NAIT’s faded and forgotten wall of fame

by | Apr 17, 2023 | News

The word alumnus comes from the Latin language and means “one who has been nourished.” For hundreds of years, many schools have honoured their extensive alumni list, sometimes with dinners, galas or just a plaque on a wall. These traditions encourage accomplished folks from all walks of life to support their alma mater, and students can look up to these individuals as inspirations. Athletics often have a category all on their own—many schools put a Hall of Fame right outside locker rooms or where they play. In some schools like the University of Alberta, there have been inductions every year since 1990, and an entire room is dedicated to their alumni and their accomplishments. 

NAIT does have an athletics hall of fame near the entrance to the gymnasium. It features eight plaques, with an empty space where one has been removed. These plaques represent pioneers of the Institute. NAIT’s wall features the founders, executives, coaches and players who have left a legacy to remember—people like Perry Pearn, Garry Meadus and Kevin Martin. 

Despite the impressive accomplishments of these NAIT alumni, the plaques on the wall are faded and old. And for Brian Stein, the most recent induction, there are far fewer of them than there should be. 

As Stein said in an interview with the Nugget, “A hall of fame or wall of fame can either grow in prominence and stature from generation to generation. Or it can fall into disrepair or be forgotten over time. The activities expand beyond honouring builders, coaches, athletes and teams. It’s the preservation of artifacts and archives.”

The man behind the fight

Brian Stein, a NAIT Alumnus, has had a long history with NAIT Athletics. He was a NAIT student in the 80s. Stein wrote for the Nugget in 1981 and even wrote the story about NAIT’s first national championship in any sport, the 1981-82 men’s hockey team. Stein later became an integral voice in the Alberta collegiate sports world, becoming the first Sports Information Director at an ACAC post secondary institution in 1990. 

When Stein was introduced to NAIT’s Hall of Fame in 2007, he was just happy to be along for the ride. He still has a copy of his speech from 16 years ago, in which he mentions other alumni that should be on the wall: “In closing there are many more deserving than I am. The coaches chart the game plans, and players execute them.”

Since he’s been inducted, Brian has been on, as he describes it, a mission for justice to help others who, in his opinion, are more deserving of a spot in the hall of fame. “Without that success of the men’s hockey team, I wouldn’t have been there,” Stein explained. He’s been vocal and active in the community, fighting for NAIT alumni. 

“Since the last inductions in 2007, there have been a number of individuals who have passed who should have been recognized,” Brian said, adding that there’s two names notably missing: Joan Groothuysen and John Utendale.

Groothuysen is a decorated cross-country skier who went to the Olympics for Canada twice: once in 1976 in Austria, and once in 1980 in Lake Placid. And this was all before being a student at NAIT. Once enrolled, she won two cross-country skiing championships and one cross-country running championship. She won both the skiing and running championships in the same year. Groothuysen remains the only athlete in ACAC history to win individual championships in two sports. She unfortunately passed away from cancer in 2018. 

Dr. John Utendale was the first Black hockey player to sign a contract in the NHL. While Utendale never managed to suit up in an NHL game, he did play with Detroit’s affiliate, the Edmonton Flyers. Utendale grew up in Edmonton, playing with the Edmonton Oil Kings before signing the deal with the Red Wings. His life after hockey is just as impressive. Utendale was a powerful voice in education in the state of Washington. He was also NAIT’s first Director of Physical Education and coached the men’s team in 1966-67.

Both of these figures would far surpass any criteria for an athletic hall of fame, but they aren’t there. In fact, there hasn’t been a new induction since Stein was added in 2007.

“A hall of fame or wall of fame can either grow in prominence and stature from generation to generation. Or it can fall into disrepair or be forgotten over time. The activities expand beyond honouring builders, coaches, athletes and teams. It’s the preservation of artifacts and archives.”

Brian Stein

But the issue is larger than just some names missing; Stein believes the wall itself needs an overhaul. “There’s one missing plaque. The plaques all seem a bit old, with some of the pictures and descriptions starting to fade, losing their battle with time,” said Stein. “There’s been no induction since 2007, no online presence since 2013 … In a nutshell, NAIT could do a better job at preserving history.”

NAIT Athletics Director Jordan Richey couldn’t agree more. “It just hasn’t been an institutional priority, which is sad to say,” said Richey. “I admit it.” 

“That whole wall there as you see outside of the gymnasium there, that’s very dated. It’s all pixelated, it’s nothing. It’s horrible.” 

Richey has only been Athletics Director for four years, so he can’t speak to the entire history of the wall, but did highlight that things need to change. “[Hall of fames] really show what it means to be an Ook and what that meant to be, to raise the bar to an elite level Ook,” he explained. “I think it’s really important to showcase and honour  those that have put NAIT on the map.” 

There is a missing spot on the wall of fame where a photo has been removed. Photo by Caleb Perreaux

According to Richey, the main reason for the lack of inductions was a not enough resources. New inductees used to be unveiled at a large gala, but that sort of party isn’t in the budget. “It was simply resources … we just don’t have the funds in our operating budget to do that kind of stuff,” he explained. “It was a big thing. It was a banquet, a dinner and it was just a lot of money and a lot of work to put on for that.” 

“With the fiscal realities going on, having reduced staff, and that didn’t fall into those people’s roles anymore … and then the sheer amount of money to put on a $10,000 banquet as well … it just never fit into the strategic direction.”

But in his opinion, it’s time for change. “We will be doing something now. We’re not going to be following the same lead before with the big banquet and stuff … we can do it all digital,” said Richey. “We can just unveil it and maybe present them, honour  them at one of our home games or something like that.” 

What now?

Like many other areas of NAIT, March and April are busy seasons. Athletics is busy with playoffs and day-to-day operations occupy the staff’s mind. Richey said that once they are in the off-season, things will change. 

“One of our summer projects is to form a committee that will be led by our former athletic director, Gregg Meropoulis,” Richey explained. They’re planning on creating a committee, including a full-time Communications Coordinator that can devote time to projects like this. The committee would also likely feature community members with knowledge of the teams; even potentially someone like Stein, who according to Richey, “has every stat.” 

On top of an induction criteria change, Richey would like to see other changes, such as a television rotating through the members of the hall of fame, social media posts and other acts that don’t require as much financial commitment. In the future, he hopes they can host a gala for the inductees, much like the one Stein attended in 2007.

Stein is not quite as hopeful. “It’s not expensive to put a plaque up,” Stein reacted. He doesn’t mind the changes coming, but after 15 years without them, he remains cautious. “We’ll have to wait and see.” 

For Richey, he’s excited to put the department’s past behind them and make changes. “Do I think [the wall is] horrible being part of the department for a long time? I do. I wish we could have done it, but I can’t control what’s happened in the past. Let’s get it done now.” 

Erratum: Brian Stein was incorrectly listed as being the first ACAC Sports Information Director, but he was the first Sports Information Director at an ACAC college. It was also incorrectly stated that there were five plaques on the wall when there are eight. Stein was also incorrectly quoted as saying the missing plaque was due to a misspelling, but that was not said. The plaque with misspellings is the 84-85 Ooks plaque.

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