Hall-of-Fame Worthy Nominee

By IAN WILSON

We are very excited to announce that Alberta Dugout Stories has applied to have Mel Kowalchuk inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.

In an effort to promote Alberta baseball and help give recognition to one of the sport’s major players, we determined Kowalchuk – the man largely responsible for bringing the Edmonton Trappers to the provincial capital for a quarter century – was a worthy nominee.

THE PROCESS

The Alberta Sports Hall of Fame (HOF) & Museum, located in Red Deer, accepts nomination packages annually under several categories, including athletes, builders, pioneers, teams, achievements and journalists.

20180225_153911After reviewing submissions, a selection committee picks nominees for induction as honoured members. Each nomination is considered for three consecutive years – if the nominee is not selected in that period, a two-year wait is required before that person or team can be considered again for induction.

We put forth Kowalchuk’s name under the category of “builder.” His nomination will be considered based on his years of service, his accomplishments and the impact he had on baseball – and soccer – in Edmonton, Alberta and Canada.

Successful candidates will be announced in before the end of 2018 and honoured at an induction banquet on May 31, 2019.

SEVERAL CANDIDATES IN THE ROTATION

Before we get to what stood out about Kowalchuk’s career, let us start by pointing out there are dozens of worthy baseball nominees from all corners of the province. We did not make our selection based on geography, age, gender or recent achievements. Instead, we looked at people who have served the sport for decades in various capacities – preferably someone who has not received the attention we feel they deserve.

We considered many current and former team builders, outstanding coaches, and storied players before ultimately choosing Kowalchuk. This selection also received the backing of Baseball Alberta, who provided a letter of support for the nomination bid.

WHAT DID HE DO FOR BASEBALL?

In short, Kowalchuk did A LOT for baseball in Alberta.

He is mainly known for bringing Triple-A baseball to Edmonton – that was no easy feat, but Kowalchuk was very active in the sport prior to luring the Trappers to Alberta.

An avid fan of the game, Kowalchuk regularly took time off to go watch Major League Baseball (MLB) spring training. After watching from the stands for several years, he developed a craving for high-level baseball that was closer to home.

20181002_102205The former president of the semi-pro Edmonton Central Tigers baseball team made repeated efforts to establish top-tier baseball in the province in the late 1970s.

There was a failed attempt to create an independent pro league in Western Canada. There were overtures to the Pioneer League and its brand of rookie-level ball, but Kowalchuk was denied.

By 1980, the mustachioed Kowalchuk was working the phones – to the tune of a $300/month telecommunications bill – with the Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The Triple-A circuit was looking to expand, but Kowalchuk had to convince league brass that Edmonton was not a frigid arctic outpost. He did so by producing meteorological statistics that showed the city’s weather was not significantly different from Montreal, where MLB’s Expos had been operating since 1969.

PCL President Bill Cutler flew to Edmonton to tour the facilities but opted not to expand at that point. However, Kowalchuk learned that one of the league’s franchises – the Ogden A’s in Utah – would most likely be relocating. Things were looking up for fans who wanted to see professional baseball in Edmonton.

But when franchise sale negotiations intensified, Kowalchuk lost much of his financial backing and had to find someone with deep pockets fast. He approached Peter Pocklington, the owner of the Edmonton’s National Hockey League team, at an Oilers game and convinced “Peter Puck” – as Pocklington had been known – to buy the baseball team and bring it to Edmonton.

TRIPLE-A BASEBALL IN EDMONTON

The Trappers were set to join the PCL as the league’s northernmost team in 1981, but the work was just beginning for Kowalchuk. Always ambitious, Kowalchuk stated in the team’s first yearbook that the arrival of the Trappers was the start of the ultimate goal of bringing a MLB franchise to the city.

While the MLB dream did not come to fruition, the Trappers remained in Edmonton until 2004. The team achieved a lot in that time. They became the first Canadian PCL champion in 1984 and three more titles followed in 1996, 1997 and 2002.

Eight million fans came to the ballpark to watch the Trappers during their 24-year existence, and when they did they were treated to some excellent players, including Ron Kittle – who hit 50 home runs as the PCL MVP in 1982 – and Tim Salmon, the league’s MVP in 1992. Both men had lengthy MLB careers and were awarded American League Rookie of the Year honours. Other notable Trapper alums included Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, National League Cy Young winner Fernando Valenzuela, Gold Glover Devon White and American League MVP Jason Giambi.

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Cover of the Edmonton Trappers yearbook from their first season in 1981

Kowalchuk also won some awards in that time. He was named the PCL’s Executive of the Year in 1995, while with the Trappers, and again in 2003 as a member of the Albuquerque Isotopes.

That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing for Kowalchuk, who also had to manage major-league affiliations during his two decades with the team. The Trappers had seven parent clubs during their 24 seasons.

In addition, there was the ongoing financial management of the team – negotiating lease agreements with the City of Edmonton; selling tickets; finding sponsors; booking advertisers; maintaining Renfrew Park/John Ducey Park; transitioning through ownership changes; and managing other day-to-day costs that come with operating a baseball franchise.

There were also the challenges of running a team in Canada, where parent clubs had less interest in bringing players over the years, or the adversity presented by the weather (despite Kowalchuk’s evidence to the contrary).

We may never fully grasp the legacy of Triple-A baseball in Alberta, but fans of a certain vintage frequently wax poetic about the “good ol’ days” that the Trappers had to offer Edmonton and that the Cannons displayed in Calgary.

Those fans in Edmonton can thank Kowalchuk for that experience.

AFTER THE TRAP

When the Trappers left Edmonton following the 2004 season, Kowalchuk had no interest in seeing the city go without professional baseball for very long.

As the general manager of the Cracker-Cats, who played in the independent Northern League, Kowalchuk made sure that Edmonton baseball fans still had a game to go watch in 2005.

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John Short (left) asks Mel Kowalchuk (right) a question during a night honouring former Trapper Ron Kittle at Re/Max Field in 2018 … photo by Ian Wilson

He would gradually step back from management roles in baseball after that, but Kowalchuk remains a big fan of the game. He can still be seen at Re/Max Field from time to time when the Edmonton Prospects take the field and play summer collegiate ball.

Part of Kowalchuk’s reasons for being less involved with baseball, coincided with his increased work in another sport – soccer. Not content to be a one-sport booster, Kowalchuk had a major impact on soccer in Edmonton.

He was the president of the Edmonton Brickmen in the late 1980s. The Brickmen competed in the now-defunct Western Soccer Alliance and Canadian Soccer League (CSL) before playing their final games in 1992. Kowalchuk also put in time as the president of the CSL.

Kowalchuk would later serve as GM of the Edmonton Drillers, who played in the National Professional Soccer League between 1996 and 2000, before he presided over the Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League (CMISL) between 2007 and 2014.  FC Edmonton played in the CMISL and Kowalchuk was the GM of that team from 2009 through 2011.

If you support our bid to have Kowalchuk elected to the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, please share this story – along with the hashtag #InductMel – on social media.

If you think we should have nominated another candidate, please let us know in the comments what names we should submit in upcoming years.

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