It just seems natural to lead off the Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame class of 2008 with Danny Hodgson.

Hodgson, best known as the first Fort McMurray Minor Hockey product to make it to the NHL, is a true pioneer for any local athlete who inspires to be something greater.

“I look at it as I’m someone who went out first,” said Hodgson. “And that’s a special honour. Fort McMurray was built on pioneers, like Peter Pond, who set the paths for other people and showed what we can do. I’m very proud of that.”

He was born in Fort Vermillion Aug. 29, 1965 but moved to Fort McMurray at the age of two. There he blossomed into one of the best young players to take the ice at the old Town Site Arena.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better community as a kid growing up,” he said. “I think I had the best neighbourhood in the world. I had 50 little friends around and we were always playing something.”

After dominating minor hockey, Hodgson’s father decided to move his 14-year-old son, daughter Dwila and wife to Edmonton so Hodgson could compete at a higher level of hockey. His father would remain in Fort McMurray to work while Hodgson suited up for the Scott Pump Bantam squad.

Following a stellar bantam season, Hodgson caught the eye of the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Flyers, who recruited the 15-year-old and placed him on their Junior A affiliate, the Cowichan Valley Capitals.

Hodgson made the Flyers at 16, but did not join the team and decided to play another year in Cowichan Valley. That decision changed Hodgson’s path for the rest of his life. Spokane would fold as a franchise and many of their players were dispersed across the WHL.

However, the 50-man roster remained intact and was purchased by the incoming Prince Albert Raiders. Hodgson joined the team in the 1982-83 season and made an instant impact.

The first-year centre netted 56 goals and 74 assists, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year honour, beating out Portland Winter Hawks forward and hall-of-famer Cam Neely.

Hodgson was drafted in the fifth round 83rd overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs following his rookie year.

“To come from here and walk out of here from the neighborhood I lived in, all of our roots, before any of this was here is pretty special,” said Hodgson.

“Fort McMurray has produced a ton of great athletes and it’s great to be a part of that.”

In 1983-84, Hodgson finished second in league scoring with 181 points behind Ray Ferraro of the Brandon Wheat Kings. However, Hodgson played six fewer games due to his selection to the Team Canada’s World Junior Championship squad.

The next year, would go on to be what Hodgson’s calls his “fantasy season.” Hodgson would again place second in WHL scoring with 182 points, but would captain Prince Albert to an impressive Memorial Cup march.

He also set the record for most assists in a Memorial Cup game with five and most assists in the tournament with 13. Both still stand today.

Hodgson was named the Canadian Major Junior Hockey Player of the Year and broke Bobby Clark’s all-time WHL season assist record after collecting 112 helpers.

Adding to the accomplishments of the ’85 season was a gold medal performance by Hodgson, who captained Team Canada at the 1985 World Junior Championships in Finland.

“A lot of people still consider that (year) one of the best individual junior hockey seasons ever,” he said. “It was very, very special to me.”

Hodgson made the jump to the pros the following season. He missed the start of the 1985-86 schedule due to injury, but recorded 25 points in 40 games for Toronto.

He would spend the next two seasons playing with the St. Catharines/Newmarket Saints in the American Hockey League. There Hodgson totalled 48 points in 42 games between 1985 and 1987.

Hodgson bounced between the Vancouver Canucks, the AHL and the International Hockey League for the next three seasons. He scored 16 goals and posted 33 assists in 74 games with Vancouver.

In the 1990s, Hodgson made the leap overseas to play in Switzerland’s League A. During that time he was also a stand-out member of eight Canadian Spengler Cup teams.

He suited up for the Munich Hedos of the German Bundesliga for two seasons, but played most his European hockey with HC Davos and Zurich SC Lions until retiring with Fribourg-Gotteron in 2005.

Currently Hodgson owns a consulting group and has part ownership in a commercial real estate group. He enjoys writing songs and poems as well as developing new inventions.

He has a 16-year-old son, Kevin, and a 13-year-old daughter, Larisa, who live in Switzerland with his ex-wife Eva. Hodgson is planning to re-marry next summer to his fiancee Sammy Chow.

Hodgson will be officially inducted into the Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame at the organization’s dinner Sept. 18. He will be joined by three other local sports heroes that will be revealed later this month.

“I’m ecstatic. Not just for myself. I’m ecstatic for a lot of reasons,” said Hodgson. “My mom and dad and my family. My friends who I grew up with.”

“Anything you put your mind to, you can do,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, because you can.”

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