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Curtis J. Phillips Catch You on The Rebound

Fort McMurray has always had its hometown sports heroes. In the 1930s, Violet Bode May, wife of famed bush pilot Wop May, owned and rode one of the top show jumping horses in Canada by the name of Bay Eagle.

The 1940s showcased Tom Morimoto winning silver at the Canadian Armed Forces Boxing Championships bantamweight division.

In the 1950s, the Jack Simpson rink captured the inaugural Prairie Oilmen’s Bonspiel in Regina.

Heading into the 1960s and 1970s, one particular surname grabbed the headlines: Harpe.

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“Growing up here, all we had was sports. No television. Sports was it. There was nothing else here,” recalls Joe Harpe, 79, who came from a family of 14 with eight brothers and five sisters.

“The boys were into baseball and hockey, and the girls were into baseball and curling.”

Only Joe, along with brothers David and Henry and sister Leona, remain.

In 1959, brother Roland played briefly for the Edmonton Eskimos baseball team in the Pacific Coast League and then with the Spokane Indians.

The following year, he pitched for the New York Yankees AAA Columbus Ohio minor league team.

“He loved the sport,” recalls Joe. “The last team he played for was a farm team for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was invited back the following year, but he had had enough.”

Roland was involved in the sport as a player and coach and was president of the local women’s fastball league.

Keeping to the diamonds, Emile was a well-respected umpire behind the plate.

“The players respected him,” said Joe.

“Not really an athlete,” another brother, Albert, was instrumental in creating the Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association.

Hockey stardom was close for his brother August.

August played four exhibition games for the Western Hockey League Edmonton Oil Kings in 1965 while scoring an impressive six goals.

“He would have made it (to the NHL), but he damaged his knee,” recalled Joe, a high-scoring left winger.

August went on to coach the Fort McMurray Braves to a 1981 Native Senior B Provincial Hockey Championship.

Joe’s sport was boxing.

He had compiled an impressive record of 42-0 as an amateur middleweight. Included in the list was a decision over one-time Canadian Middleweight champion Bobo Fiddler.

What is unique about his career is that it was all fought within the confines of Prince Albert Penitentiary, where – just out of his teens – he had served a

21⁄2 sentence for theft.

“I love boxing more than any other sport. When I went to prison, I was told by an old boxer, “When you are in the ring, you are in there on your own. It is all up to you and no one else.”

Returning home to Forty McMurray in the 1960s’, he would go on to officiate more than 800 amateur boxing bouts!

Joe is still “a big boxing fan” and follows the Edmonton Oilers.

Biggest change in sports since his youth?

“The younger generation have all kinds of sports to choose from. We had no such things as gyms. We even played basketball outdoors on the grass.”

The Harpe family tree also includes two other local sports legends, Daryl Harpe and Joey Young.

Daryl was selected the 1988-89 ECHL Most Valuable Player while leading the league in scoring with 38 goals and 84 assists for the Erie Panthers.

Young was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993 and pitched six years in the minors.

It’s been 41 years between interviews with Joe Harpe. Now that’s a record.

Catch you on the rebound!

Photo: Joe Harpe, 79, holds up a newspaper article highlighting his boxing career written in 1983 by YMM columnist Curtis J. Phillips

About the author

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Curtis J. Phillips

Honoured with the Queen's Platinum Jubilee Medal in 2022, Phillips has been a Founding Father of various sports events and organizations, including the high school Challenge Cup (1984) and Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame (2000). He has been inducted into three Sports Halls of Fame to date and was the inaugural recipient of two national tributes recognizing community involvement.

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