GRANDE PRAIRIE - Tommy Hamilton was an elite athlete who chose to dedicate his life giving back to his community and ensuring all youth had an opportunity to be involved in sport.
A Black man, born in Texas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Hamilton’s athletic talent led him to the Peace Country in the 1950s – first in northwestern Alberta and eventually in northeastern British Columbia.
Hamilton’s athletic career started in boxing and baseball. In the ring, he was an amateur boxing welterweight champion, winning a Golden Gloves tournament in Kansas City. In 1940, Hamilton joined the army where he won the American Army Welterweight Championship in 1945.
As a baseball player, Hamilton was reportedly among the best catchers in the game. He suited up for teams across the continent, including the Los Angeles White Sox and the Oakland Beavers of the Pacific Coast Professional Loop. Stops on the playing schedule included Canadian cities from Ontario to B.C.
As Hamilton travelled across Canada, he began to take an interest in the country. While playing in an exhibition series with the Beavers against Alliance Southern Alberta, the manager of the Alliance team extended an invitation to him to play. Without hesitation, Hamilton accepted, and he and his family headed north.
Upon arriving in Alberta, Hamilton continued to play baseball and box. But his focus began to shift as he settled in High Prairie in 1952. There, his new passion flourished – coaching. He coached baseball, boxing and hockey.
Having never strapped on a pair of skates, Hamilton became a student of the game. During his two years in High Prairie, he coached two teams to the Provincial finals.
In 1957, Hamilton, his wife and six boys moved to Grande Prairie. The move came with changes. He chose to hang up his gloves and focus on training boxers. He played ball for the local men’s team but the time spent behind the plate had taken its toll and after a year, Hamilton turned to coaching.
Hamilton’s passion for giving back to the sports he loved was unmatched, and his character never wavered - always willing, always present, and always smiling. Training and coaching hockey and baseball, he ensured everyone had a spot in the game. Parents were tasked with roles and Hamilton would find a place for the kids who could not play due to health or disabilities.
In an effort to give back, Hamilton sponsored a new club in the Grande Prairie area – the House of Athletics. The club was organized for boys aged 14-20 intended to sponsor sporting activities, including hockey and baseball tournaments.
“I like kids,” Hamilton was quoted in a story in the Grande Prairie Herald Tribune. “Somebody has to help them and I like it, so why not me?”
When he wasn’t training or coaching, Hamilton could be found volunteering in the community, including constructing hockey rinks.
Using his experience as a boxer and baseball player, Hamilton became the trainer for the local senior hockey team, the Grande Prairie Athletics. He was a crowd favourite and he often delivered words of advice and encouragement when tending to an injured player.
Hamilton’s contributions to the community did not go unnoticed. In a profile on Hamilton published at Grande Prairie Hockey Legends, Dave Emerson – who knew Hamilton while Emerson was a high school student - talked about Hamilton’s impact.
“Tommy’s activities and the example he set kept us off the streets,” recalled Emerson. “He was one of those few community-minded people who gave freely of his time on evenings and weekends coaching, caring for and organizing sports for kids. Tommy Hamilton was that person. He was all heart and he gave so much for so many of us young kids in that era.”
Some questioned why Hamilton never received much formal recognition. When the position of Athletic Director became available, it was thought that Hamilton would be a sure fit. But he ended up being passed over for the position.
After 12 years in Grande Prairie, Hamilton’s contributions to recreation and the community were known throughout the Peace Country, and he accepted the Athletic Director position in Dawson Creek. The Hamilton family moved to Pouce Coupe, and Hamilton continued to give back to the community in Dawson Creek.
In 1973, Hamilton was presented the Earl Johnson Memorial Award as Dawson Creek’s sportsman of the year.
Hamilton passed away suddenly in 1980, at the age of 66. The legacy that he left behind has made a lasting impact on recreation in the Peace River country.
For more information on Tommy Hamilton, and the significant impact he had on sports in northwestern Alberta, check out his profile at Grande Prairie Hockey Legends.