Every year, thousands of St. Albertans take in the New Year’s Eve fireworks display put on by Thunder F/X. They “ooh” and they “aah” at the celebration that brings the community together, making our big city seem like a small town again if even for only 15 minutes.
Maybe that’s the plan. After all, Rob Kowalyshyn – the master technician behind the pyrotechnics company – grew up here when it was still a town. A lot of his fondest memories are of Old St. Albert, a place where you could skate at the Ducky Dome or sled like a rocket down Seven Hills. He played hockey with Jamie McLennan. He drank beer out of the Stanley Cup when Messier brought it to the Bruin Inn after the Oilers first won it in 1984. As a teenager, he worked at the St. Albert Drive-In Theatre too.
Now a mechanic for Sturgeon County, he still remembers how he got into fireworks for the first time. He was a member of the Kinsmen Club back in the early 1980s when the department of Mines and Natural Resources for the government of Alberta wanted to book the Korral for an explosives regulation session. They invited him to take it too.
“I sat in on the course … and the rest is history,” he said.
Now 47, the personable yet soft-spoken man grew up with a love of sports and the great outdoors. He picked up fishing and hunting as favourite pastimes while he was still in his teens.
“I shot my first deer in Erin Ridge. It wasn’t Erin Ridge then. It was farmland,” he said, describing some of his earliest experiences. “We used to hunt ducks in Deer Ridge. We used to cut high school and go hunt ducks. That’s just a passion of mine. I’m a bit of a gun nut.”
He still goes hunting and fishing to this day. You’ll never catch him holding a pike or a walleye though.
“I couldn’t touch them. The picture that my parents have of me and my first fish … my brother’s holding it. I just wanted to catch it. I didn’t want to touch it.”
He prefers bigger game. Kowalyshyn was named Alberta Hunter of the Year in 1997 for bagging a whitetail deer with a Boone and Crockett score of 194 6/8 near Warburg. The six-point buck was the No. 2 buck taken in all of Canada that year, he added.
“At the time, it was the largest deer shot in the whole country. It was an amazing time for me. There was a lot of recognition that came from it that I didn’t expect. It was a big accomplishment for a hunter, not because I’m a trophy hunter. It was my turn; I got lucky.”
With lots of experience in riflery, it might seem odd that the man who ended up being in charge of so much explosive entertainment over the years didn’t have much hands-on practice with fireworks as a youth.
“Not more than the average kid did,” he explained, emphasizing that safety is ultimately his number one concern.
There was a nasty fireworks accident in St. Albert in 1972 that resulted in the deaths of some children. Because of that, the city has been cautious about allowing fireworks to be sold and used within its borders. Kowalyshyn is the most safety-conscious person too. Nobody even gets close to “Ground Zero” – his term for the launch site – unless they absolutely need to.
He didn’t take on the city’s fireworks celebrations until the early 1990s. At that time, the Kinsmen were still running the event on behalf of the city. When the club could no longer take on the effort, Victory Life Church stepped in but kept Kowalyshyn as the guy in charge of the show.
For the record, he said that he is far from a one-person operation. He gives full credit to his team that includes the father-son team of Dan and Tyler Wall, plus his own wife, Christine.
He made sure to mention that even though he has a very nice piece of electronic equipment that can be programmed to run things, he much prefers to make the New Year’s Eve event as much of an old-fashioned affair as he can. It’s not quite the “light and run” method that used to be the preferred practice back in the day but it still gives him control.
He has had a few close calls over the years. He still has all of his fingers but he once landed flat on his back after a misfire.
“My left ear is not quite there,” he added. “That’s a whole other story.”
Kowalyshyn is full of good stories. He derives a lot of pleasure from bringing people together, saying that this is his way of giving back to the community. To him, community means that good old-time gathering of people. He loves to get everybody out and to be together in one place for a common and heartwarming purpose. He does it to warm hearts and put smiles on faces.
The father of four said that he loves doing the show at Seven Hills, a place where he would often go sledding with several friends on a tractor tube waxed over the bottom for the ultimate glide. Those were the days, he reminisced, back when “Seven Hills were seven hills!” He once made it all the way across Mission Avenue.
“I did a lot of really neat and cool things. I’ve enjoyed my life here a lot. It’s a great place to be. It’s hard to watch the city grow this much. It’s huge!”
“This is home. I love this place.”