Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – Reading down the list of Canada West men’s hockey champions, the lines start to blur together.
Year after year, if it’s not Alberta, it’s Saskatchewan. And if it’s not the Bears or Huskies, it’s Calgary.
Except this particular row, where the name is different.
One might assume it to be a misprint. It’s not.
In 1994, under the masterful guidance of coach Mike Babcock, the Lethbridge Pronghorns not only won the Canada West championship, they went all the way to win the University Cup.
In 45 years of Canada West men’s hockey, they are the only team not called Bears, Huskies, or Dinos, to capture a conference or national title
“For us to do that was just a remarkable feat,” says Greg Gatto, who played five seasons at forward with the Pronghorns.
“You don’t realize that until you sit down and read some of Mike Babcock’s (quotes). His biggest accomplishment, he still thinks, is winning the championship with us, which is pretty cool. World juniors, world championships, and Olympic medals - he says the hardest one was (the University Cup) because it was the most rewarding.”
The Pronghorns’ championship run will always hold a special place with Gatto, who’s had a remarkable hockey journey, from playing all over the Western Hockey League to lacing up the skates in Britain; from standing behind the bench at his alma matter to present day, which finds him traversing Texas in the former tour bus of Reba McEntire.
“I’m 47 years old, I’ve been in hockey my whole life,” says the head coach and general manager of the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League. “I’ve still never had a real job.”
Now a decade and a half into his coaching career, Gatto has long drawn on experience playing under the vaunted Babcock, who now coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with knowledge acquired studying education at the U of L.
“I’ve taught probably one year since I graduated … but as a coach, I consider myself to be a teacher anyway,” he says.
Gatto can relate to the teenagers that comprise the Jackalopes roster. Once upon a time, he was them; a junior player filled with aspiration and happy to go anywhere with an ice rink.
“I played two years in the (WHL) and I played with four different teams – never even made it to a team picture,” the native of Crossfield, Alta., says with a laugh.
“I started in Portland, got traded to Regina, missed both team pictures. I got traded to Spokane, I got traded to Brandon, missed both team pictures again.”
After playing 114 games total over the 1990-91 and 1991-92 WHL seasons, Gatto enrolled at the U of L. In his first year of university hockey, the six-foot-one winger racked up 40 points en route to receiving the 1992-93 Canada West Outstanding Freshman award while also being named to the All-Canadian Freshman team. The Pronghorns were not nearly as successful, however, winning just nine of 28 games.
Expectations weren’t any higher when the 1993-94 season began, but Lethbridge started strong and then caught fire, winning 11 times in a 12-game stretch spanning the end of October and early January, before ultimately finishing atop the standings with a 19-7-2 mark.
The Pronghorns defeated Calgary in the Canada West final to capture the Dr. W.G. Hardy Trophy, then traveled to Toronto, where they beat Guelph 5-2 for the University Cup.
“Probably not until Christmas did we even think we were legit,” says Gatto. “(Babcock) even says the first couple practices he was almost in tears thinking it was his last job. We just got better and better and … started clicking and by Christmas we were on a real roll, and then all of a sudden we just stared thinking, ‘hey, we can win this thing’. And sure enough, lo and behold, we go into Maple Leaf Gardens and won a national championship.”
Gatto played three more seasons with the Pronghorns, finishing his university career in 1997, having amassed 83 goals and 177 points in 135 regular season games. He was an All-Canadian in 1995-96, and finished third all-time in Canada West with 45 power-play goals.
He began his pro career overseas, playing three years in the British Ice Hockey Super League, before joining the Colorado Gold Kings for the 1999-2000 West Coast Hockey League season. From there, he took a job as player-assistant with the Central Hockey League’s San Antonio Iguanas.
Following the 2002-03 season, Gatto hung up the skates and got his first head coaching gig in 2004 with the CHL’s Austin Ice Bats. Then a vacancy opened behind the Pronghorns’ bench.
After getting the thumbs-up from Babcock, it was a no-brainer.
“Going back to Lethbridge was awesome. My family was there, I raised my little one there … it was enjoyable, it was rewarding,” says Gatto, who coached Lethbridge men’s hockey for nine years, overseeing three of the program’s five regular seasons with 30 or more points.
Now he’s here, somewhere in the middle of the Lonestar State, stretched out near the front of a not-so-gently used vehicle that once transported a country music legend, adding miles to his amazing hockey journey.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love going to the rink,” he says. “I’m sitting on the bus right now, there’s four guys up here with me telling stories.
“I love it.”
About the CW Alumni Spotlight:
Each year a new crop of Canada West student-athletes graduate and begin to make an impact in their communities as professionals. The CW Alumni Spotlight series looks to highlight the positive impact former CW student-athletes are making in communities across Western Canada and beyond.
Canada West – training leaders, building champions.