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    Categories: 50 Years of Excellence

Mitchell set the standard for Gazette sports reporting

Hockey historian and stats guru Larry Mitchell delivers a speech during a ceremony in 2007 to honour former St. Albert Saint Mark Messier. Mitchell was involved in the Saints for years and says its former star Messier is his all-time favourite St. Albert player.

The unofficial sports bureau chief at the St. Albert Gazette developed into a community icon through his involvement with the award-winning newspaper.

“If I hadn’t worked at the Gazette for 20-some years in various capacities I would not be where I am today by knowing so many people that I met through sports. That just could not have happened,” said Larry Mitchell, St. Albert’s hockey historian and legendary stats man.

“The Gazette is probably one of the best things that ever happened to St. Albert,” Mitchell continued. “When you see the paper and the advertising that’s in it, everybody else must think the same way, otherwise they wouldn’t be spending their dollars with the Gazette.”

Mitchell’s name is one of 114 engraved on the new community recognition monument that was unveiled downtown in July. The monument honours people, couples, groups and businesses that made significant contributions to St. Albert.

Larry Mitchell Day in St. Albert was also celebrated Sept. 6.

“That was pretty special and completely unexpected,” Mitchell said of the announcement that followed the unveiling of the City of St. Albert’s Skating Wall of Fame in Performance Arena the day before his turn in the spotlight.

One of the busiest senior citizens in St. Albert is still a regular fixture at the Gazette. Once a week he works the office like a Walmart greeter on his way to the sports desk that’s tucked away in the back corner of the newsroom.

“I’ve always been welcomed here at the Gazette. I know I can always talk sports with you or go into Duff [Jamison’s] office at any time I want. I can pull up a chair and have a chat with him. I appreciate that he liked my input over the years on what’s happening with the Saints or Steel,” Mitchell said.

During Mitchell’s tenure at the Gazette as a full time, part-time or freelance contributor, his role was to provide scores, stats and write-ups to help fill the sports section.

“After we got two newspapers in St. Albert, everybody I would talk to of course, knew I would be partial to the Gazette, which I was because we had the best sports reporters who covered a variety of sports in St. Albert,” Mitchell said. “There is no question that the Gazette had some great sports editors, from almost the day Ernie [Jamison] bought the paper back in the ’60s, to the present time. Our sports editors had no problems getting the story because we were always honest and told it the way it is. You might not like what you read but unfortunately that’s the way it is.

“Every Wednesday and Saturday I still look forward to the paper coming out and I read it from cover to cover. If I’m interested in something in the sports section I will whip over to there first and eventually I read the whole thing,” he said.

Sportsman

Mitchell, 76, was born in Vulcan and spent time in Longview, Calgary, Halifax (during the Second World War) and Longview again before his family moved to Edmonton when he was 17 years old.

“I still continued to play minor hockey and fastball and baseball. I was a centre in hockey and a shortstop or second baseman in baseball and fastball. I wanted to be where the action was,” he said.

Mitchell was toiling away at his father-in-law’s insurance adjusting business when Doug Milroy, an editor at the Edmonton Journal who also worked at the Gazette, which was then located across from the Bruin Inn, asked Mitchell to help out with sports coverage.

“We coached baseball and hockey together, so I said, ‘Why not?'” said Mitchell, a Grade 11 dropout who enjoyed reading and writing.

“It didn’t matter what it was, whether it was hockey or baseball or skiing or golf or football or whatever, I just wanted to see kids’ names in the paper and what they had accomplished,” he said.

At that time in the early 1970s, the sponsors of the various St. Albert minor hockey teams wanted to see their names in the paper. Erling Winquist, a member of the St. Albert Kinsmen, didn’t have time to do the minor hockey stats for the Gazette and recruited Mitchell to take over the duties.

“At that time there were about 30 to 40 hockey teams. We did the stats for every team and they got published once a week. We were also able to get the sponsors’ names in as well, so when minor hockey went to get sponsors they jumped at the chance because they knew their name would be in the paper.”

With Ernie Jamison as the publisher, Mitchell was a full-time Gazette employee for a few years.

“I did a lot of things. I helped with the layouts and the proofreading. I took the photos. We also developed our own photos because we had a darkroom,” he said.

Mitchell also penned a fishing column.

“I used to go out with Nick Muzichuk and we ice-fished every weekend. If we went to Long Lake or Baptiste Lake or any lake in Northern Alberta and had good fishing, I would write a story about it that week. Lots of guys would read about it and go out and fish, then phone me about it and commented, ‘Yeah, we went there and had the same kind of luck.'”

Mitchell would sometimes be cornered by an upset parent, coach or fan about a Gazette story that irked them.

“My comment would be, ‘Have you talked to the sports guy about it?’ They would say, ‘Well, no.’ I would say, ‘Why don’t you go that route and if you don’t get satisfaction there, then Ernie or Duff would be glad to talk to you and I’m sure you would get it straightened around.’ Most often that’s the way I left it,” he said.

Mitchell also worked at the Gazette alongside his wife, Lorraine, the quickest typist the newspaper ever had.

The Gazette’s original owner Wim Netelenbos recruited Lorraine after finding out that she cranked out 70 to 80 mistake-free words per minute while working as a typist in her dad’s insurance adjusting business.

“She went and auditioned and they hired her right on the spot because she was an excellent typist. He didn’t have to proofread her work. It was always right on the button,” he said.

Lorraine put in overtime typing up Larry’s stories and stats while making sure it was error-free.

“I was not the greatest typist. She was my proofreader for many years,” Mitchell said. “She was a big help. Plus, she raised four kids [Mike, Lori, Donna and Brenda] while I was out playing hockey or basketball or fastball. Not sure how she ended up staying with me for 54 years but I guess she must really like me.”

When St. Albert Sports opened up on Perron Street, where Drayden Insurance is now located, owners Tom White and Ken Pollon lured Mitchell away from the Gazette.

“Tom White was a good friend of mine and he came over one day to the Gazette because they wanted to set up some advertising for their new St. Albert Sports shop. While he was there he said, ‘How would you like to come and work for us?’ The next day I was there.”

Mitchell worked there for a couple for years while still providing stats and stories to the Gazette.

“It was actually a good thing for Tom and Ken because I knew everybody in town through sports. At that time we didn’t have Canadian Tire or any of the box stores so we were the sole suppliers of sports equipment in St. Albert. I was still playing competitive fastball and baseball at the time so I knew all of the sports teams so they all came through me to get their uniforms and equipment in baseball and hockey, so that worked out extremely well,” Mitchell said.

“However it was one of those things that I had to work every Saturday and a lot of Saturdays I wanted to be playing ball,” he said.

Saints supporter

During his stint at St. Albert Sports, Mitchell was on the ground floor of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Spruce Grove Mets moving to St. Albert.

“Doug Messier came in one day and asked Tom White if the sports shop would like to get involved in helping sponsor or helping get the Spruce Grove Mets into St. Albert because Doug had a chance to buy the team. Doug didn’t have a whole lot of extra cash but Tom did so Tom wrote out a cheque to purchase the Mets. I think it was around the $20,000 or $25,000 mark,” Mitchell said.

“One Saturday morning Tom and I and a couple of other guys went to Spruce Grove where we picked up their old bus that they called the Iron Lung because it was like a tank.

“At that time all the storage the Mets had was underneath the stands so we got permission to pick out everything that was of any value. We got some old jerseys and goalie pads and things of that nature. We brought it all back to St. Albert.”

That was in the spring of 1977. Later that year the Spruce Grove Mets franchise was transferred to the St. Albert Saints with Doug Messier being the coach and general manager.

Mitchell also played a role in the team’s new logo.

“Doug didn’t want to use the Mets’ logo. He wanted something of St. Albert. I said we should call them the Saints. At that time the World Hockey Association had just started and the Minnesota Fighting Saints had a logo with a little guy with a halo above his head. I said to Doug, ‘Why don’t we see if can get permission to use this logo.’ He said, ‘Larry, they won’t give you permission.'”

Mitchell contacted the team’s public relations person and they agreed that the St. Albert team could use the logo if it changed it by removing a little hockey stick that was part of the Minnesota logo.

“I got our uniform company to draw me up a thing and I sent it to this guy,” Mitchell said. “He sent me a letter back or phoned and said, ‘Yeah, you can use it. It’s pretty close to ours but what the hell.'”

Through his sports connections, Mitchell eventually wound up working for Calahoo Meats.

“At that time I was playing ball in Calahoo for Emile Berube. He also started up a meat shop and they were looking for a sales person. The next thing I knew I became a salesman for Calahoo Meats.”

Mitchell retired June 7, 2000 on his 65th birthday.

“I’m probably more busy now than when I was working,” he said.

Mitchell has volunteered for various sports committees and has been on the board of the St. Albert Raiders Hockey Club since its inception.

He was also a driving force in an effort to get back pictures that left the walls of Akinsdale Arena when the Saints moved back to Spruce Grove. The photos are of former St. Albert Saints who went on to play in the NHL.

“They’re in the hands of the City of St. Albert now. The photos are getting rematted and will be installed at Akinsdale where they were for many, many years,” he said.

Mitchell has also mastered the computer and quickly became an Internet junkie.

“My most favourite thing is the computer. It’s unbelievable. It’s the first thing I turn on in the morning after coffee and it’s probably the last thing I turn off at night. My wife sometimes gets a little ticked off at me for being on it for so long, but yet she will say, ‘Look this up for me too,'” Mitchell said. “To get information on various players is just a click away. It’s made things so much easier with all of the sports services out there. When I was doing it, you didn’t know where to find it. You just didn’t.”

Keeping track of stats was a labour of love for Mitchell back in the day.

“In the AJHL I used to do the stats by hand after a game and now it’s just a click away. They are always updated. I don’t have to be going over the goals and assists and penalty minutes with the gamesheets. Everything is right there.”

Mitchell still updates his record book of St. Albert players who played in the NHL and has compiled stats of the bantam and midget players that played triple AAA in St. Albert.

“I always had a list where our players were every year and I would put it on the Akinsdale bulletin board and to this day I still see guys going over there and looking at it and pointing at the names,” Mitchell said. “The reason I got into the historian part is because I wanted the people to know where our minor hockey league players came from and where they are playing. It didn’t matter if they were in Europe or Japan. We’ve had well over 100 of them that have been over there. I was able to make contacts with various players and if I kind of lost touch with some players I would get a-hold of somebody that I knew.

“I still have guys come up to me and say, ‘Do you know where this guy is?'” he said.

Mitchell is constantly updating his long list of contacts.

“It seemed every year I would meet somebody in the hockey business or the baseball business that someplace along the line would be beneficial to me as a contact person,” Mitchell said. “Being involved with the Saints at that time I got to know a lot of the GMs from various pro hockey teams as a result of Doug Messier, so it became a little bit easier to get information.

“I really didn’t have any trouble getting information at all. And I was always honest. I didn’t let information out if a guy said ‘don’t repeat this.'”

The arrival of the fax machine expanded Mitchell’s communication lines.

“At the time the telephone was really the only way of doing things. I was fortunate because when I worked at the Gazette I could charge those calls to the sports department but if I had to make the calls from home, I ended up paying the bill,” he said. “My involvement with the Saints was getting scores out to local media as well as radio stations. Bill Tuele was the sports editor at CFCW and if I didn’t phone him by 11:30 with the score of the game, whether we won or lost, he would be phoning me. Sometimes at one in the morning because he had to have it.”

Mitchell’s Gazette press pass opened up several doors to talk to athletes like Ted Williams, Wilt Chamberlain and an all-star line-up of celebrities at the legendary Kinsmen sports dinners.

“I remember sitting with Eddie Shack and Henri Richard in the old MacDonald Hotel until two or three o’clock in the morning listening to those guys tell tales.”

Mitchell never met a hockey player he didn’t like until he crossed paths with Guy Lapointe.

“I used to work in the Oilers press box and through the Gazette I had access to the dressing room with the press pass. The Oilers had an eating room where all the media ate before the game. Once day Guy Lapointe came in. I was a Guy Lapointe fan and my son, Mike, had a Guy Lapointe jersey with No. 5 on it. I wanted to say hi and how you’re doing type of thing. Well that guy just did not have the time of day for anybody. He was just an arrogant [man]. I didn’t get four or five words out and he just blew me off and I thought, from now on I don’t like you.”

Messier fan

Mitchell’s all-time favourite St. Albert hockey player was Mark Messier.

“He was so big and so strong that other players were actually scared of him in the league,” he said.

“I always sat in the press box [at Akinsdale Arena]and we were playing Fort Saskatchewan in the playoffs. I’m standing there and I’m looking down and Doug whispers something into Mark’s ear. The game hadn’t even started. The refs were checking the nets, so Mark went right in front of the Fort Saskatchewan bench and he said to their coach, ‘I want you to send the biggest guy you’ve got here out on the ice because I’m going to beat the shit right out of him.’ Of course, all their guys are saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, [screw]you Mark, but nobody was moving. They weren’t coming out. And Mark said, ‘Just what I thought: a bunch of [cowards]. And of course nobody can hear him except us on that side.

“There was a little goalie sitting at the end of the bench and he is just a yipping and a yapping. Well, Mark just kind of sidled down in front of him and while this guy is beaking away, Mark hit him in the nose and knocked him right off the bench. Blood all over. Not one player did anything. I’m looking at Doug and Doug is looking up at me and he was kind of smiling and that was the end of the hockey game and the series. In that particular game, whenever Mark was out on the ice, wherever he was playing, the guy that was supposed to be opposite of him was either fixing his skates or his elbow pads were too tight. They didn’t want to be out there.”

The hockey rink is Mitchell’s second home.

“I’ve really enjoyed being involved with the St. Albert Saints for 27 years and being part of minor hockey for 53 or 54 years,” he said.

“I’ve met a lot of great people though hockey, especially through my association with the Gazette. I’m a very lucky man, and I owe it all to the Gazette.”

Jeff Hansen: Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.