Vernon, B.C. — Like at most reunions, the Vernon Tigers swapped stories, caught up with how the family was and snapped photos with joy.
The big difference with this weekend gathering was that many players from the three-time national Senior B lacrosse team were feeling extremely grateful to be alive.
The Tigers marked the 40th anniversary of their third-straight President’s Cup, but the bigger story was how the 1976 group survived a plane crash into a farmer’s field near Pincher Creek, Alta. Sept. 8 on the way home from Winnipeg.
Barry Lapointe, the Kelowna Flightcraft pilot who pulled off an emergency crash-landing of a DC-3, saving all 26 passengers on the plane, received the most hugs and handshakes at the reunion, which attracted 62 players, wives and team staff.
“There were some rumours somebody was smoking in the washroom, but Barry said in his speech that a heater had overloaded and there was lots of smoke,” said Marty Stein, who organized the reunion and had taken an earlier flight home. “(Jeff Shirley) Spook told Barry there was smoke coming out of the washroom and he got all the players to the back of the plane. Alice Rintoul (Tiger Dale Rintoul’s wife) maybe said it best when she said ‘If it weren’t for this man (Lapointe), there would be no kids or grandkids for a lot of us.”
Stein said Lapointe also cleared up just exactly where the plane, jazzed up with lounges, couches and poker tables, originated.
“It was an old plane and Barry said it was the only type that could have landed like that. Some guys thought it was Frank Sinatra’s plane or Bing Crosby’s, but it actually was Conrad Hilton’s.”
Stein said captain Jamie McKenzie, a licensed pilot who joined team GM Wolfgang Gachter in calming the player and taking charge of the evacuation, also spoke Saturday night at the Vernon Golf & Country Club.
“Jamie talked about how inspiring our team was and he talked about things a lot of us had forgotten. He spoke for about 20 minutes and was just awesome.”
A total of 21 Tigers purchased commemorative rings marking all three Canadian victories, the other two coming in Edmonton and Vernon.
“Our president Art Horsley did an incredible job for us,” said Stein. “We, as athletes, we never knew what was going in with fundraising and behind-the-scenes stuff. “Danny Holte and Rick (Horsley) bought Art a ring and he was so happy. That was a touching moment.”
Stein said coverage of the plane crash in last Friday’s Morning Star was a history lesson for the younger Vernon generation.
“I talked to a lot of oldtimers and they, of course, remembered the story, but some of the guys’ kids hadn’t heard much about it. It was a big story at the time and is a big part of Vernon’s sports history.”
There were five groups golfing Saturday and Stein said there were no aces or stellar scores, “just a lot of laughs and chuckles.”
Added Stein: “It was 40 years since our ‘78 team but it was like someone pressed pause and we just kept talking.”
Stein plans to lobby the City of Vernon to raise a banner honouring the Tigers at Kal Tire Place.