The house that Green and Gold built

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U of A bids farewell to a facility that has housed its sports teams for over 50 years

Matt Hirji & Andrew Jeffrey
The Gateway (University of Alberta)

EDMONTON (CUP) — Sitting courtside at every basketball game in the University of Alberta’s main gym since 1975, Ben and Pauline Janz have become iconic inside a venue that’s witnessed a tradition of athletic excellence.

The Janz family has been a steadfast presence inside the gym for more than 35 years, with seats reserved for them with a direct view of the Pandas bench. The couple has fostered the growth of basketball at the U of A through the Adopt-an-Athlete program, where community members provide financial support to athletes on campus.

It is a tradition that will be continuing at a new venue, as the gym will close its doors to varsity athletics at the end of this season, giving way to a more modern centre on at the U of A.

The Janz family recognizes that they’re only a small part of the success of the program. It’s the gym that has provided the atmosphere that spurs on the success of all the Pandas and Bears athletes.

“I’m kind of sorry to see the end of an era. We’ve seen a lot of good basketball games here,” Ben quietly explained prior to the Pandas tip-off for their last regular season game. “It’s about our allegiance to the players and to the game. There are just so many memories here.”

“We just know so many of the players now. It’s been really fun to come here,” Pauline added. “I just hope the Pandas win tonight.”

The U of A first broke ground on the historic venue in 1958 and opened the facility for use in 1960. Known as the Varsity Gym at the time, this hub of campus was built for a capacity of 2,714 people and featured hardwood floors measuring 108-by-168 feet, which were considered state-of-the-art at the time.

While its main purpose has been for athletics, it has also been used for day-to-day activity classes, intramural and recreational events, final exams, and even a break dancing competition in the early ’80s. The gym has also played host to a number of outside events: Olympic wrestling trials in 1968, the 1978 Commonwealth Games, and even the debut of the U of A’s beloved mascot Guba, who was first introduced at a men’s basketball game in 1971.

With a rich history, the school’s varsity legends have fond memories of the facility.

“My first experience would have been in the early ’70s. I played in the annual junior-high Bears and Pandas volleyball tournament. In 1973, I played in that tournament as a young junior-high kid of 5-foot-1,” Bears volleyball coach Terry Danyluk said, reflecting on his young experiences in the facility.

“At that time, it was a big gym and it was still new. It was a really exciting environment to be on the campus and to be in that facility.”

Arriving on campus as a freshman student athlete in 1979 from Tofield, Alta., the bright-eyed teenager began to make his footprints on the history of the gym. Danyluk would go on to coach the Green and Gold squad that he looked up to so much as an aspiring volleyball youngster.

“It’s become a lot more comfortable,” Danyluk explained. “The main gym feels like a home. It’s some place where you can feel entrenched and it’s somewhere that I feel comfortable coming to every day.”

Over the course of his 23-year tenure with the Bears volleyball team, Danyluk has claimed 507 wins as both an athlete and a coach. Even more amazing are his four national championship banners. These are gifts that he’s proud to offer the gym in return for the support it’s given him over his lifetime.

“I refer to [the gym] as a cornerstone in Edmonton,” Danyluk explained. "It’s had so many different experiences: from the students who take classes in it, to the thousands of students that take final exams in there, to the student athletes and all the international events that have happened in there.”

Former Bears basketball head coach Don Horwood remembers the facility as an iconic structure dedicated to fostering the growth and development of not only the athletes who he coached, but also the community that surrounds it.

Horwood became coach of Bears basketball in 1983 and was an anchor for the team behind the bench for 26 years before retiring in 2009. During his career as head coach, he led the team to 11 CIS championship appearances, winning the national title three times, including the team’s first CIS championship in the 1993-94 season.

“When we started, it was just a few families and friends at our home games,” Horwood reflected. “As a head coach, I was very nervous. This was my job now. There were a lot of nerves and a lot of anticipation. I wanted to build towards a national championship and set the wheels in motion to create a winning attitude that would not accept second-rate effort or behaviour.”

Trix Baker also spoke about the warmth of the facility and its unique place in CIS competition. For the player-turned-coach-turned-athletics-administrator, the gym has been a major part of her experience at the U of A.

Having played on the Pandas basketball squad from 1976–81 and coaching the team from 1991–2006, the dynamic Baker now oversees a number of the Green and Gold varsity teams that have made the gym their home.

“The gym is always warm. That may sound insignificant to some people, but when I was coaching, I froze in every other gym I went to. Here, it doesn’t matter if it’s 40 degrees below, that gym is always warm,” Baker explained.

“I’m sure it’s because of the actual temperature in the gym, but it has a warmness to it. It’s comfortable to sit in and it doesn’t get so loud. We have a lot of people who have supported the teams for a lot of years.

A legacy of winning has been created in the gym since its doors opened 51 years ago. It’s a tradition that has lasted years and brought 40 national championship banners to hang proudly from its walls. But it’s also a tradition that has carried on through the years for the Baker family.

Baker’s husband Doug played on the Golden Bears basketball team, and her son Jordan currently plays for the men’s squad, attempting to create a whole new set of legacies.

“I remember in games turning around looking for my clipboard to draw a play and [Jordan’s] stolen it – he’s got it behind the bench and he’s drawing these plays at four or five [years old],” Baker reminisced. “One time, he wasn’t feeling well and he wanted to sit on my lap during a game and I said, ‘No, no you can’t.’ So I got up and he just stood there and put his head on where I was sitting, put it down and went to sleep in the middle of a game.
“My alumni used to say to me, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to call social services,’ but he was just so comfortable in the gym. He used to go to sleep to bouncing balls. He was there in practice. I’d go pick him up at the daycare, pack him a lunch and he’d come and eat and play during the games or the practices.”

Jordan played a big part in the farewell for the gym on Feb. 12 as he helped lead the Golden Bears to victory in their final regular season game on the home court.

“It was a great send-off. It was just a really fitting way to end our league games in the main gym with a couple victories,” Jordan said after the game.

With the move to the new centre, the time has come to leave behind the warm recollections and ghosts of victories past that have emanated from the gym over the years for competitors, coaches and spectators alike.

Next year, fans will enter the massive new 230,000-square-foot Go Center filled with nine basketball courts, nine volleyball courts, and a dedicated varsity court for new memories to be created and new CIS banners to be lifted into its towering rafters.

While Horwood has experienced great triumphs as a coach in the main gym, he recognizes that the new location for the Golden Bears represents a fresh era for this up-and-coming team, as they continue to turn around from their lapses in recent years in the hopes of regaining the winning tradition that they once held in the gym.

“The payoff of all the success is saying goodbye to the main gym. We’ve made plenty of friends here and they have plenty to look forward to.”

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