The Hilltops have a strong history in the Saskatoon community and have been a staple in Junior Football in Canada since 1947. The Hilltops have won 21 National Championships in the team’s more than 70 year history.
To date, the Topper’s winning years include: 1953, 1958, 1959, 1968, 1969, 1978, 1985, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Besides the 21 wins, the Toppers have only lost 3 of the Championship games they played in: 2000 when the Okanagan Sun won 36 to 28; 1960 when the Montreal Rose Bombers won 22 to 20 and 1948 when the Hamilton Wildcats won 14 to 10; 20 out of 23 is pretty darn good.
Residents of Saskatoon during the early twenties just can’t help letting their thoughts wander back to the Saskawanis, Saskatoon’s first officially known Junior Football Club. The Saskwanis pioneered junior football in Saskatoon, and although some say there was a previous team nobody seems to remember the name.
Saskwanis operated for three seasons, 1921 to 1923 and then disbanded. Their only loss in three years of play came in the western junior final of 1923, where they bowed to Winnipeg St. John’s. Saskwanis were city champions in 1921 and the next fall they scaled the heights as western Canada Junior champions.
Some members of the great old club were: Kent Phillips, Mel Kerr, Guy Poole, Vern De Geer, Archie Sillers, Delisle Thompson, Frank Irvine, Ernie McNab, Jim Hooper, Cliff McClocklin, Frank Rogan, Hortan Channell and Russ Hackney.
Although no football club in the country nowadays would think of trying it, the Saskwanis actually operated without a coach. Vern DeGeer was captain and while he acted as head man in the organization all team members were gathered when any decision was to be made. Another unique point about the old Saskwanis was that sometimes they didn’t pay too much attention to signals. For as long as five minutes at a stretch during a game they never spoke a word, but just kept playing and usually everything went fine.
Members of the Saskwanis will always say Vern DeGeer was the real driving force behind the outfit, and give him major credit for its many successes. They will also say they had one of the greatest athletes Saskatchewan ever turned out in Mel Kerr. He was an all around top flight athlete. After leaving here he played a little baseball with Chicago Cubs and was also a professional basketball player south of the border.
The Saskwanis football team originated from a Y.M.C.A boys’ club of the same name, and its mentor then was Wray Youmans (who went on to become the Director of Athletics at the U of M. Colb McEown acted as manager during the football club’s first season in 1921.
The name Hilltops had its origin in the early 1920’s among teen aged boys from Caswell Hill who made Cairns Field their playground. These boys had rugby, hockey and baseball teams but within a few years the name was used only for the rugby team. The local significance of the name was quickly lost and soon Hilltops became synonymous with Junior rugby football in Saskatoon. Hilltops were noted from the outset for aggressive, hard running and hard tackling teams.
The teams were truly amateur; the members provided most of their own equipment and bossed their own show. Players like Hub Dafoe, Harry Landa, Frank Irvine, Delisle Thompson, Dr. Jim “Soup” Campbell, Les “Bull” Cairns and Clarence Cook (or “Cookie” to hosts of friends and admirers) started on the road to stardom with the old Hilltops teams. The team eventually dissolved under the pressures of the war and the depression.
Inactive for many years the Hilltops were re-organized in the spring of 1947 and climbed right to the top in Saskatchewan by winning the provincial junior rugby football championship. But the re-organization was not as easy as it may sound. The first Saskatonian to show interest in the revival of junior football here was a player on the 1947 team–Eddie Henick.
He wrote to the Star-Phoenix and said he thought it would be a wonderful idea to form a club–or clubs, and said he would even settle for the six-man game if only he could get playing again.
Ed Henick, former team historian, who had played less than five minutes of high school football at Bedford Road, was among the first players to push for the team. “I wanted to play football, even it if was just six-man football. I remember Denny Prince, Bill Trim, Marty Steiger and Dave Gertler were among the other players who first attended a meeting,” said Henick, who passed away at the November 2000 Year End banquet.” Henick had been a player, coach, director, fundraiser, organizer of reunions, team historian and a man in touch with players from all eras.
Kent Phillips, then the president of the Canadian Rugby Union (C.R.U.) took up the trail. Kent moved into high gear behind the reorganization and before long had Colb McEown, Cliff McClocklin, Robert McGregor, Dr. Bill Kinnear, Hugh Tait and a few others working towards the formation of the Hilltops.
Meanwhile Len Richardson, Hilltops manager 1947 and Bob Arn had already started plans for a junior football club. Len’s backers, however, didn’t come through as expected and he got into the swing with the Hilltops. The early organization meetings were trying. Several meetings were held without getting anywhere and finally a goodly number turned out at a gathering held at the Y.M.C.A. and the Hilltops once more came into being.
Supporters came quickly after that meeting, where Kent Phillips was named president; Percy Klaehn, secretary; Dr. Bill Turnbull, treasurer…the ball began to roll. Soon after that Lindsay Holt was labelled as the Hilltops coach; later Johnny Babineau joined Holt on the coaching staff and did an excellent job of coaching the offensive line.
The coaches did a great job as the Hilltops went through to the Saskatchewan Championship in their first year and in doing so, laid the foundation for a club that could eventually capture Ten Canadian Championships and counting. Holt, (who passed in April of 2002) a former Saskatchewan Roughrider, instilled the fundamentals of the game into his young players and will always be remembered for his leadership and for setting high standards for the team.
While former players taught fundamentals, coaches like Dr. Bob Arn emphasized strategy, explained Henick of the team’s second head coach. Arn came in with the “Split T and the team just walked through to Hamilton,” said Henick, referring to the 1948 national finals when the Hilltops faced the Hamilton Wildcats.
The Hilltops lost that game, due in part to pools of mud and water that covered the field, but the loss was “just bad luck,” according to Henick. Had the field been dry, Arn’s strategy would have prevailed, he stressed and Arn’s strategy finally did pay off when he lead the Hilltops to their first Canadian Championship in 1953.
The second Canadian title came under the loving care of Johnny Babineau. Up until 1958 Babineau preferred to remain in the background and serve as an assistant coach. When he took the reins in 1958 the team showed its appreciation by bringing home the trophy. But there was more to the former Roughrider than his football prowess, concluded Henick. “He cared a lot for the boys as individuals,” remembered Henick, as as a result “the boys loved and idolized him.”
Still hot from their 1958 victory, the Hilltops went on to capture the 1959 title under rookie head coach Ron Tinkler. Tinkler started somewhat of a tradition, moving from Hilltop player to Hilltop coach. Others who would eventually follow his lead included Al Ledingham, Paul Schoenhals, Kevin Scott and the team’s present coach Tom Sargeant.
It was almost a decade before the Hilltops had another chance at the Canadian finals, and when they did nab the honour it was under the leadership of “Mr. Versatile,” Al Ledingham, in 1968. The ’68 victory was quickly followed by the 1969 honours under Coach Dean Dickson. Once again a decade would pass before the team enjoyed a major national victory. In the meantime, interim coaches Bill Crawford and Jon Rechner began building a team that Paul Schoenhals would take to victory in the 1978 national finals.
Seven years passed when the 1985 team under the direction of Coach Scott secured not only the club’s seventh Canadian title but also the Hilltop’s rightful place as one of the oldest and most successful junior football clubs in the country.
In 1987 the team was taken over by Coach Dave Hardy, an extremely successful coach out of Holy Cross Collegiate. He led the Hilltops to two Canadian Championships in 1991 and in 1996. Coach Hardy retired from coaching in 1998 and the reigns were handed to former player and assistant coach Tom Sargeant.
Tom has been building a powerhouse team which in 1999 barely missed going to the national championship only to lose to the Okanagan Sun in the final minutes of the Inter-Gold Game 18-15. In 2000 Coach Sargeant guided the team to an undefeated 11-0 season again meeting the Okanagan Sun in the 2001 Canadian Bowl played at the Applebowl in Kelowna. The Hilltops suffered a devastating 36 to 28 loss in that game.
In 2001 the team had many new starters, however under the astute guidance of Coach Sargeant finished the regular season 6 and 2 and beat the Wildcats and Huskies in the playoffs to advance to the Canadian Bowl played in Edmonton. This time the team was ready and walloped an overconfident Sun team 45 to 11 to add the Tenth Canadian Championship to the Hilltops glorious history.
In the 56 years since the Hilltops birth, there have been many changes. Ed Henick, the former official information source of the Saskatoon Hilltops and the one man who had been involved with the club as a player, assistant coach, president, director, treasurer and overall organizer since the club’s inception in 1947 cited the following.
Aside from pure structural changes within the league itself, the game of football that Denny Prince played in 1947 was significantly different than the Hilltops play today. Henick noted that by raising the age requirements from 17 to 22 years old, the boys that are playing now are “bigger and stronger” in spite of the fact that in his eyes “they always looked younger every year!”
As drastically as some aspects of the Hilltops have changed, other traditions have become even more firmly entrenched. One such tradition is the support the team receives from the sports fans and citizens of Saskatoon.
“The support from the city has been fantastic,” agreed Henick. “As far as spectators are concerned we probably get better support than any junior football club in Canada.”
One significant example of support can be seen in the construction of the club’s Kilburn Park clubhouse. Up until 1950 the Hilltops bumped around the city as far as dressing and practising facilities were concerned. At one time or another you could find them dressing at the Arena Rink, the Baldwin Hotel, HMCS Unicorn, the YMCA, and Cairns Field. The practice fields included the Technical Collegiate, Kinsmen Park, and Cairns Field, or “wherever they might find a spot to work out.”
According to a 1953 speech by Lorne Richardson, it was Art Peberdy who supplied the drive and enthusiasm which sparked the Hilltops into building their own permanent home.”His experience in the local construction sector, along with the kindness and generosity of many firms in Saskatoon: ensured the Hilltops a clubhouse that has become more than just a dressing room over the years.” According to Henick the clubhouse has brought the players and executive together as a unit.