Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – Reading down the list of Canada West men’s hockey champions, the lines start to blur together.
Year after year, if it’s not Alberta, it’s Saskatchewan. And if it’s not the Bears or Huskies, it’s Calgary.
Except this particular row, where the name is different.
One might assume it to be a misprint. It’s not.
In 1994, under the masterful guidance of coach Mike Babcock, the Lethbridge Pronghorns not only won the Canada West championship, they went all the way to win the University Cup.
In 45 years of Canada West men’s hockey, they are the only team not called Bears, Huskies, or Dinos, to capture a conference or national title
“For us to do that was just a remarkable feat,” says Greg Gatto, who played five seasons at forward with the Pronghorns.
“You don’t realize that until you sit down and read some of Mike Babcock’s (quotes). His biggest accomplishment, he still thinks, is winning the championship with us, which is pretty cool. World juniors, world championships, and Olympic medals – he says the hardest one was (the University Cup) because it was the most rewarding.”
The Pronghorns’ championship run will always hold a special place with Gatto, who’s had a remarkable hockey journey, from playing all over the Western Hockey League to lacing up the skates in Britain; from standing behind the bench at his alma matter to present day, which finds him traversing Texas in the former tour bus of Reba McEntire.
“I’m 47 years old, I’ve been in hockey my whole life,” says the head coach and general manager of the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League. “I’ve still never had a real job.”
Now a decade and a half into his coaching career, Gatto has long drawn on experience playing under the vaunted Babcock, who now coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with knowledge acquired studying education at the U of L.
“I’ve taught probably one year since I graduated … but as a coach, I consider myself to be a teacher anyway,” he says.
Gatto can relate to the teenagers that comprise the Jackalopes roster. Once upon a time, he was them; a junior player filled with aspiration and happy to go anywhere with an ice rink.
“I played two years in the (WHL) and I played with four different teams – never even made it to a team picture,” the native of Crossfield, Alta., says with a laugh.
“I started in Portland, got traded to Regina, missed both team pictures. I got traded to Spokane, I got traded to Brandon, missed both team pictures again.”
After playing 114 games total over the 1990-91 and 1991-92 WHL seasons, Gatto enrolled at the U of L. In his first year of university hockey, the six-foot-one winger racked up 40 points en route to receiving the 1992-93 Canada West Outstanding Freshman award while also being named to the All-Canadian Freshman team. The Pronghorns were not nearly as successful, however, winning just nine of 28 games.
Expectations weren’t any higher when the 1993-94 season began, but Lethbridge started strong and then caught fire, winning 11 times in a 12-game stretch spanning the end of October and early January, before ultimately finishing atop the standings with a 19-7-2 mark.
The Pronghorns defeated Calgary in the Canada West final to capture the Dr. W.G. Hardy Trophy, then traveled to Toronto, where they beat Guelph 5-2 for the University Cup.
“Probably not until Christmas did we even think we were legit,” says Gatto. “(Babcock) even says the first couple practices he was almost in tears thinking it was his last job. We just got better and better and … started clicking and by Christmas we were on a real roll, and then all of a sudden we just stared thinking, ‘hey, we can win this thing’. And sure enough, lo and behold, we go into Maple Leaf Gardens and won a national championship.”