*Part two of Robert Lister's Summer Series of articles focuses on the Lloydminster Blazers and how they shaped hockey in the Border City.*
Transitioning from the Lancers brand to the Blazers was an exciting time. The prospect of playing in the west was an attractive one and got the community’s attention. The Blazer era is Lloydminster’s longest hockey team brand, and is suitably filled with memorable games, moments, and stories.The Blazers would be Lloydminster’s Alberta Junior Hockey League team from 1988 all the way to 2005. This move towards playing in the west solved a great deal of financial troubles and made it possible for Lloydminster to make a name for itself in Alberta hockey. Moving the team’s area of play to locales within the Edmonton-Calgary corridor would attract more fans and reduce travel costs.
Much of this move was made possible by individuals such as the city’s own Bill Kondro, who gave a stirring presentation to league officials to secure a spot for the team. Donations of time, money, and effort from the generous citizens and passionate hockey fans of Lloydminster made the Blazers AJHL ambitions a reality. Bill Kondro also remained an active participant in Lloydminster hockey, being the General Manager of the Blazers for several years and also chaired the AJHL Board of Governors.
There were many memorable moments that were part of the Blazer era. One game during the 2000 AJHL North Final against Fort McMurray went into triple overtime, which was until recently, the longest game played in AJHL history. The goalie for the Blazers during that game, Dustin Schwartz, went on to be the Edmonton Oilers' goaltender coach. Andrew Hannah, another exceptional Blazer Alumni, had the distinction of being Lloydminster’s only franchise member to be awarded with AJHL MVP in 1995. This was well earned, as Hannah’s stats showed that year with 43 goals and 44 assists in 50 games played. Hannah at the time was the career leader in points for the Blazers, and would only be outdone by Mark Hallam a few years later who accumulated an amazing 238 points. Hallam returned to the organization after college as marketing director.
Hallam spent time on the same team as another player who has since been recognized on the Lloydminster Jr. A Wall of Honour: Kris Wiebe. The Lloydminster native made the Blazers at 16 years old, and carved out an excellent four year junior hockey career from 1997 to 2001. After his time with the Blazers, Wiebe advanced to play at the collegiate level first at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio, and then at Niagara University in upstate New York. Like Hallam, Wiebe would return to the organization in another capacity, currently serving as an assistant coach with the Bobcats.
The Blazers’ also had NHL prospects. Wade Redden, son of Coach Gord Redden, played for his hometown before moving up to the national level. Showing just how far Border City grit and determination can take you when you put your mind to it and hone your skills on the ice. Several years later, Scott Hartnell followed a similar path as he launched his junior career with the Blazers before moving on to the Prince Albert Raiders and ultimately to the National Hockey League. The Coaching staff had its fair share of highlights as well. Gord Thibodeau coached the team during that triple overtime thriller against Fort McMurray in 2000, and in the previous year won AJHL Coach of the year in ’99.
The team always consisted of dedicated and talented individuals ready to take to the ice and give it their all for Lloydminster hockey fans. It was the enthusiasts, be they players, staff, fans or backers that made the core of the organization and allowed Lloydminster hockey to thrive and endure throughout the decades. Then there are the volunteers who worked incredibly hard to keep the organization here in Lloydminster and to allow it to excel. Be it manning the concession booth, maintaining the rink, or simply being plain supportive in any way possible.
When times were tough for the Blazers in the early 2000’s it took real dedication and determination to keep the team afloat during financial woes and fears of the franchise being shut down. Otis Rusling, Junior A fan turned Blazers benefactor and President, stepped up to keep AJHL Hockey here in Lloydminster. Choosing to back the team during its low point was a tough decision, essentially keeping it afloat for a whole year. This was vindicated when the Blazers emerged from their troubles hardier, wiser and ready for the future. That future after ’05 would be called the Bobcats.