Hockey Great Honored
By DAVID JONES
HEART OF GRACE: Millard “Sonny Boy??? Wakeford shows his technique to Tulsa Oilers Coach Butch Kaebel (right) and assistant coach Dan Hodge at the Brighton Gardens, where Wakeford received the Heart of Grace award. Sitting is Wakeford’s wife of 76 years, Natalie.
ALICIA SHRUM for GTR Newspapers
It took awhile but Millard Wakeford had his day.
On Feb. 19 the one-time center for the Tulsa Oilers hockey team was honored with the first Heart of Grace award at the Brighton Gardens. The award is given to people who were once major figures in Tulsa history but whom the years might have forgotten.
Wakeford, nicknamed “Sonny Boy,” was once the toast of Tulsa hockey fans. When his team in Saskatoon, Canada dissolved in the spring of 1928 the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League purchased his contract. “Tulsa was just starting in the American Hockey Association and desperately needed players. I was one of five Chicago sent to fill the roster.”
Sonny Boy never made it higher than Tulsa (“I had a couple of interviews,” he remembers, “but they said at about 140 pounds I was too small.”) so he left his mark on the AHA record books. In his time in Tulsa, from 1928 to 1941, he was credited with playing the most games with 580, coming in second in goals scored with 217 (missing the leader by eight) and second in most career assists at 193.
“I was signed to a $2,500 contract, but then the Depression hit and people didn’t have money to come to the games so owners didn’t have money to pay the players. We’d get 50-cents here and a dollar there but nobody quit the team. We were realists. We couldn’t be paid with money nobody had.”
Economic difficulties aside, Sonny Boy knew some glory days. With the Tulsa home games in Sam Avey’s legendary Coliseum, which later burned down, he led the team to championships in 1929, 1931 and 1933.
Hockey wasn’t the only thing on his mind. While taking a few turns around the ice during public skating time on a 1930 morning he noticed a pretty young slip of a girl having problems. “She was edging around the ice, holding on to the railing, and I asked her if I could help. She said ‘yes’ if I could stay on my skates.”
Her name, she said, was Natalie, and last Christmas she and Sonny Boy celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary. She sat next to him during his day of celebration.
Slight as he was, he excelled at center. “I was small but I remember those corners. You used to have to go in there and mix it up with the big guys. I came out of there pretty banged up sometimes, but if I didn’t I’d be run off the ice.”
He gave as good as he got. He saw a lot of games from the penalty box.
Current Tulsa Oilers coach Butch Kaebel and assistant coach Dan Hodge came by to give Wakeford a hockey stick autographed by the current Oilers, players whose grandparents weren’t born when he was playing.
“Look at that uniform,” marveled Kaebel looking at a picture of Wakeford taken during his glory days. “Look how thin the gloves are. Look at the elbow pads and there are no shoulder pads. They just wore thick sweaters.”
Wakeford remembers the game could be pretty rough on the patrons, too. “The railing was about three feet high when I started and a slapshot could go right into the crowd. They later put up a wire screen to protect the customers.”
During the off-season Sonny Boy tried his hand as a carpenter and a car salesman. Preferring the former, he went into the business full-time when his playing days were over. For 40 years, he says, he oversaw the remodeling done in Tulsa’s Sears Department Store outlets.
“I retired when I was 90.”
He and Natalie had three children: Sonny, who died as a young child, Kathryn and Steven. They have four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren
He has another anniversary coming up. On July seventh of this year (07/07/07) he’ll hit the century mark, beating the state of Oklahoma’s reaching of that milestone by scant months.
It will be another reason to celebrate.