By Tyler King
Fort McMurray’s own Scottie Upshall showed exactly why he perfectly deserved to be the third Oil Baron in franchise history to have his number retired by the organization.
On Saturday night, in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,700 at the Casman Centre, Upshall was gracious and emotional in crediting nearly everyone but himself for the success that his spectacular 1999-2000 season with the MOB allowed.
Despite a vastly compressed timeframe owing to his upcoming game in Edmonton against the Oilers the following night, Upshall made time for his hometown fans, signing autographs for nearly an hour before the game alongside his Florida Panthers teammates Shawn Thornton and Shane O’Brien.
At game time, the ceremony opened with a lengthy video tribute showcasing the various stages of Upshall’s career. As a 16-year old junior hockey rookie in 1999-2000, Upshall entered the summer weighing only around 140 pounds, according to former assistant coach Kevin Higo. But from initially wondering how they would find a spot for the local product in the lineup, the Barons’ coaching staff eventually established Upshall as a key cog in the team’s national championship run.
Upshall scored a point per game as a rookie, a very rare feat in the AJHL, and added six points in five games at the Royal Bank Cup en route to the team’s first and only national championship.
As impressive as his season with the Barons was, the honour the organization bestowed on Upshall was based on more than just his time in a MOB uniform. It reflected the ongoing success he achieved that continues to serve as an inspiration to young hockey players in Fort McMurray.
From his sixth overall draft selection in 2002, to his captaining of Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship, to his more than 500 game NHL career, the case was clear as to why Upshall’s name deserved to be alongside such greats as Chris Phillips.
The ceremony began with his former head coach, Fran Gow, who now serves as the AJHL’s Vice President of Hockey Operations.
“People always ask me ‘what was it like coaching Scottie Upshall, and what kind of player was he?’” said Gow to the capacity crowd. “Your compete level, your ability to play with determination, and above all, a lot of courage, was evident with us in 2000.”
“He fit very well into our team-first mentality, and I think that was the biggest thing for our success that year, was our ability to play well as a team; and Scottie, you were a big part of our success that year.”
When it came time for Upshall himself to speak, he reminisced about his early days discovering the sport he grew to love.
“Most of my childhood memories have taken place on this very ice,” said Upshall. “It started at about age 4 or 5 with my dad Scott. It wasn’t until I was about 6 or 7 and played minor hockey here in Fort McMurray that I learned just how much organized hockey means to me, and what it means to be part of a team.”
Upshall was part of the Fort McMurray peewee team that won a championship in Quebec back in 1993, and also helped drive the local bantam team to a provincial championship a few years later.
That said, it wasn’t always smooth sailing with his junior coach, who was seated directly behind Upshall as he recounted a story from that banner season.
“I had shown up late for practice; and I had shoe-checked Fran [stealthily leaving a spot of ketchup on his shoe] over at Pizza Hut during a team dinner,” recounted Upshall. “The next day I got to practice and my gear was hung up on these rafters all over the rink. He said ‘you’ve got 15 minutes to get on the ice or this whole team is going to watch you skate back and forth.’”
“That always stands out to me – you never shoe-check the coach.”
But in the end, Upshall was sure to express his gratitude to both Gow and others who served in similar roles.
“I’d like to acknowledge Fran Gow for being a great mentor, and a patient one with many of us,” he said. “I’d like to thank all of my minor hockey league coaches, my managers, and the parents of all of our teammates growing up that made it reality for all of us kids through their hard work and determination.”
“It’s not easy to get around up here in Fort Mac, and to go travel around and play hockey.”
But he saved his final words for the thousands seated in the rink and thousands more who had cheered on players wearing the logo he sported at the podium on the ice: the Oil Barons fans.
“Without your support, nothing would be possible for these young kids, like I was, to dream of one day putting on this jersey and playing hockey in front of you guys,” he concluded. “Thank you very much.”
With that, a well-deserved standing ovation ensued for one of Fort McMurray’s greatest hockey heroes.
Team captain Jetlan Houcher would go on to score a spectacular hat trick in a 4-3 overtime win over Drayton Valley that night.
It was almost Upshall-esque.