Written By John Short
The NAIT Ooks and Alberta Golden Bears have been competing and cooperating in the hockey world for dozens of years, so it may be tempting to see their scheduled exhibition game on Dec. 9 as something of a routine event.
If you feel that way, here's some free advice: yield not to temptation.
For one thing, this is a charitable event in aid of the Stollery Foundation, following a seven-game annual series that supported Ronald McDonald House with thousands of dollars between 1984 and 1991.
For another, it has been designated as the last game at the aging structure that started as Northlands Coliseum and ended its important hockey days as Rexall Place. The trappings of NHL competition may be gone, but the memories will remain for a long, long time.
More attractive than pure nostalgia in the eyes of many is the reality that this match between the Ooks and the Bears has a chance to live up to the highest moments of their one-on-one history: the Ooks currently lead in Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference standings; the Bears hold the same distinction in Canada West University competition; both teams have proven offensive players, solid defenders, outstanding goaltenders and enough depth to provide high energy for 60 minutes in every game.
No matter what preparation and competitive levels are melded into the event, history is bound to remain the most basic element and likely the most appealing one, notably for those who remember that the Ooks defeated the Golden Bears in one memorable game at the old Northlands Coliseum with more than 10,000 spectators agog at sight.
Legendary Ooks coach Perry Pearn still speaks fondly of that 7-5 victory, which occurred with Hall-of-Famer Clare Drake in charge of the opposition bench: "I remember thinking as it was going on that the pure emotion in that game, fans and players alike, was as intense as any game I've ever been involved in."
For Pearn to recall the evening so clearly after his own remarkable career – 22 seasons as an assistant in the National Hockey League – tells a story in itself.
"It's always an honor to beat a team like that," he said in a lengthy conversation. "They beat us one year earlier, and I thought then that our team was as good as the Bears. After we beat them, I honestly thought we were the better team on the night."
Even today, Pearn is a major part of Ooks hockey. He stayed in touch, year after year, while serving as a key coaching aide in Winnipeg (two terms), Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver and mentioned, almost casually, that it was a pleasure for him to recommend current coach Tim Fragle for the job last season.
"Tim worked with me a lot at summer camps," Pearn said. "He did a great job."
Their connection is matched in many ways by Pearn's lengthy and valuable association with Drake and the ongoing coaching link between these two hockey programs:
* After Serge Lajoie built the Ooks back to the best possible level some years ago, highlighted by a couple of ACAC titles, he moved up to lead the Bears;
* His assistant, Mike Gabinet (Drake's grandson) took over and recorded an unbeaten 2015-16 season before returning to his NCAA alma mater, University of Nebraska Omaha.
For some observers, these recent developments may have reduced the memory of the NAIT successes for Pearn, who now works at Edmonton's Vimy Ridge Academy and as an advisor to Canada's national women's program. Few records show that his 1984-85 team also produced a perfect ACAC win-loss record or that he served as head coach of the gold-medal Canadian team at the World Junior tournament in 1993.
In his normal understated manner, he mentioned that he also won gold as an assistant on two other world junior championship squads. "I'm very proud of that."
Pearn's leadership and the consistent Ooks hockey excellence did lead, however, to one serious national hockey setback: NAIT was so dominant on its way to six Canadian championships during his tenure that Ontario teams grew weary of their punishment and simply pulled out. "Hockey would be better, coast to coast, if we had a national college championship," the successful coach has often said.
In the absence of a national final, the Ooks keep seeking other ways to excel and to contribute to the community. Saturday's event – Face-off 2017 – is a great example.