They will try on their new championship rings, have a few drinks, enjoy dinner and play some golf.
And while they celebrate the 40th anniversary of their third-straight national Senior B lacrosse title, many of the Vernon Lodge Tigers will talk about how they survived a plane crash on the way home from winning the 1976 President’s Cup in Winnipeg.
Goalie Rich Zecchel is still frightened to fly and recalls the Sept. 8 crash-landing of a DC-3 in a farmer’s field near Pincher Creek, Alta. like it was a few days ago.
“I was near the back of the plane,” said Zecchel, who scored a national record eight goals in ‘76. “I think my head was against the wall that was on fire. We didn’t know it was on fire until we saw the pilot (Barry Lapointe of Kelowna Flightcraft) running up and down the aisle. He told us to take our shirts off and cover our faces. The carpet was piercing our lungs.”
The plane had left Lethbridge after a refuelling stop and was on its way to Kelowna when a warning light revealed a fire in the rear of the passenger cabin, near the washroom.
Lapointe and co-pilot Bill Jurome sent out a mayday distress call and were advised to try for the Pincher Creek Airport. With the cabin engulfed in flames and players sprawled all over the place, Lapointe instead chose an emergency landing in a farmer’s field near Brocket, Alta. In four minutes, the plane dropped 12,000 feet and landed on a field in the Peigan Indian Reserve, 15 miles from Pincher Creek.
“It was a very old plane, but very safe,” said Zecchel, a 64-year-old living in Vernon and employed by a venture capital group. “Thankfully, the fuel tanks were on the wings.”
Lapointe, who is still working for Kelowna Flightcraft and will attend the reunion at the Vernon Golf & Country Club, steered the plane to an 85-mile-an-hour landing on level terrain.
“If it had been any other plane than a DC-3, you couldn’t have done it,” Lapointe told Kendall in ‘76. “It’s a miracle we’re alive. Chances of a plane catching fire in the air and landing safely are about one in a 1,000.”
Don Kendall was a veteran Tigers defenceman and also sports editor of the Vernon Daily News. It would become the biggest story of his long journalism career (he helped found The Vernon Morning Star 30 years ago).
“I’ll never forget the look on the face of pilot Barry Lapointe as he ran from the cockpit to the back of the plane. I knew there was a problem. Seconds later, he ran back to the cockpit and we started a rapid descent. They told us to get towards the back of the plane. I was in my seat with a couple guys laying across us. We knew we were in a lot of trouble, but there was no panic. As soon as we hit the ground in the cornfield near Pincher Creek, everybody started jumping out. In the field, while I was trying to load film in my camera with my hands shaking, I remember Donny Bruce ran past me. He kept running…for probably a mile. Our team sat in the field and watched our plane burn into pieces.”
Team manager Wolfgang Gachter jerked on the rear door so that the 26 passengers could clamber to safety.
“We have a pilot like no one else,” said Gachter at the time. “It was a landing like at Calgary International Airport.”
Kendall said captain Jamie McKenzie, a licensed pilot, and Gachter calmed the players and took charge of the evacuation.
A few hours after the crash, the Tigers took Lapointe and Jurome to a nearby tavern and toasted them for hours. The pilots were hugged and even kissed as heroes. Players were evenly split on either flying or busing home.
“They sent us a charter bus and we went to Pincher Creek,” said Zecchel, who minded the net for two years with the Minto Cup (national Junior A) runner-up Burnaby Cablevision before moving to Vernon. “We drank there until midnight or 1 a.m. and then drove home through Osoyoos the next afternoon. I slept the whole 12 hours; I was so bagged and drained. I still don’t like flying. It still bothers me when there is some turbulence.”
Dale Rintoul was at the back of the plane at one of the poker tables when things heated up.
“From my understanding, it was originally Bing Crosby’s plane and there was once a piano on board,” said Rintoul, a 65-year-old retired City of Vernon planning manager. “There were poker tables, couches and lounges so it was kind of a ritzy plane.”
Once on the ground, Rintoul took immediate action — to retrieve the bundle of sticks the Tigers had bought from the Akwesasne Warriors of Quebec.
“Barry sent everybody to the back and I was thinking about those sticks which I credit for us winning the next two years,” chuckled Rintoul. “I went to the back and as the guys were going by me, in an orderly fashion, I handed them two or three sticks. They were looking at me funny and I said, ‘Just take these sticks and start running.”
Rintoul has endured no trouble hopping on airplanes since but feels fortunate to be around to talk about the ‘76 drama.
“I think a lot of us were thinking, ‘We’re living on free time.’ Life has been pretty good because it’s all been free.”
Graydon Brown, a homegrown talent who won a Mann Cup Senior A Canadian title with the Vancouver Burrards, was thinking the worst as the plane headed downward.
“I said; ‘This is it, boys,’ ” said the 65-year-old concrete finisher. “Nobody freaked out. There were no Hail Mary’s. What could we do?”
Brown said he and some teammates actually started laughing once they raced a few hundred yards from the wreckage.
Brown, who was part of the Tigers’ threepeat, was also in a card game when things went sideways.
“I was playing cards with John Kuly and it was a little rough so Kuly had a puke bag beside him. All of a sudden, it got really hot. There was no smoke. One of the pilots came flying to the back of the plane, took a look in the bathroom and ran back to the cockpit. We heard the mayday call and I don’t know much about mayday but I knew it wasn’t good.”
Marty Stein, who organized the reunion, and Gary Gilchrist helped the Tigers stop the Edmonton Fullers in the ‘76 final in Winnipeg, but they weren’t on the flight home.
“Gillie and I flew back early,” said Stein, a retired high school phys-ed teacher who scouts for the Detroit Red Wings. “I had to register for school at UBC; I’m not sure why Gillie was going back early.”
Stein first heard of the ill-fated flight from Bob Adshead of CJIB Radio.
“Bob was at the airport to do a live report on the team coming home and he told me the plane had crash-landed. We were telling the wives and girlfriends that there’s been a crash landing and everybody’s OK. There was a lot of tears.”
Once back in Vernon, the Tigers hopped on a fire truck and thousands lined the downtown streets to show support.
A 72-point font headline in the Daily News read: WELCOME HOME, CHAMPIONS.
All in their early 20s, the Tigers shook off the scare of a lifetime, bolstered their roster some more and won two more President’s Cups, prevailing in ‘77 in Edmonton and threepeating at home in 1978 before an overflow Civic Arena.
“We played against some great players and great teams,” said Kendall. “But, we had great depth. Some teams could match the talent of our first line, but our second and third lines were just as strong…and nobody could match that depth. While a lot of our players moved from out of town to Vernon, there was a strong nucleus of players from Vernon. When I moved to Vernon in ‘72, Dale Rintoul, Jeff Shirley, Graydon Brown and Dale Rintoul were among the leaders…and we were all teenagers. That year, we beat a stacked Victoria team to win the B.C. Senior C championship. A few years later, with the addition of some great players from the Coast (including Mosdell, Zecchel, Dan and Gary Holte and Gilles Bazeau) and Ontario (Greg Walmsley), we became perhaps the best Senior B team in Canadian lacrosse history.”
Bill Kirkland, a magician with his stick, played Senior A for the Nanaimo Timbermen in 1976 after spending his Junior A years with Zecchel and Burnaby. A 64-year-old retired Interior Heath employee, Kirkland joined Vernon in 1977 and said the Tigers’ template for success was pretty basic.
“It was a bunch of guys who got along and wanted to do anything to win,” said Kirkland. “It was the best team, one through 20, I ever played for. Everybody played defence, we had great goaltending and we had enough firepower to get through. It was a real bunch of good lacrosse players, but more importantly, really great people.”
Kirkland was amazed by the team’s followers.
“The community really embraced us. When we were in Edmonton, there were about 300 people from Vernon. It was a great environment in the ‘78 final at Civic Arena. That was the first time I played lacrosse in front of a packed arena.”
Bill Roth ran the bench for all three national titles while president Art Horsley worked tirelessly behind the scenes. The Tigers will hold an informal meet and greet Friday night and golf Saturday followed by a final gathering with speeches. Stein said a total of 62 players and support staff have confirmed attendance.