By Eoin Devereux
To simply say that former Winnipeg Blue Bombers great Chris Walby has had a legendary career, feels like it’s underselling his accomplishments. Over the span of 16 seasons, Walby established himself as one of the Canadian Football League’s greatest offensive linemen, helping the Bombers win Grey Cups in 1984, 1988 and 1990. After he retired, Walby parlayed that into a successful broadcast career. On top of that, he also had a ‘colourful’ pair of seasons in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. It’s no wonder that the attendees at the ninth annual Neepawa Sports Dinner were so enthralled by the stories of the big man’s eventful legacy.
The dinner was held on Saturday, Nov. 4 at the Yellowhead Hall, with just over 200 people taking part in this year’s festivities. Neepawa Natives vice president Cam Tibbett served as the master of ceremonies for the night. After the dinner, which was catered by Old School Catering of Oakburn, was completed, Walby told stories of his days both on the football field and on the ice. The CFL Hall of Famer had the audience laughing as he discussed his short, but memorable MJHL career with the West Kildonan/Kildonan North Stars. His time on-ice involved a massive pre-game brawl in the Turnbull Cup Final against the Dauphin Kings in 1977. While that now infamous on-ice incident ended Walby hockey career, he would quickly find a new sport to pursue, though success did not come quickly.
“When hockey ended, I had to find another passion, so I decided to pursue football. It had been something that I had tried once before when I was younger, but I didn’t really follow through with it at the time, because I was a big, gangly kid,” stated Walby. “Initially, I was cut from a junior football team in Winnipeg and the coach said to me, ‘Chris, this is not the sport for you.’ That experience served as a powerful motivator.”
From there, Walby hit the gym for a full year, building up his strength and improving his skill set. After proving his former naysayer wrong and making it on a junior team, Walby then earned a scholarship to Dickinson State and an eventual place in the Canadian Football League. The rest, as they say, is history. Though it would be easy to focus on the on-field accomplishments, Walby instead chose to talk about some of the off-field antics, including spring training camps in Brandon and off-season outreach events to northern Manitoba. Walby provided an unfiltered, yet still funny, look behind the scenes. The speech also focused, however, on the impact his former coaches and teammates had on him, as he morphed from a young man to the wily veteran on the O-line. He used his experience as a means to tell the members of the Neepawa Natives, that this is a time in their lives that should be cherished.
“When you look at these young men, who are committed to the team and facing these new challenges. I want them to understand that it’s not as scary as you think. And as well, have some fun with it. These times, with their fellow teammates, are something that they’ll remember for the rest of heir lives. It’s a brotherhood thing. Something you learn over time, is that the team never is the same. This is something that is so special. Some of these guys will go on to play more hockey after their junior career is done, some won’t. So don’t take this for granted. Appreciate what you have here right now and never forget those guys that are right beside you, Going through this with you. When you appreciate that and appreciate that brotherhood, you can do great things,” stressed Walby.
Neepawa Natives general manager Myles Cathcart appreciated the words Walby shared with the team, both at the dinner and before it, during a private get-together with the players.
“It was a great speech, which all goes back to the concept of teamwork. [Walby] stressed to the team the importance of teammates working together, moving towards a common goal. That was a good message for the boys,” noted Cathcart.
The night also featured the unveiling of the Neepawa Sportsperson of the Year, which was presented to Amanda LeBoutillier, of the Neepawa Gymnastic Club. LeBoutillier was singled out for her tireless efforts in pursuing the ongoing success of the organization, which currently boasts a membership of 207 registered athletes. After the announcement was made, LeBoutillier expressed surprise for the recognition.
“This was so unexpected. I didn’t know anything about it,” LeBoutillier said. “This feels wonderful. It’s nice to be recognized, but at the same time, it’s just about giving back to the kids and to the community. And there are so many other people connected to the club, who work so much to make it a success. Our coaches and the board members do so much behind the scenes to ensure anyone who wants to participate in gymnastics can and have fun.”
Concluding the evening was the annual auction, which included autographed and framed Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Sidney Crosby jerseys. Several other items up for bid, included an autographed Chris Walby football jersey and Winnipeg Jets tickets. In total, around $9,000 was brought in from the combined items, some of which were donated by the Winnipeg Jets, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Joe Daley Sports and Legend Seeds. As the evening started to wind down, Walby expressed gratitude for being able to be involved with this year’s event.
“I enjoy coming out and supporting these types of teams and their communities, because, in a way, I’m from these types of communities. I was raised in the north end of Winnipeg, which at the time, was a little more separated. Every area in Winnipeg felt like a small town of its own and everyone would come together to support their community team and their community projects. So when I see that same mindset here, in a community like Neepawa, it’s a no brainer to step up and be a part of it.”