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Where Are They Now Feature: Waterloo’s Last Legion Game

By WBH, 02/17/21, 2:30PM CST

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Presented by Karen's Print Rite

Sub-zero temperatures similar to what the Cedar Valley has experienced for the last few weeks would have been a mixed blessing for Waterloo’s first hockey team.  Bitter cold was certainly tough on local hockey fans, but on the other hand, if the thermometer rose above freezing for a long period of time, the games were off.  Waterloo’s only ice in 1930 was natural ice.

The community’s first hockey games had been played in early 1927.  World War I veterans from the Becker-Chapman American Legion Post decided to install an ice rink at the National Cattle Congress Hippodrome that winter.  Roy Malcolm had moved to Waterloo from Red Deer, Alberta (the home of current Black Hawks defenseman Luke Bast), and brought the idea, and hockey, with him when he joined the Post.  Once established, hockey and ice skating raised thousands of dollars for Becker-Chapman community projects.

The Hippodrome was unheated at that time, so cold outdoor conditions could maintain the ice inside the building.  Meanwhile, fans found inventive ways to stave off hypothermia, reflected in a 1954 Waterloo Courier story reminiscing about the city’s first hockey team: “…the real lovers of the sport tried to conceive means of warmth for themselves on those cold and windy nights…[including] the heating of bricks and resting one’s feet upon them.  Your feet stayed warm as long as the bricks did.”

Whatever the temperature, the community warmed up to hockey and was rewarded.  Teams skating in from Chicago, the Twin Cities, and even Winnipeg rarely beat the Becker-Chapman squad.  Like Malcolm, many of the players had relocated from Canada or Minnesota and had been playing the game all their lives.  A rare loss in 1928 had come against the Kansas City Play-Mors of the American Hockey Association, a team which that year was fielding past and future NHL players, as well as at least one former Olympian.

Waterloo’s team was never part of any league.  That provided the opportunity to host a wide range of opponents but also created another situation hockey fans can identify with in 2021: uncertainty about when or if some games would be played.  While fans from the USHL to the NHL have seen more scheduling alterations than ever this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges of 91 years ago ranged from warming temperatures that melted the ice to arrangements falling through with a visiting club (almost all of whom played for fun on the weekends and worked during the week).  Unlike 2020/21, the Becker-Chapman post did not start the season with any schedule, hoping to arrange opponents in ad hoc fashion, often only a few weeks (sometimes a few days) ahead of the games.

By February 1930, the effects of The Great Depression were becoming evident.  Hockey crowds were smaller and Becker-Chapman Post leaders knew their efforts to build the rink, maintain the ice, and field a team for 1929/30 would end in a financial loss.  They put over $9,400 dollars into the project – equivalent to approximately $144,000 in 2021 dollars – and would come up just short of breaking even.  They decided to end the season Valentine’s Day weekend, earlier than any other winter during that period.

The final games were played against St. Mary’s College of Winona, Minnesota.  The school’s squad had already visited in January for three well-played games.  The Becker-Chapman team had won the first, 4-3, before a pair of ties two weekends later.  Besides the quality of the meetings, the collegians might have been an attractive opponent for another reason: the Legion post likely paid their train fair but probably did not have to split any ticket revenues with the amateur skaters.

St. Mary’s – like many other schools at the time – faced a fair number of non-college opponents.  For example, St. Mary’s and the Becker-Chapman Post both played an Army team from St. Paul’s Ft. Snelling during those years.  Other club or company teams pop up on St. Mary’s record of games throughout the 1920s and 30s.  

In February of 1930, their hockey roster included three of the finest athletes in school history.  Four decades later, Tony Prelesnick, Edward Lynch, and Oscar Almquist would each be in St. Mary’s Athletic Hall of Fame.  All three were also members of the school’s football team.  Prelesnick and Almquist would go on to play in the AHA, with Almquist – a goalie – eventually named to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in large part for his decades as a successful high school coach in Roseau, Minnesota.

In the first meeting of the final weekend, “Players skated and flashed about the ice with the speed of a Mercury on 1930 model wings,” according to the recap in the Courier.  Clarence Keyes scored the lone goal for Waterloo with just five minutes left.  Approaching his mid-30s, Keyes was a World War I veteran and had come to Iowa from Drinkwater, Saskatchewan, in the winter of 1927/28.   While working at John Deere, Keyes became one of the most prolific and successful players on the Becker-Chapman team during the seasons which followed, despite being just 5’ 5.”  

The final American Legion hockey game in Waterloo – although no one knew it at the time – was played two days later on Sunday, February 16th.

St. Mary’s salvaged a win in the five-game season series with an impressive effort, and the Courier noted, “…the maroon-shirted demons from the Gopher state were unbeatable Sunday, even to the extent of accidentally making Waterloo’s goal.”

The story continues:

Tony Prelesnik, husky St. Mary’s center, turned in one of the greatest games ever exhibited on Waterloo ice while Almquist, his teammate goalie beat the wolfish puck from the net door in sensational style to save his crew a sound drubbing.

Waterloo swarmed to the attack in the first period and bombarded the net from all angles and distances.  It was the locals’ period in everything but scoring and Almquist, the unconquerable, is the key reason why scoring is not included in the margin of superiority.  He stopped the sizzling rubber on the ice or in the air, with stick, body, hands and skates.  He saved the day.

Tony Prelesnik made it a St. Mary’s day by his tally with but 30 seconds to play in the second period.  The contest had been about even-Stephan for the first 15 minutes with St. Mary’s playing cautiously if men were in the penalty box.

The razzberries from the audience for the cautious tactics failed to unnerve the collegians and in the end it contributed to Tony Prelesnik’s goal.  He came slowly down the ice and sallied across the blue line.  Suddenly all was action.  Eldridge cut in from the opposite side, took a pass from Tony, and socked it goalward where it rebounded from [Ed] Thompson.  Tony was on it like a hawk and a deft shot sent it spinning into the laces [at] 19 minutes 30 seconds.

St. Mary’s scored quickly in the third period.  Chet Eldridge hooked the puck inside the blue and soloed his way into position for a shot, edging from the boards and at the same time fighting off all attempts to take the disk away from him.  A lightning like flick of the stick whipped it into the goal. 

Waterloo was credited with its goal a few minutes later, Louis Prelesnik being so kind as to have his stick in such a position that he betrayed himself by knocking the puck home.

The 2-1 result in front of 1,600 fans left the Becker-Chapman Post with an 8-3-2 record in 1929/30 and an overall mark of 30-10-2 during their four-year run at the Hippodrome.  Despite losing their final game, and although Waterloo would not host indoor games again for another 30 years, the organization’s contribution to Cedar Valley hockey was significant.  For years after, those who had watched the games in the late 20s and early 30s would play outdoors when the weather cooperated, and the seeds had been planted for the Waterloo Black Hawks to spring into existence when the Hippodrome was renovated in 1962.

Read more about Waterloo’s first hockey club in the 2013 book The Legion Team, available from TotallyIowa.com or popular book retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Where Are They Now features are presented by Karen’s Print Rite at 515 Falls Avenue in Waterloo or online at karensprintrite.com.