An integral part of the Calgary Stampede is the tradition of chuckwagon racing. The thrill of speed and the element of danger make for as much excitement as NASCAR racing.
For every chuckwagon driver that makes the loop around the track, there's a real support crew at the barns helping with the large number of tasks involved in the sport. That ranges from looking after the high-spirited horses, to washing the chuckwagon, to mucking out the stalls.
It's a lifestyle bred into many families, but it attracts others.
The Rae Croteau Jr. outfit has been getting a lot of attention this week because one of the hands around their barn is among the newest members of the Calgary Flames.
Curtis Glencross just signed with the Flames last week, after spending a good chunk of last season with the provincial archrivals up the road, the Edmonton Oilers. But when he's not stick handling, he loves to be part of the chuckwagon world. It was something he did all last season, and is doing, when he can, this year.
"It's something a little different," Glencross told me at the barns, as the buzz of pre-race activity was beginning to increase. "You meet a lot of good people. Hanging out in the barns with the horses, and just the atmosphere around here, it's awesome."
The talented hockey player first met Croteau about three years ago here at the Stampede, and the two really clicked.
"We've been good friends ever since. He came down to Columbus to see me over Christmas last year when I was there."
Right at home with new team
Croteau and a lot of his crew were on hand at the Saddledome the night when Glencross scored his first NHL goal, plus the overtime winner, against Calgary. But now he's looking forward to changing over and playing for the team he scored against.
So where was Glencross when all the latest NHL wheeling and dealing was being done last week? Well, right there in the barns during the chuckwagon races at the Ponoka Stampede. Along with various chores in the barn, he also helps drive the horses when the chuckwagon makes its victory lap.
At that time, he was still part of the Oilers group, and was tossing T-shirts from that team to the fans as the wagon passed by the grandstand. How things can change in a short time!
"They had until July 1 to sign me in Edmonton, and they decided not to sign me. But they'd given me shirts to throw out at every event I was at." But that wouldn't go over so good in Flames-ville, especially considering the switch.
"Now that I've come here, the Flames have given us shirts to throw out here."
Glencross wasn't worried about his hockey future, so that's why he wasn't waiting breathlessly by the phone when the swapping was going on.
"That's what you pay an agent to do, so it was nice just to let him take care of it. When he found something he figured was right, it was time to go."
Glencross is a farm boy. He spent most of his junior hockey days playing near home in Provost, Alta. His pro career path wasn't like most other NHLers, and he hopes that serves as inspiration to other small town hopefuls. But you can bet his hard-working down-to-earth background found favour in the eyes of Flames general manager Darryl Sutter. After all, he's a farm boy too.
Glencross is confident the Flames will be a good fit for him.
"They're a run and gun team, a lot like Edmonton was, and they're trying to rebuild there now. They've got a good team coming in next year, and it's going to be exciting."
Doesn't mind dirt on boots
There was a meeting last Friday between Sutter and Glencross, where there was plenty of hockey talk, and a little farm talk too.
Glencross is no stranger to barnyards, having grown up around horses. His dad Mel, runs the Burnt Lake Auction Market near Red Deer.
I remember talking to his proud dad when Curtis scored that first goal against Calgary, and he assured me his son wasn't afraid to get a little dirt on his boots. In fact, you can still find Glencross helping work the ring there on sale days.
Right now, Glencross is putting in some long days during the Calgary Stampede. He's spending the mornings in the gym, training with the Flames, before heading over to the barns. And this may be his last full-time appearance on the chuckwagon trail, as he prepares for the new hockey challenge ahead.
But for this week, Curtis Glencross, NHL hockey player, is part of a different team, and the goal is to help chuckwagon driver Rae Croteau Jr. have a winning week of his own.
Dianne Finstad is an agricultural and rodeo broadcaster in Red Deer, Alberta. She grew up near the Montana border in southern Alberta where her family’s been ranching for a century. Her western background and 4-H experience led her to a broadcasting career, which has included more than 25 years of covering pro rodeo for television, print, radio and now through this blog, the internet!