Praised for his speed and sharp-eyed shot, centreman Alex Antoine was visiting Vancouver from his home near Williams Lake for a two-game exhibition series when the New York Rangers offered him a contract.
The year was the 1932. Antoine turned them down.
Antoine’s Alkali Lake Braves lost both games to the all-star Vancouver Commercials that week, but their style of hockey was fast and beautiful and clean. It had elevated the players from the Esk’etemc First Nation to the top of the Northern B.C. amateur league and place them in front of jubilant city crowds of 8,000 at the Denman Arena.
Tomorrow night at Pacific Coliseum for their WHL season opener, the Vancouver Giants will pay tribute to the Alkali Lake Braves with a special, single-game jersey. The beautiful jersey is cream-coloured with bold black stripes and the “lazy cross” emblem of the Alkali Lake Ranch, a large cattle operation where many of the aboriginal hockey players worked, now known as the Douglas Lake Ranch. Such a jersey was never worn by the hockey players, said the Giants vice-president of business development, Dale Saip. But the look is contemporary with the Brave’s era and is more visually compelling than the dark green colour and giant “AL” lettering of the sweaters they did wear.
“We needed something that had some significance to the group and these guys came together on the ranch. That’s where they worked,” said Saip.
Indeed, when Antoine turned down Lester Patrick and his job offer with the Rangers, it was because he already had work. “I’ve got a good job at Alkali Lake Ranch,” he reportedly said. According to Cariboo-Chilcotin: Pioneer People and Places, he made $15 a month.
The observations of one hockey writer, the son of English immigrants, are included in the seminal anthology, Hockey: A People’s History. “He skated backward with the puck better than most of the players could carry it going forward. He had a natural talent for shooting as well,” came the report. “His accuracy was uncanny.”
The Alkali Lake Braves formed around 1927 when the league was a loosely knit organization of teams from Clinton to Prince George and included rosters from reserves at Sugar Cane and Canim Lake. The Braves were segregated from the dominant racist society and had no financial backing. They travelled to games by horse-drawn wagon and a second wagon was loaded with fans. These road warriors would often sleep overnight in the snow alongside the rink.
Young, male aboriginal athletes picked up hockey at residential schools where the sport was used as a tool of cultural assimilation. They were encouraged to play the tough, fast contact sport and they could win, beating white boys and being celebrated for it.
The fourth part of Hockey: A People's History focuses on the Alkali Braves and the aboriginal athletes who played hockey in the 1930s (jump ahead to 9:06):
The owner of Alkali Lake Ranch supplied the Braves with their first jerseys, their dark green sweaters, and when they travelled to Vancouver, the owner also outfitted them with special uniforms. Saip said no picture could be found and the colours are unknown but the chief of the Esk’etemc Council, Fred Robbins, told him what they looked like.
“When they came down to play against the Commercials, the sponsor came up with a different look: two hockey sticks with the puck in the middle that made an ‘A,’” said Saip. “We can’t find an actual copy.”
By the 1930-31 season, the Braves were experienced and “acclaimed as one of the cleanest teams in Cariboo history,” according to Pioneer Places and People. “They had amazing stamina, never seeming to tire. During the season, they clubbed all comers and finally toppled the perennial champion Prince George club.”
Squamish labour activist and sports organizer Andy Paull, the president of the North Shore Indian Brotherhood at the time, invited the Braves to play against the Commercials. "It'll be the Indians' night to howl," Paull declared.
The visitors competed with only nine men and adjusted their play to an arena with boards instead of a rink with snow banks but still only lost each game by a single goal. The Commercials won 2-1 and 1-0.
The Braves folded after the next season because of financial strife.
The Giants are selling a limited number of Alkali Lake tribute t-shirts and hats as well as game-worn jerseys. In previous seasons, the organization has honoured hockey’s past with commemorative jerseys for the Vancouver Millionaires and the White Spots.
Vancouver opens its season at home against the Victoria Royals 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at Pacific Coliseum. Tickets available online.