Saturday, September 5, 2009

Al Purvis, Olympic hockey player (1929-2009)

The Edmonton Mercurys, an amateur team sponsored by a car dealership, won a world championship in 1950 and an Olympic gold medal in 1952. Defenceman Al Purvis was a key player on the squad, shown below arriving at the train station, trophy in hand, in a photograph available at the City of Edmonton Archives.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 4, 2009


For many years, Al Purvis and his teammates on the Edmonton Mercurys were remembered, if at all, as the Forgotten Team.

The Mercurys won a world hockey championship in 1950 and an Olympic gold medal in 1952 in an era when Canadians expected their representatives to return from overseas with top prize.

Even their hometown needed a few weeks before holding a victory parade after they returned from the Winter Games at Oslo.

Not until the Winter Olympics were held at Calgary in 1988 did the Mercs begin to receive overdue recognition as the most recent Canadian hockey side to have claimed the Olympic championship. In 2002, by which time the Canadian hockey drought stretched to a half-century, the players were feted as worthy reminders of a nation’s prowess on ice.

When Team Canada emerged triumphant at long last on the ice at Salt Lake City, the surviving, grey-haired Mercs joined in the national celebration, happy to surrender an unwanted status as the most-recent Olympic hockey gold medallists.

Born in Alberta ranch country and raised in Calgary, Mr. Purvis first earned notice as a 17-year-old forward with the Calgary Buffaloes junior team. He was signed to a negotiation list by the Chicago Black Hawks of the National Hockey League, but as it turned out he never played professionally.

The Buffs transformed the young man into a defenceman, where he quickly earned a “reputation as (a) tough blue-line bumper,” as the Winnipeg Free Press described him in 1949.

He joined the Mercurys in the fall of 1949, giving the intermediate club a solid presence in front of the net. Mr. Purvis scored on occasion, but it was more his job to prevent the other team from getting near his own net.

The Mercurys took their name from a popular automobile being sold by their sponsor, car dealer Jim Christiansen, who had recently opened Waterloo Motors. The Mercs were selected as Canada’s representatives for the 1950 world championship to be held in London. The team began an exhaustive exhibition schedule in Scotland. After nine weeks together overseas, the club was in fine form for tournament in March.

The Mercs crushed their opposition in the preliminary round, defeating Switzerland 13-2 before humiliating Belgium 33-0. Canada then recorded five victories in the six-team medal round, outscoring opponents 42-3 to claim the world championship.

On their return to the continent two years later, the Alberta skaters discovered European hockey had made significant improvement.

“The difference was lightyears,” Mr. Purvis told Craig Daniels of the Financial Post in 1992. “We really had to buckle down and play that much harder.”

The Mercurys felt even a single loss would be a disgrace. They already knew something the majority of their countrymen would not learn until the Summit Series of 1972 — the Czechs, Finns, Swedes, and, especially, the Soviets were no longer pushovers.

Mr. Purvis scored two goals in the Olympic tournament, both coming in the third period of blowouts. He scored in a 15-1 shellacking of Germany and an 11-2 drubbing of Switzerland.

Canada went undefeated, clinching the gold medal on Feb. 24, 1952, with a 3-3 tie against a desperate United States squad, which leapfrogged from fourth to second place with the draw, earning a silver medal.

Mr. Purvis, Canada’s assistant captain, joined his teammates in an exuberant celebration on the ice at the outdoor Jordal Amfi rink in Oslo. The players tossed their trainer in the air, sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and tried to dissuade eager souvenir hunters from among the 10,000 fans.

“The best thing I remember about it was watching that flag get raised,” Mr. Purvis told the Globe’s Brian Laghi in 1998. “If you’re a good Canadian, which I am, there’s no prouder moment than that.”

The Mercs continued their lengthy overseas tour, the team’s excursion financed by a reported $100,000 invested by Mr. Christiansen, who took ill during his time in the Norwegian capital.

The players finally returned to Edmonton five weeks after winning the gold medal, their record an impressive 42 victories in 51 Olympic and exhibition games. They were met at the airport by their families and about 200 fans, including the mayor and provincial politicians.

After speeches, the players boarded convertibles provided by the dealership for a triumphal motorcade along Jasper Avenue. A banquet was held at the Hotel Macdonald.

The players returned to their jobs as builders, firefighters, and automobile salesmen. Mr. Purvis became general sales manager at the dealership. After Mr. Christiansen’s death, the former players played more prominent roles with Mr. Purvis eventually becoming the owner. After 56 years, he retired as chief executive officer, a position now held by his son, Randall Purvis.

In summers, Mr. Purvis played baseball in the Big Four Intercity League, pitching for the Edmonton Cubs and Edmonton Dodgers.

Mr. Purvis also served as a director of the Edmonton Eskimos football club during the team’s greatest string of success, when it won five consecutive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982.

The 1952 hockey team, including Mr. Purvis, was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2002.

Away from the dealership, Mr. Purvis was an avid fisherman and a frequent visitor to Hawaii. He also collected art, specializing in abstract expressionists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Some of the artworks were displayed at the dealership, sharing with the public one of his passions.

Allan Ruggles Purvis was born on Jan. 9, 1929, at Trochu, Alta. He died at home on Aug. 13 in Central Saanich, B.C., a Victoria suburb. He was 80. He leaves Jeanne, his wife of 59 years; a son; two daughters; five grandchildren; two great-granddaughters; and, three brothers.