Don Hilsendager: Preserving sports history

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When Don Hilsendager was named executive director of the North Battleford Sports Museum and Hall of Fame in 1998, it was a role he felt he’d only have for a few years.

“I had come on as a board of director in 1994 and Art Strueby was in the executive director role at the time,” Hilsendager said. “He was looking to retire a few years after I joined, and I had just retired from my job with the province, so I decided to take it on.

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“I thought I’d be here for three years but I’m still here. I guess people are thinking I’m doing a good job.”

As he enters the second decade in his role as the executive director, Hilsendager is still enjoying his role in helping to keep the legendary names and teams in local sports history alive in the region.

“Once you become a sports nut, you are always a sports nut,” Hilsendager said.

“Back in the old days, you’d always see the same people at the sporting events. All of the families who were at the rink for hockey were also at the curling rink during the week in the winter and then they were at the ball games during the summer. You pretty much knew everybody. I remember telling someone the other day that I didn’t know what street my friends lived on, I just drove to their house.”

Hilsendager was born and raised in Battleford and went to school there before his baseball career took him to North Battleford to play for the Junior Beavers in 1963.

“They were looking for a catcher, which was the position I played, and a pitcher, which was what a good friend of mine played,” Hilsendager said. “So we made our way up there and I played for the team until 1966.

“After that season, I was brought up to play for the Beavers team that was playing in the semi-pro ranks at the time, and I played for them until 1974 when we left the league that we were in. That was a pretty fun time.”

During the Beavers heyday, all of the players on the team would hang out with the top curlers in the area along with the members of North Battleford Beaver Bruins hockey team, which helped to build many friendships that still last to this day.

“I can remember a few years ago when everyone got together for the induction of the Battlefords North Stars team that won the SJHL (Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League) title in 2000, and one of the things we talked about how was we all wished that the Beaver name was still around for the hockey team here,” Hilsendager said.

“Obviously things change over the years, but everyone knew North Battleford for having the Beaver name for the hockey and baseball teams when I was growing up. I remember putting on that Beavers uniform for the first time and feeling so proud of myself that I was able to play for that team.”

His experience playing sports and knowing so much about the importance of athletics in the community plays a huge role in Hilsendager’s current role with the Sports Muesum and Hall of Fame, which covers a 60-mile radius around the Battlefords.

“During the course of the week you need to make sure the place is looking as good as it can down here for when people come in to inquire about a certain athlete or a team,” Hilsendager said.

“You need to have that knowledge to know where a certain athlete played and which team he or she was a part of, because it’s really important for the people that come down here and want to know that history.”

The North Battleford Sports Museum and Hall of Fame was incorporated in 1990 and moved into its current location in the basement of the North Battleford Public Library two years later.

“There was always an idea of this being a temporary location before moving elsewhere,” Hilsendager said.

“There was talk at one time of moving into the Civic Centre and having the Hall of Fame upstairs, but it would have been hard for people to access and there wouldn’t be the room that we have here now. There was also talk of moving into the old Royal Bank building downtown, but we decided to put our eggs in one basket down here and we fixed it up to what you see here today.”

The museum is always on the search for donations, many of which come to them in unexpected ways.

“We’ve had a couple of good examples of that over the last couple of weeks,” Hilsendager said. “A lady came down to the museum recently and donated her catcher’s glove that she used when she played for the North Battleford Red Socks ladies fastball team in 1949, which we have inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Then just the other day, the Northwest Hockey Development Association came down and donated the sweater, plaque and all of the information that came from the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony that took place here this past month. That’s such a great artifact that they wanted to put on display here and it means a lot for us to have them bring it here.”

Of all the priceless artifacts in the museum, there are a couple that stand out the most for Hilsendager.

“We have a photo of Emile Francis shaking hands with Ronald Reagan when he was the President of the United States,” Hilsendager said. “For a guy from North Battleford that grew up here and worked his way through the chain to become the head coach and general manager of the New York Rangers and eventually own the St. Louis Blues is pretty amazing.

“Another that stands came to mind the other day when I read the article in the paper about the lighter that was found on the old Abbott Field ground. We have a watch down here that belonged to Jack Abbott that was given to him from the citizens of North Battleford. It’s engraved on the back of it and it was given to him as part of the 1937 North Battleford Beavers hockey team that went to the Allen Cup. There’s so much stuff down here that a lot of people don’t know about.”

While Hilsendager plans to keep in his role for a little while, his main goal is to help find more items for the museum and eventually put together another induction class for the hall.

“It’s been about a decade since our class went in, but it’s always tough to get that organized as everyone has events on the go,” Hilsendager said. “We’re looking to get some younger blood on the board of directors as well, so that might help in getting another event like that in future.

“We’re always adding new items all the time down here and we accept all donations. However, one thing I will say is to make sure that the family is okay with parting with those items as many of them have had them for such a long time.”

The North Battlefords Sports Hall of Fame and Museum is open Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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