MELFORT — For the Melfort Mustangs, it all started 30 years ago, with some razzing over some drinks between friends.
Leonard Strandberg was in Humboldt when the Broncos were hosting the Centennial Cup, chatting with that team’s then-president, Brian Thomson.
“We got talking and he was giving me a hard time about the fact Melfort, a bigger centre, didn’t have a junior hockey team,” he said. “Over a couple of rums we got talking and I said, ‘well, if we find a team, we’ll get one.’”
That began a chain of events that would end with the creation of the Melfort Mustangs for the 1988-89 season.
There were a few reasons why there was a desire for a Junior A hockey team in Melfort back in 1988. A few years before, the Junior B team, the TMs, had closed down. There was also hope that a Junior A team would spur the city to build a new ice surface to replace the Main Arena, built in the early 1930s.
A little while later, Strandberg received a phone call from Thomson telling him the private owner of the Weyburn Red Wings, Tom Webb, wanted to sell his team.
On March 17, 1988, Strandberg put together a public meeting to discuss the possibility. Only 19 people showed up.
“This does not indicate to me there is enough support for a Junior A club in Melfort,” the Melfort Journal recorded Strandberg saying around 30 minutes into the meeting. “As far as I’m concerned, Junior A hockey here is dead.”
Yet it didn’t die there. By the end of that meeting, a committee, made up of Strandberg, Al Schulte, Jim Herrem, Maurice Simoneau, Gary Fitz and Randy Hack, was formed to look at buying the Red Wings.
Negotiations began for the team, but Webb had given the first right of purchase to the community of Weyburn.
“We made our offer and in the end, Weyburn stepped forward and came up with the money he wanted to purchase and therefore kept the Weyburn Red Wings in Weyburn – where they obviously should be,” Strandberg said. “That put us back on hold.”
Yet to the west, another opportunity presented itself as the Lloydminster Lancers were wanting to make the move from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League into the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“All of a sudden, out of the blue, the president of the SJHL of that time, Wayne Kartusch, phoned me one day and said, ‘is your group still interested in a junior hockey team?’ and I said, ‘yeah, of course we are,’” Strandberg said.
The Lancers’ move into Alberta was accepted and the Melfort group entered discussions to buy the franchise, which once belonged to the Prince Albert Raiders before they made the move into the Western Hockey League. This time, they were successful.
The next step was to convince the SJHL board of governors to approve the team’s move to Melfort at their annual general meeting in Nipawin June 3 to 5. The big concern they had was the size of the arena. The Melfort group promised there would be one in a couple of years.
“At that time, basically it was a bald-faced lie because we had no idea what was going to happen,” Strandberg said. “We knew we needed one and there had been talk over the years, but it came to pass because we had a junior hockey team.”
The community would come through on that promise and in four years, the Northern Lights Palace arena was built.
The board voted to allow a SJHL team in Melfort – a lot sooner than the Melfort group was expecting.
“As it turned out, we were offered a position in the league, but much to our surprise, instead of it being a year down the road, it was for that same year,” Strandberg said. “We had absolutely nothing in place. We had no ice times, we didn’t have the blessing of the community, we didn’t have the blessing of the council or any of that stuff.”
The team also didn’t have any staff, equipment, billets or even a name.
Strandberg went back to Melfort to talk to city officials – during a weekend – about getting ice time for the home games, aided by somebody from the Estevan team.
A board of directors was set up, featuring Dale Frier, an active Kinsman and businessman, as president, Strandberg as vice-president, Randy Hack as secretary-treasurer, and Bob Douglas, Otto Johnson, Tom Assaly, Al Schulte and Ken Madraga as directors.
“The board at that time were not what you’d call die-hard hockey people,” Strandberg said. “They wanted to start something new and for the most part, when we recruited board members, we recruited good people with good connections in the community and were known to volunteer and do things.”
The name was determined by an all-day radio contest June 8. Keith Dolo of Melfort, who came up with Mustangs, received two pair of tickets for two home games. Strandberg based the blue and green colours of the team on the Swift Current Broncos.
The team recruited Mark Odnokon, then a 26-year-old recent graduate of the University of Minnesota - Duluth. The Prince Albert native had played for the Raiders, the Binghamton Whalers in the International Hockey League and the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the American Hockey League
Odnokon came to a team with almost no players – the Melfort group thought they would have Lloydminster’s roster but Hockey Canada let them go to the AJHL, so only four players from the Lancers’ last year came – and no scouting system. Strandberg said many players were picked up through word of mouth, with the team trying them out to see if they’d work out.
Yet the board and the coach agreed on one thing: that the players had to be good community-oriented citizens if they wanted to be part of the team.
“There were growing pains,” Odnokon told the SJHL during the Mustangs’ 25th anniversary. “There were a lot of setbacks that first year. There were setbacks with the players list, the dressing room wasn’t finished, jerseys weren’t ready and there were no jobs for the kids.
“But, [the Mustangs board of directors] got to work,” Odnokon said. “The community was so open and welcome to the kids. They got treated like rock stars there.”
Focus in that first year was not on winning, but on setting up a solid hockey program that would bring results in the future.
The team played its first game of the 1988-89 season away, against Minot, North Dakota on Oct. 1. The Mustangs lost 5-4.
“The first game was just such a relief,” Strandberg said. “We put a team together, we had uniforms, we had staff, we had all of that stuff. We got through training camp and nobody died. It was such a relief to have that team on the ice for that very first game.”
The first home game was against Nipawin Oct. 5. The Hawks defeated them 6-3, getting three extra goals after starting the third period tied. The team would have nine wins to its name that first season.
“There were some bleak moments, I’ll tell you, but Mark did a heck of a job,” Strandberg said, “We were able to build a list of players that ended up playing and ended up being good players down the road. For a program to come into existence from absolutely nothing and win a championship in four years, I think is pretty good.”
Thirty years later, Strandberg’s still excited about the team he helped found. He said it was gratifying to see Trevor Blevins, a local product who played for the team, as its coach and general manager.
“The biggest thing that I feel good about: we’ve had a lot of good people go through this program, some that have stayed in this community and some that have gone on to do very well, whether it be NHL or get educations and be good in life, being a firefighter, policeman, lawyer, doctor, whatever.”