November 25th, 2020

Lethbridge was once a mecca for sports legends

By Sulz, Dave on October 29, 2020.

Hockey Hall of Famer "King" Clancy, centre, at the head table for the 1960 Kinsmen Sportsmen's Dinner. Photo courtesy the Galt Archives

Dave Sulz

Lethbridge Herald

For southern Alberta sports fans, one of the annual highlights for a 20-year period from 1954 to 1973 was the Kinsmen Sportsmen’s Dinner, an affair which, at its peak, rivalled any sports banquet in the country.

The seeds for the event were planted in 1953 when Lethbridge Herald sports editor Don Pilling and managing editor Hugh Buchanan, the son of the paper’s founder and publisher, Senator William Buchanan, pondered the possibility of Lethbridge hosting a sports banquet. The idea was passed along to Bus Murdoch, the city’s first athletic director and a member of the local Kinsmen Club.

The Kinsmen picked up the ball and ran with it, putting the wheels in motion for a wintertime dinner originally held at the Marquis Hotel, where the downtown Royal Bank now sits.

The event began relatively modestly in 1954 with a guest lineup featuring seven celebrities from the Canadian sports world, including Canadian Football League stars Normie Kwong, Rollie Miles and Sam Etcheverry as well as sports columnist Jim Coleman. Within a few years the dinner was “recognized as THE premier sportsmen’s dinner in Canada,” Pilling said in the book “Sporting Legends of the South” by former Herald writer and editor Garry Allison.

The dinner’s reputation was built on the strength of an impressive guest list which featured a mind-boggling array of celebrities. During its run, the Kinsmen Sportsmen’s Dinner brought some of the biggest names in the sports world to Lethbridge.

For example, the 1966 dinner, held Feb. 5 at the Exhibition Pavilion, boasted a lineup that included boxing great Rocky Marciano; baseball Hall of Famer Roy Campanella; NHL goaltending legend Jacques Plante (who was temporarily retired); Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, fresh off his NFL rookie season which included a record 22 touchdowns; Saskatchewan Roughriders superstar fullback George Reed; PGA Hall of Fame golfer Dutch Harrison; rodeo great Harold Mandeville; and Ottawa-born impressionist Rich Little.

Other big names who graced the banquet’s stage through the years included baseball’s Leo Durocher, Bob Feller, Al Kaline, Lefty Gomez, Joe Garagiola, Jocko Conlon, Gil Hodges, Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Tommy Lasorda, Bob Uecker, Brooks Robinson, Sparky Anderson and Ferguson Jenkins; football’s Bud Grant, Jim Brown, Don Meredith, Jackie Parker, John Brockington and three former Green Bay Packers from the Vince Lombardi championship era, Jerry Kramer, Boyd Dowler and Marv Fleming; hockey’s Lester Patrick, Cyclone Taylor, Ted Lindsay, King Clancy, Red Storey, Frank Selke, John Ferguson and Johnny Bower; Olympic track legend Jessie Owens; NBA Hall of Famers Sam Jones and Dolph Schayes; curling’s Ernie Richardson and Hec Gervais; rodeo’s Rocky Rockabar ad Casey Tibbs; Indy 500 champion Bobby Unser; and boxing’s Jake LaMotta, Archie Moore, Joey Giardello, Carmen Basilio, Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo. And this is just a partial list.

The run of the Kinsmen dinners ended in the early 1970s, foiled by the burgeoning economics of professional sports. The athletes who could at one time be brought to Lethbridge for a fee of $1,500 to $2,000 were now priced far beyond what Lethbridge could afford.

In the dinner’s early days, says former CJOC Radio manager Brent Seely, who was formerly the station’s sports director, many athletes were earning in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, so an extra $1,500 to $2,000 for a banquet appearance “was quite appealing to them.”

Also, Seely notes, organizers could deal directly with the athletes, instead of negotiating through agents, which became the case later. Eventually it became impossible to land the calibre of athletes the dinner attracted in its heyday.

Because alcohol was served at the banquet, “you had to be of drinking age to attend,” which was 21 in those days, Seely recalls. Consequently, he wasn’t able to attend the dinners until 1962 after he turned 21. A ticket to the dinner was a birthday gift from his mom.

Later, Seely attended numerous dinners in his role with CJOC, which would record the entire event, then edit it down into a three-hour radio show.

Seely acknowledges the dinners were a sports fan’s treat because of the impressive list of sports celebrities on hand.

“The only place you ever saw or heard of them was on television,” he says. “It was delightful to rub shoulders with them.”

After starting out as a relatively small event at the Marquis Hotel, the dinner eventually grew into a bigger event at the Exhibition Pavilion with 1,200 available seats – and it sold out every year, says Seely.

No wonder, with a lineup featuring a galaxy of stars as bright as the ones who visited Lethbridge annually for 20 years.

“They were the highlight of the year,” Seely says of the dinners. “I don’t think you’ll ever see it anywhere again because of the dollar.”

Running in conjunction with the Kinsmen Sportsmen’s Dinners for a few years, and then continuing beyond, was another event that brought sports celebrities to Lethbridge.

The Lethbridge LDS Father and Son Banquet, which ran through the 1970s and ’80s and into the early 1990s, brought such stars as NFL quarterbacks Danny White and Gifford Nielson as well as baseball’s Larry Bowa, Bill Buckner, Duke Snider and Dale Murphy to the city, to name a few. Former U.S. Olympic gold-medal swimmer Mike Burton was also a guest at one of the dinners.

Bill Binning, along with former Herald writer and editor Garry Allison, was a key organizer of the dinners, which were held at the LDS Church Stake Centre on Scenic Drive South, near what was then known as the Sportsplex.

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