The nine tourists posed on the grass of Victory Square are visiting Vancouver for the first time, and they are on the longest journey of their lives.
One wears a sweater, and two wear fringed buckskin jackets, while the others ward off the January chill with suit jackets. They wear boots on their feet and clutch cowboy hats in hands that are snug inside homemade leather gloves.
They are cowboys, taking a sojourn away from labouring on the Alkali Lake Ranch, but they have not made the long journey from the Cariboo to the city to show their expertise at wrangling or tree-cutting. They are here to play hockey.
They are the Alkali Lake Braves, reigning champions of the Central Interior Hockey League. Seven are from Esk’etemc First Nation, two from the Canim Lake Band (Tsq’escen’). All are Secwépemc, or Shuswap, as it was rendered in English in 1932.
Ninety years ago, the arrival of an all-Indigenous hockey team was a sensation in the province’s biggest city. These amateurs were in Vancouver to play an exhibition game against an all-star team from the city’s semi-professional Commercial Hockey League. The game drew such a large crowd, a second one was added.
The newspapers competed for details. The posed portrait was snapped by Vancouver Sun photographer Stuart Thomson, creating a rare souvenir of a moment in British Columbia sports history.
The Alkali Lake team played outdoors on natural ice, on a rink with snowbanks serving as sideboards. They only played day games, as there was no electric light, though sometimes bonfires were lit circling the rink for evening skating. They travelled to away games by horse-drawn sleigh. After arriving in other communities, notably Williams Lake, they were not allowed as First Nations people to eat in restaurants or sleep in a hotel because of enforced racial segregation. They camped outdoors even in the depths of winter.
The players were heroes in the Cariboo, where a young English immigrant boy named Hilary Place cheered them on, later offering evaluations in his 1999 memoir, Dog Creek: A Place in the Cariboo. Here is the Alkali Lake team roster from left to right in the photograph, with Place’s evaluations:
Joe Clemene, 50-year-old defenceman (“a poet with a puck”)
Pat Chelsea, winger (“you would never see him” until after he scored)
Mathew Dick, goalie (“incredibly quick reflexes”)
Joe Dan, spare
David Johnson, defenceman (“a stickhandler par excellence … tireless, tough old campaigner”)
Alec Antoine, centre (“a truly magnificent player”)
Louis Emile, spare
Peter Christopher, spare
Alfred Sandy, winger (“his shot could go like a bullet”)
The Alkali Lake players loved the game, Price wrote in his memoir. “It gave them an opportunity to prove they were the best at a highly demanding sport. But winning the game was not the only thing that counted. For them, the sheer joy of the contest of skills was important: a quick turn around the opposing player; skating, turning, stickhandling, all the skills that made hockey the fastest, toughest, and most elegant game ever devised by man were their delight. They played the game not only with grace and power and skill, but with their souls as well.”
The team had been organized a few years earlier by Harry Taylor, the Indian agent in Williams Lake. It was said Cully Wilson, a Winnipeg-born player of Icelandic ancestry who had a long professional career, taught the fundamentals of the game to the fledgling players. Although Wilson was notorious for roughhousing (he was once expelled from a league for slashing a rival in the mouth), the Alkali Lake players developed a reputation for stylish play, relying more on speed and finesse than physical intimidation.
“Their play is absolutely clean,” the Vancouver Sun reported. “They do not body check. If they hit an opponent in flight, it is an accident.”
They wore green sweaters with the letters AL on the front, a gift from William Woodward, the son of the founder of Woodward’s department store, who had married Ruth Wynne Johnson, the daughter of the ranch’s owner.
One of the players stood out. Antoine, also known as Se’leste (rendered in English as Celestin, Celista, or Sylista), was an orphan from the Chicoltin who was raised by an Esk’etemc family.
“A power skater with tremendous speed, he needed just one stride to be in full flight,” Price wrote. “Sylista turned with equal dexterity in either direction, stickhandling at full speed all the time. He skated backwards with the puck better than most other players could carry it going forward. He had a natural talent for shooting as well; the players regularly lined up bottles and cans on the backboards and Sylista picked off each one of them from the blueline. His accuracy was uncanny.”
The way he stickhandled past opponents to get in the clear led the Cariboo Observer to dub him the Lone Bull of the Rangeland. He emerged as the classiest player in the four-team Cariboo circuit, also including the Clinton Bluebirds, Quesnel Warhorses, and Williams Lake Hopefuls.
The Alkali Lake team travelled from the Interior to North Vancouver, where they were guests of Squamish Nation leader Andy Paull. An activist for treaty rights, Paull was also a labour organizer, a sportsman, and the leader of a musical band.
“It will be the Indians’ night to howl, we hope, and we of Squamish will have a 40-piece band at the game,” Paull said. “We hope to play our boys off the ice to the strains of See, the Conquering Heroes.”
On January 15, 1932, a Friday night, some 2,500 paying customers flocked to the Forum on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition. It was the largest hockey crowd of the season. Organizers planned a full slate of entertainment before and after the big showdown with the visitors. The curtain-raiser featured women’s hockey match, as speedskater Doris Parkes scored both goals and Helen Hannay got the shutout as the Amazons defeated the Beavers 2-0. A third game followed the main event with National Paper Box defeating Western Steel by 5-2 in the men’s nightcap.
The main event did not disappoint for pageantry or thrills. The opening faceoff was conducted by Chief Joe Mathias of the Squamish Nation in ceremonial regalia. Paull’s orchestra performed before the game and between periods.
The game would be a test for the Alkali Lake team. Not only had they never played on artificial ice, they had never played a game indoors, let alone with so large and raucous a crowd. They also faced a team of city all-stars, who outnumbered them 13 players to nine.
In Dog Creek, 35 kilometres south of Alkali Lake, an 11-year-old boy grew frustrated as he tried to follow the action.
“When the games began, every radio in the Cariboo was tuned to the station broadcasting the series,” Hilary Place wrote. “Reception was terrible and the station kept fading in and out. Just when you heard Alkali was starting down the ice, the radio faded out and the results of the rush were lost in the static. The last big fade-out happened at the end of the game.”
The Alkali Lake team impressed the crowd with their fast skating and ability to shoot the puck. “Practically every one of them packed a terrific shot that was dead-on the nets from all angles and from any distance,” the Daily Province reported.
Emile had a sterling opening period, though he was unable to get close to the All-Stars goal.
Dick, the Alkali Lake goalie, proved sharp in protecting his cage. The opponents opened the scoring at 16:00 of the first period when left winger Larry Aykroyd pounced on a rebound. The first period ended 1-0 for the home side.
At 1:50 of the second period, Emile grabbed a loose puck from a jam of players in front of the opposing net before finding an open slot to shuffle his shot home to tie the score.
Before the period ended, the Commerks, as they were called, regained the lead on a low shot picking a corner.
With the Vancouver team bringing four skaters close to their own goal on every Alkali Lake attack, the visitors tried unsuccessfully to tie the game. By midway through the third period, the superior numbers on the Vancouver bench allowed fresher players to take the play, and much of the period was spent in the Alkali Lake end. At the final whistle, the scoreboard read “Commercials 4, Alkali Lake 1.” A loss but not a washout.
The game proved such a success at the box office that another was scheduled for five days later. This time, the All-Stars agreed to dress only nine players. By some accounts, an even larger crowd attended the second game, lured by reports of the exciting first contest as well as an opportunity to skate on the ice after the game. In the end, the Commercial All-Stars won again, by 2-0.
The Alkali Lake players travelled a long distance to score a single goal, but they won the respect of their opponents and hockey fans in the big city. (Not that the newspapers weren’t filled with grotesque racial stereotypes, which need only be acknowledged for their ugliness and are not worth repeating.) Over time, a story emerged that Lester Patrick, the wise old man of hockey, had offered Antoine a professional contract only to be turned down because the cowboy did not want to lose a steady job as a $15-per-month ranch hand. The offer seems more legend than fact, as no contemporary account exists. Patrick was behind the bench of his New York Rangers in the East when the two Vancouver games were played, so it is highly unlikely he ever saw the Alkali Lake team.
It is also possible Cully Wilson, the pro credited with teaching hockey to the players, did not actually do so. The author Irene Stangoe gave that credit to the soundalike Laurie Wilson, the best man at the nuptials of Woodward and Wynn Johnson. Her assertion seems more likely since the hockey pro would have been playing in the United States when he was supposed to have been tutoring the skaters.
While the team’s exploits were remembered in the Cariboo, the wider hockey world forgot the unheralded and underfunded team until they were included in the 2006 documentary series Hockey: A People’s History, along with a book by Michael McKinley. An outdoor game featuring the team was recreated for filming. Among the skaters were direct descendants of the players from 1932—a team forgotten no more.