sugar Kings were one of the best teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. That season (1970-71) the Sugar Kings were a good team. They had a record of 25-15-10 record. The team won the league championship in 1968-69 (then called the Memorial Cup). In the 1970-71 season the Sugar Kings lost the Centennial Cup final to the Red Deer Rustlers.
Back on March 12, 1971 the four of us went to the Lethbridge arena to watch the Sugar Kings. It was probably the first “big league” hockey game I ever attended. This was at a time when there were only three NHL teams in Canada. Edmonton and Calgary were homes to Western Canadian Hockey League teams.
At the end of the second period my six year old brother said he was tired, so we left the game. The next day we woke up to the news that the Lethbridge Arena had burned down over night. Though no one was injured by the fire my brother claims this was the day he saved our family.
The downtown arena was never rebuilt at that site. According to my research (asking my parents) the site of the old arena is now a parking lot. Ground was broken for the Sportsplex (now called the Enmax center) in 1972; the new building was opened September 1974.
The Lethbridge Sugar Kings played out of Taber after the fire. By the time the 5479 seat Sportsplex was ready to use the city had attracted a Western Canadian Hockey league team from Swift Current. The Lethbridge Broncos became the new occupants of the new arena. The Taber Golden Suns officially joined the AJHL from 1974-75. The Lethbridge Sugar Kings were no more after the fire.
The Sugar Kings had two promising players that season. In goal they had goalie John Davidson and forward Lanny McDonald. Finding out information and stats from an Alberta Junior Hockey League team 45 years ago is not as easy as it sounds. On the hockedb.com it says that the two 17-ear olds Davidson and McDonald played for the Sugar Kings but no statistics were available for that year. Another website said that Lanny had 37 goals and 45 assists in 45 games for the Sugar Kings. He was voted the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Most Valuable player that year.
The Sugar Kings produced only two NHL players from 1967 until they officially folded in 1974. These include:
Lanny McDonald – The two seasons after the fire Lanny played for the Medicine Hat Tigers (of the Western Canadian Hockey League). His last season in Medicine Hat he had 62 goals and 77 assists leading him to be drafted fourth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1,111 NHL games Lanny scored 500 NHL goals. The Hockey Hall of Famer’s last game was in 1989 when the Flames and Lanny won their only Stanley Cup.
John Davidson – The two seasons after the fire John played for the Calgary Centennials of the Western Canadian Hockey League. He was drafted third overall by the St. Louis Blues in the 1973 draft. Davidson played seven full seasons in the NHL with a 123-124-14 record in 301 career regular season games. In 1978-79 the 25 year old goalie took his New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup final against the defending champion Montreal Canadiens. That was as close as “J.D.” ever got to an NHL championship. After years as a broadcaster in New York city, he is now the team president of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In the Sugar Kings history no other players played in the NHL. In 1972 the World Hockey Association was formed. The players in this league are counted as having been professional hockey players at the major league level. Two Lethbridge Sugar King alumni eventually played in the WHA .
Randy Andreachuk, who played two years with the Sugar Kings, appeared in two games for the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets.
Darrell Knibbs who played one year for the Sugar Kings appeared in 41 WHA games for the Chicago Cougars.
The day after the fire, while we were watching Hockey Night in Canada they mentioned the fire at the Lethbridge arena. So technically since I was at that game the day of the fire I was mentioned on Hockey Night in Canada 45 years ago. [When we stretch our imaginations to the limit there are ways to find our one moment of national fame.]