WESTLOCK – Red Lions past and present took to Keller Field, the ballpark named in honour of one of its icons, Aug. 19 during the 107th-annual Westlock and District Agricultural Fair to celebrate the club’s unprecedented 50 years in existence.
Players from the 1970s right through to 2023 either took to the field for the contest, or just spent time in the dugouts reminiscing and sharing some laughs — for the record, the Red Lions won the game 8-0. Following the game, around 50 former players, plus their families and friends, headed to the family farm of current Red Lions’ standout Nathan Brown for a barbecue, then hit the golf course Sunday for more camaraderie.
Current player/manager Chris Brand, a two-time North Central Alberta Baseball League (NCABL) MVP, said it was great to see “history come together” on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Keller Field. Brand, 38, played his first year with the Red Lions in 2003 and was one of those kids who, as per long-standing tradition, chase foul balls during the game and then return them to the dugout for a quarter.
“It’s been a lot of fun and nice to see. It really tells you how much the Red Lions mean to a lot of people in this community,” said Brand, whose brother Jordan also plays for the team. “Growing up, I don’t think I had a favourite player, but Dean Fagnan was my first manager and then I got the chance to play for and with Carmen Brown, Ryan Rau and then Adam Sawatzky. They were all great guys.”
For Nathan Brown, who’s been playing for the club since 2014 and also chased foul balls as a kid, said it’s truly amazing the Red Lions have been able to not only survive, but thrive. In fact, the NCABL is 56 years old and Westlock has fielded a team every year as the Westlock Chevys were there on Day 1.
“I don’t know many other teams who have been able to reach 50 years. If you look at our league, there’s no one even close to us as far as keeping a team going. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t some hard years to find guys, but in comparison to a lot of small towns, we were able to figure it out and keep it going and be consistent,” said Brown. “For sure it’s taken a lot of commitment from the older guys, but the one main driver who kept it going throughout the years was Chuck Keller. He always made sure guys had a place to play.”
NCABL commissioner Paul Riopel tipped his cap to the organization and called it the league’s premier franchise. Throughout the storied history of the NCABL, there’s been teams in locales like Barrhead, Morinville, St. Albert, Legal, Rochester and even Lac La Biche and Athabasca, but the one constant has always been Westlock.
“It’s a very special occasion. This franchise has gone 50-consecutive years with decades of excellence and leadership second to none that’s been passed on from one generation to the next, almost like a torch,” said Riopel, who was chatting with alumni throughout the contest. “In the 50 years, there’s maybe been seven managers of the Red Lions and each has made a mark on the game and contributed to the community of Westlock.”
Friendships that have lasted a lifetime
In the visitor’s dugout, long-time friends and former R.F. Staples School (RFS) teachers Keith Szautner and Perry Kulmatyski reminisced about their time on the Red Lions as they were part of arguably the best team ever in the NCABL that won five-straight league titles from 1993 to 1997.
“It’s just fantastic, 50 years is unbelievable. This is a blast,” said Szautner, who was named NCABL MVP in 1994 and 1995. “We’ve got guys here today who were my heroes when I started out. And it’s great to see everything is still going good and the culture is still there.”
“This is just an amazing group of guys,” added Kulmatyski.
Dean Fagnan started as a bat boy for the Red Lions, then joined the team as a player in 1987 as an 18 year old — he also taught alongside Szautner and Kulmatyski at RFS for decades.
Funny enough, growing up he “hated the Red Lions” as he was a fan of the Vimy Blues which featured Rick Provencal and his uncle Moe Fagnan “until I put the jersey on and realized what an incredible franchise this is” — eventually both Provencal and Moe Fagnan would go on to star for the Red Lions.
Fagnan, who shared the 1997 league MVP with Trent Keller, managed the team for six years in the mid-1990s and hung up his spikes in 2005, although he did go on to play for the Grey Lions, Westlock’s senior club for players over 30, until his official retirement in 2020.
“As a team it was incredible the things that we were able to do,” said Fagnan on that 1990s dynasty team. “We were always able to pick each other up. We never worried about failing because you knew the next guy was right there behind you.”
Fagan, who wore No. 40, is undoubtedly one of the Red Lions greats on and off the field and is one of only five men — Chuck Keller, Rick Provencal, Dwayne Jolliffe and Rob Rau — enshrined on the outfield walls of the ballpark. To receive that honour, a player needs 10 years as a Red Lion, also manage the team and coach minor baseball — the club made a special exemption for Rau, a lifelong Red Lion, who passed in 2017 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Fagnan, while paying tribute to legends like Jolliffe and Provencal, who he remembers would hit 30 home runs a year, said Keller, who was born in Fawcett and was a long-time teacher at Westlock Elementary School, stands apart. The ballpark was renamed in his honour in 2005 for a lifetime of service to not only the Red Lions, but the sport of baseball, as well as the community in general -— Chuck and his wife Donna moved from Westlock in 2019 to be closer to their family.
“Me and Kevin (Cyr) were lucky enough to play with the old guys and then continue on the traditions they had set. Being a Red Lion, when you stepped on the diamond, you always knew that everyone was going to give 100 per cent,” said Fagnan, who’s hopeful this alumni weekend will become an annual event.
“But it’s too bad that Chuck isn’t here. When you talk about being an inspiration, he’s the guy. He did it on the field as a player, which I don’t remember much as I was just a kid, but he did it as a coach and he did it behind the scenes and never wanted any credit.”
The Red Lions have won 18 NCABL titles, seven provincial ‘AA’ championships and three Western Canadian titles.
For perspective, teams from Alberta have won seven Western Canadian titles over the last 30 years, which includes three by the Red Lions, while in the case of ‘AA’ provincial titles, teams from Calgary have won 11 and teams from Edmonton have claimed nine.
“So, how does that happen in a small town? It’s an amazing thing and a truly special team,” said Rick Mueller, who was a standout for the club in the 1970s. “It’s a special group. Some of us haven’t played for a long time, but when we get together, it’s like we’re like brothers. We’re family.”
Mueller joined the club in 1975 as one of a crop of talented rookies that included Gord Glebe, Dwayne Teske and Dean Hingle that went on to claim the NCABL title not only that year, but also in 1976 and then again in 1978. Mueller would then win the league MVP award in 1985, the same year the club captured its fourth NCABL crown. Of note, the league’s website only lists league MVPs starting in 1985.
“That 1975 team had a really good group of core players like Chuck Keller and Dwayne Jolliffe and we were able to have success,” he added.
In the early 1980s, the club added more young standouts like Terry Vandenborn, who was named the league most-promising junior player for four-straight years from 1983 to 1986, along with players from other area teams like Bevin McNelly and Gary Hawkey and “then we started winning provincial championships.”
“Our little group that started way back in the mid-1970s culminated in 1986 when we won the Western Canadian Championship here. It’s quite a story for sure,” said Mueller.
After that championship, Mueller said they were able to pass the torch to the next generation “who were able to carry it on and win two more Western Canadian Championships.”
The last word
Ryan Rau, a former player, manager and winner of the 2022 Ken Schultz Memorial Award, an honour considered to be the “highest and most prestigious” in the North Central Alberta Baseball League, first donned the jersey back in 1996 as an 18 year old and was one of four rookies that year that included Curtis Smith, Mark Mirus and Paul DeChamplain. Following, the Clyde native spent two years playing junior ball in Barrhead, then returned to the pride until 2011 and now toils for the Grey Lions.
“The way the Red Lions always carried themselves … even when they weren’t winning, there was always a quiet confidence. I played on a junior team in Barrhead for a few years and it was a rollercoaster. I was happy to be able to come back and play here,” said Rau, who says Provencal, who was named the league’s most promising junior player and awarded the league MVP twice during his career, was his hero when he was a kid.
“It was a great day today. There was a whole pile of guys and lots of great stories and memories.”