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Yellowknife's favourite 'ambassador' remembered

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

YELLOWKNIFE - Few people alive can claim to have an arena or a street or even a breakfast sandwich named after them, but Clarence "Shorty" Brown could.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Brown started his Skates for Kids program 15 years ago in an effort to supply children in Northern communities with skates and hockey equipment. - NNSL file photo

The Northern icon died last Friday at the age of 77 with his family at his side at Stanton Territorial Hospital.

His death came suddenly. On Wednesday afternoon, Brown was flipping burgers in the NorthwesTel parking lot in a show of appreciation for staff with Bellanca Developments - a company Brown helped found and one of the largest commercial real estate holders in Yellowknife.

Early the next morning at around 1:30 a.m., Brown woke up and complained to his wife of 50 years, Mickey, that he wasn't feeling well. He was rushed to hospital but did not recover. He died Friday morning of heart failure.

"He's been thumbing his nose at Doctor Death for a long time," said his son Rod from his home on Kasteel Drive, a few blocks down from Brown Court, which the city named after his dad 13 years ago.

"He ended up having a heart attack when he was 49, and then he had a triple-bypass, which at that point back then, if you get 10 years out of it you were doing well.

"Dad ended up getting like 29 years out of it."

Though Brown was a man of many honours, including his induction into the Order of Canada by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson in 2004, family members say he never sought out the limelight. It just sort of followed him.

"Those were things dad didn't go looking for," said daughter Cindy McLean.

"He was just good to everybody. He gave everybody on the street the time of day. I think that's where it sort of evolved."

Born in Yorkton, Sask., in 1930 to a family that included seven brothers and two sisters, Brown first came to Yellowknife in 1951 after doing a stint in the Alberta oil patch to play hockey for the Town Indians.

The team represented the city in an ultra-competitive league that regularly saw Yellowknife's mining community hire on ringers to bolster its chances of claiming the town's hockey bragging rights.

Measuring only 5'1", the right winger Brown was a sparkplug on ice who checked hard and skated faster than most other players.

Roger Gelinas, who claimed league MVP honours in 1952, played for the rival Con Mine team.

He said the Town Indians, including Brown, were labelled "cream puffs" because they generally held easier jobs while the mining team players were forced to toil underground.

Nonetheless, the two became fast friends. Both went off to the Netherlands in 1955 to play hockey for the national team where they played on the same line, which he jokingly refers to as the "Helicopter Line."

"He could really skate you know,' said Gelinas.

"We used to call him the helicopter on skates. If you put spare skates on a helicopter and get it going five feet off the ground that was Shorty."

It was in the Netherlands where Brown met his bride, a native Dutch girl who couldn't speak any English. They married in 1957, after which Brown brought Mickey back to Canada and to Yellowknife where he had a job waiting. They stayed and raised a family of two daughters and one son.

Rod said his father loved Yellowknife because after bouncing around the Prairies growing up, everybody seemed to be family in close-knit Yellowknife.

Brown told his son this as the pair made their way back to Yellowknife from Edmonton several days ago where Rod was helping his dad pick out a new vehicle.

"It was kind of spooky because when we drove up I asked dad why we ended up in Yellowknife, and his big thing was that he had a family in Saskatchewan but they were all dispersed," said Rod.

"He said when he came to Yellowknife it was like everybody was your family."

"As soon as he arrived here it was like a big family, and that extends to all the pieces of the North, not just Yellowknife," said McLean.

"Someone was telling me every time he goes to Holman everybody has to go up to dad and give him a hug."

His adopted family included John Parker, mayor of Yellowknife from 1965 to 1967. The two met in Uranium City, Sask., in 1953 while working for expediting firm Pre-Cambrian Mining Services, a company founded by Yellowknife resident Norm Byrne Sr.

"We've lost an awfully good man and a great community person," said Parker, who was in Yellowknife when Brown died and had been planning to meet him for coffee Friday afternoon.

"He turned his hand to all sorts of things, ended up running a good business, and he ended up doing a great deal of public service."

The two men eventually bought out Byrne and they continued shipping food and mining supplies around the North.

In the early 1970s, Pre-Cambrian morphed into Bellanca Developments. Brown started the property development company with Bill Knutsen.

From that partnership came some of Yellowknife's largest and most recognizable buildings downtown, including the Bellanca Building, the Pre-Cambrian tower, the Scotia Centre, and the NorthwesTel tower.

The company was sold to Dundee Real Estate Income Trust last year for an undisclosed amount, rumoured in the tens of millions of dollars. Brown stayed on with the company as vice-president of development.

About 15 years ago, Brown started the program Skates for Kids.

He got the idea after travelling through Northern communities and seeing children who didn't have any.

Over the years, Brown was responsible for distributing more than 8,000 pairs of skates and eight tonnes of hockey equipment to communities across the North.

"He's always got along well with all the communities up North," said Rod.

"He just saw a need to try and help out a bit. I think because Yellowknife and the North provided so much to him that he really wanted to do something back."

In 2004, Brown received two honours: the Order of Canada medal, and an ice pad at the Multiplex arena was built under his name.

Gelinas said it was only fitting for a man who found time outside his family and busy work schedule to coach scores of kids in hockey plus organize the skate program.

"He did so much for minor hockey there," said Gelinas.

"One thing about Shorty, he was always promoting Yellowknife. He was probably the best ambassador that town ever had."

"He took a peewee team to a Quebec tournament. He knew they weren't going to win but he wanted to let everyone know that the little kids from Yellowknife could play hockey as well."

When Brown wasn't working, he enjoyed going to his cabin on Defeat Lake, where he would spend hours raking out the holes on the beach left behind by son's dog Buck.

In the winter, Brown and Mickey went Hawaii and were often joined there by family.

McLean said her family has been particularly blessed because, unlike most people living in Yellowknife, the entire family going back three generations still lives here.

"Of course, we're upset that this happened to dad but at the same time, my God, we're so fortunate to have so many days with him and that we all live here," said McLean.

"Our parents were around us all the time."

Brown is survived by his wife Mickey, daughters Margo and Cindy, son Roddy and grandchildren Breanne, Hailey, Jodi, Garrett, Carson and Warren.

A ceremony commemorating the life of Shorty Brown takes place this Friday at the Arctic Sunwest hanger, starting at 2 p.m. Hundreds are expected to attend.