Think about it. No Marni Abbott and Richard Peter leading Canadian wheelchair basketball teams to Paralympic gold medals in recent years. No Vancouver Cable Cars with Eugene Reimer and Peter Colistro wheeling their magic on courts around BC in the 1970s. No place for a young Rick Hansen to get back into sport after the car accident. No opportunity for SFU basketball player Terry Fox to continue playing the sport he loved after his operation.

The Vancouver Dueck Powerglides not only introduced a new sport to this province, this little-known wheelchair basketball team inaugurated a rich tradition of excellence that continues to flourish today.

It began in 1950 with a small group of friends in a quiet gymnasium at Vancouver’s Western Rehabilitation Centre. Doug Mowat, future BC Sports Hall of Famer Stan Stronge, Jim Mackie, and Walter Schmidt saw a need for a sport people with disabilities could actively play. At first, there little more than pick-up games with service groups and local school kids. Mowat, who was working for the Dueck family’s car dealership on Broadway and Fir as the night salesman in the tire shop, convinced the Duecks to sponsor the team. After adding more players, coaches Norm Watt and Al Noble, and Mowat’s best friend John Allan as referee, the first organized wheelchair basketball team in British Columbia was born.

Most of the early players were victims of polio, some had been injured in logging accidents, and one player, Pat Bell, became a paraplegic when he was shot in the back while robbing a bank. Stronge had been one of Vancouver’s best soccer goalkeepers before a serious car accident. Some were married, most worked or went to school, but all desired to be involved in a real team sport. There were few options for people with disabilities before the Powerglides were formed.

Playing in bulky old chairs ill suited for any sort of fast-paced game, the players adapted and honed their skills, becoming remarkably proficient in spite of their equipment. And there was interest. The team’s first exhibition game in 1952 was played before a crowd of 2,700 at UBC’s War Memorial Gymnasium.

Touring the Pacific Northwest, the Powerglides amassed an impressive record of 74 wins and one loss against able-bodied competition playing in wheelchairs. One game they racked up 102 points. In 1953, a second team, the Ferguson KW’s, was formed and the two teams toured together playing one another. In 1959, the Powerglides joined the National Wheelchair Basketball Association playing teams from Washington and Oregon. The legendary Vic Cue joined the team as coach two years later, beginning a lifelong involvement in wheelchair sports.

The games were as much about educating the province about the game, as they were about creating awareness of the daily challenges faced by people with a disability. During intermissions of games, the players would demonstrate basic, but difficult skills the average able-bodied person never worried about, such as climbing down a set of stairs on a wheelchair’s back wheels.

The challenges for the players—and all persons with a disability for that matter—at that time were incredible. Simple developments common today, like lowered ramps on sidewalks, simply didn’t exist. The only way to get over a curb was to take a short run, raise the front wheels, and bounce the back wheels up and over. Worse was a 1950s law that restricted persons with a disability from driving a vehicle over 50km/hr. To have this ban lifted, Mowat organized ‘wheelchair rodeos’ in which players proved they could maneuver cars operated by hand levers as well or better than a regular car and driver. Although things didn’t change overnight, the efforts of the Powerglides were on the leading edge of a movement to break down hardened societal attitudes and create more awareness of the need for greater accessibility for all.

“Let us show what we can do” a Powerglides player remarked to a reporter in 1966. That message encapsulates so much of the spirit of the Vancouver Powerglides, a message and a spirit that lives on today.

Team Members:
John Allen (referee), Pat Bell, Jerry Blair, Lloyd Chamberlayne, Jack Colbeck, Peter Coleman, Don Cowgher, Vic Cue (coach), Lorne Davidson (trainer), Don Endicott, Bill Gaynor, Charlie Gunn, Mel Hamilton, Bill Inkster, Tom Jenkinson (coach), V. Joseph, Jim Mackie, B. Malcolm, B. Mason, Doug Mowat (manager), Al Noble, Bill Robson, Stan Stronge, Richard Wasnock, Norm Watt (coach), Doug Wilson (manager).

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.