Reflections of Ponoka: Soccer is the friendly game that began on the district dirt fields

Soccer is now the world’s most popular sport, and while the early history of this vigorous game likely dated back to the Roman times, it did not reach a fever pitch until the late 1800s, and then quickly rolled around the globe.

This 1953-54 Ponoka Hospital Soccer Football Club played in the Central Alberta League. Shown from left to right

Soccer is now the world’s most popular sport, and while the early history of this vigorous game likely dated back to the Roman times, it did not reach a fever pitch until the late 1800s, and then quickly rolled around the globe. The humble beginnings of soccer football in our area began shortly after the opening of the new Provincial Mental Hospital, as well as in the farming districts that were being settled in the rugged countryside east of Ponoka in the early nineteenth century.

About 1908 under the promotion of congenial Welshman Foulk Hughes the game of football began in the Magic district, then a few years later William Roberts would promise his two young sons Hughie and Willie that if they would clear the brush and wood off a field he would buy them a football. Others soon joined in on the project, the football arrived, the goal posts were set up, practices were set for Saturday nights, and the Eureka team was born. About the same time the word quickly spread about this inexpensive participation sport, and teams were formed in Eastside and Water Glen. With the opening of the modern new mental hospital on the hill just a couple of miles south of Ponoka, new staff were arriving, and those from the old country soon put together a team to play the game that they loved so much.

In order to play this exciting game you required only a ball and a suitable playing field, with newspaper and thick mail order catalogues often used as padding, work shoes as football boots, a colored team jersey, and shorts or knickers that were often made of flour sacks, likely still imprinted with the Robin Hood or Purity Flour emblems on the backside. Traveling to the games was also difficult before cars came into being, so the matches were hosted on rough local fields that were filled with gopher and molehills. During the roaring ‘20s and early depression years no picnic, fair, or sports day in the area was complete without a football match to finish it off. Ardent fans arrived from miles around by horseback and wagon, lining the field to cheer on the favourites and enjoy the keen rivalry, and then sharing food and friendly visits with their hardy neighbours. The game was played on a field about 150 by 300 feet in size, including two periods of 45 minutes, one each way, 10 minute half time rest, and no substitutes, even for injury. Each strenuous match always featured a group of dedicated and fun-loving players who had likely just finished a shift of work, or who had come off the field working behind a harrow or walking plough, picking roots, or hauling stones all day.

Players on those early Eureka, Magic, and later Wood River teams included: Foulk, Will and Tom Hughes, Will-Ed-John-Forest-Allen and Ervie James, Lam- Ivor- Tommy, and Emlyn Hughes, Elias Jenkins, Emrys Williams, Ogwen-O.G. and Iowerth Davies, W.T.- Leroy- Edwin-Jack- Griff, and Idris (Shorty) Jones, Will and Hugh Evans, William-Hughi and Willie Roberts, Dick Parry, Robin Williams, Evan Lloyd, David and Emrys Humphreys, Lawrence and Glynn Owens, Stanley Seagrave, and Proctor Paulsen, Teddy Bullock, Otto and Ernest Peterson, Gron and Maldwyn Davies, Gwernydd and Ogwen Reese, and perennial strongman Dempsey Morris.

In 1923 the Magic and Eureka teams joined to form the Wood River Soccer Club, and now that cars and better roads were in place, the Central Alberta League was formed featuring teams from Red Deer, Lacombe, and the Ponoka Hospital. The always high-spirited Wood River squad would only win one game in their first season, but quickly became a well-respected and powerful force, winning their first of many championships in 1932.

A fine soccer pitch had been built at the Ponoka Hospital, and as their staff teams became stronger they would roll to their first of many League and Provincial titles in 1925 and 1933. Members of these teams included the likes of Doctors Fitzpatrick-McLean-Cook and Davidson, Johnson, Walton, Packer, Crowe, Westgate, Bill White, McWilliams, Dick and Dan Smith, Ted James, Ralph Holness, Bobby Matthews, John Spink, Hammerstrome, Shaw, Rex Felton, Harry Wallace, Arthur (speedy) Williams, Percy Mitchell, Stan Common, Dave Hughes, Norm Thorn, Dickson, and on and on. Tales were told of these hardy teams travelling and playing in all weather conditions, attending a celebration dance, then travelling home together by car in the mud. If one got stuck they all piled out to push each other out, and although it may have come in the wee hours, they all usually made it home safe for work and chores in the morning.

This great soccer tradition continued into the 1950s-sixties, and ‘70s, with Wood River, Red Deer, Oliver, Penhold, and the Ponoka Hospital Rovers and others carrying on the keen rivalry. Former Rover player John Kocyba fondly remembers playing games at the Penhold Air Base, then invading the Officer’s Mess for lunch, singsongs, and great camaraderie from both sides.

From this fabulous legacy that the game of soccer has created over many decades, the longstanding Provincial Associations have presented the opportunities and encouraged thousands of players from young children to seniors to annually enjoy the exercise, learning, and keen competition at both outdoor and indoor facilities. For contact information on the very active Ponoka and District Soccer programs please call the Town of Ponoka at 403-783-4431.

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