Today’s Ernie’s Sports Experts may be leading edge with over 70,000 square feet of retail space in the Peace Country, but our history goes back over 50 years. Today, Ernie’s Sports Experts is a far cry from what Ernie and Irma Radbourne started out with when they bought Pete Wright's Sports store in 1968. Darrell Radbourne says, "It was certainly a mom and pop store for a good many years. In those days, majority of the stock in the store was fishing tackle, rods, reels, guns and ammunition, filling the needs of local outdoorsmen. Dad (Ernie) was the business leader and Mum (Irma) was the heart of our little store. Her commitment to customer satisfaction helped build a client base that has lasted decades. Today we still have customers come in and tell us how their grandmother used to shop at Ernie’s II For Ladies, a small ladies apparel store we had downtown in the early 80s. Mum would bring in items specifically for her clients. We’ll never lose that small-town experience where it feels like you’re shopping with your neighbors.”
Starting in a space of 1,100 square feet in downtown Grande Prairie, Alberta, the Radbournes built their business up, moving to a few different locations in Grande Prairie and adding key team members as they grew. Throughout the years the Radbourne’s youngest son, Darrell, and his wife Joan became actively involved in the store’s operation. Today the family atmosphere grows with Ernie and Irma’s grandson Dean Radbourne as a partner with Darrell and Joan. “From downtown to our current location, we’ve always been a local family-owned business deeply rooted in our community. We always will be.” says Darrell. During the 1990s, Ernie and Irma quite happily began to take a back seat, and it became Darrell, Joan, and Dean that now actively operate the store. Although, until the early 2000s, it was never a surprise to see the founding Radbournes in-store to visit the team, hopefully to bring some home-baked goods from Irma’s kitchen.
With many moves and expansions along the way, the Radbourne family made their most significant move in 1999 when they opened their 50,000 square foot location on the corner of 100th street and 116th avenue in Grande Prairie. "It was a major decision for us. Our family has worked long and hard for over 30 years and this is the culmination of that effort," said Ernie at the time. "The construction of our new location is a massive reinvestment in our business and the community that has supported us since 1968," he added.
Indeed, the Radbourne family is quick to credit others for a large part of their success. “Over the years the Peace Country has been very, very good to us. Incredibly supportive. We, in turn, have worked hard to respond to that commitment by giving back to the community” says Darrell. To that end, Ernie’s Sports continues to be actively involved in supporting minor sports throughout the region, as well as organizations such as the Grande Prairie Hospital Foundation, Nitehawk Ski Area and Adventure Park, the Grande Prairie Regional College, the 2010 Arctic Winter Games and the 2018 Alberta Summer Games. Darrell explains “Mum and Dad both knew the value of community and worked hard to be a positive force in the Peace Country (Ernie was even a multi-term City Councilor). Community has always been part of the foundation of our family business and I hope we’re still making them proud”.
In March 1999, as part of the move to the new facility, Ernie's Sports aligned itself with one of the biggest players in the sporting goods industry, The Forzani Group Limited. “The Forzani Group is one of Canada’s largest sporting goods retailers and we’re excited to be a partner with them,” says Darrell. The move to become part of the Forzani Group brought with it an improved broadness and selection of sporting goods, footwear and apparel. Darrell adds, “We introduced a lot of new aspects into our store, such as a one-of-a-kind shoe wall that boasts the largest athletic and casual footwear selection in the Peace Country as well as a massive apparel department with the best brands in technical, outdoor, athletic and fashion clothing. We are now the largest partner for amazing brands like Burton, DC, Columbia, The North Face and Fox in the Peace Country. Of course, we’re still Grande Prairie’s sports headquarters too. Ski and snowboard equipment, soccer and volleyball gear, bicycles from Trek, Norco and Specialized, fitness equipment, racquet sports and not to mention the largest hockey specialty shop north of Edmonton, are still a large part of the new Ernie’s Sports Experts.”
While 1999 came with a new beautiful retail store, it also gave the Radbourne family a chance to expand and update their already industry-leading Pro Service Department. “Ernie’s Sports Experts is still the place to take your skates to get sharpened,” says Darrell. “In fact we’re very proud of our state of the art Pro Service Shop. From skates and hockey equipment to skis and snowboards, to bikes and racquets we service it all. For instance, when you look at our Pro Service Shop and see our Wintersteiger ski tuning you know it is going to be done properly," adds Darrell, noting service will always be a big part of Ernie's Sports Experts. Ernie’s is one of the only service departments in the country with a laser-guided fully automated ski and snowboard tuner. They can perfectly tune, wax, and sharpen your skis faster than they can sharpen your skates.
In 2005, the Radbourne Family recognized further expansion was needed and so Ernie’s Fitness Experts (9,000 square feet of dedicated fitness equipment and specialty items – perfect for the home and institutional fitness consumer) and ProSport Clothing Company were opened in the same strip mall as the main Ernie’s Sports Experts store. This move allowed the fitness department, the Team and Corporate division (ProSport) as well as all the remaining departments in the main store to expand significantly. ProSport Clothing Company truly became the Peace Country leader for any teams, schools, groups, associations, or corporations needing custom uniforms, apparel, equipment, or promotional products (please check out www.prosport.gp to see all that our team can offer).
2007 brought another significant and notable change to the Ernie’s Sports Experts legacy. The Radbourne family partnered with Fort St. John local sporting goods retailers Andrew and Laura Leriger (who at the time were owner/operators of Lugi’s Source For Sports) and Ernie’s Sports Experts Fort St. John opened a 20 000 square foot location in the Totem Mall. The Leriger family, both Andrew and Laura natives of Fort St. John, had deep roots in the community and were a perfect fit to become the first new partners outside the Radbourne family. At the time Andrew said, “We have known that Ernie’s Sports and Lugi’s Sports have had the same community impact in our respected towns over the years. So Laura and I were very excited when the chance to work together here in Fort St. John came to us. We knew that with both GP and FSJ now having these beautiful stores we really could do our best to support the entire Peace Country”. Today the Ernie’s family keeps growing with Madison Leriger (Andrew and Laura’s youngest daughter) and her partner Travis McLean (another Fort St. John native) working as managers in the store.
Over the following years, the Ernie’s Sports Experts stores continued to expand and evolve; in 2021 came one of their largest new ventures with the launch of www.ernies.ca. The Ernie’s family are proud and excited to share their store with the rest of the world. From 1,100 square feet in 1968 with 3 employees (Ernie, Irma, and Darrell Radbourne) to over 100,000 square feet of brick-and-mortar retail space in Grande Prairie and Fort St. John and over 100 employees, the families behind Ernie’s Sports Experts hope that the rest of Canada will enjoy having access to over 400 of the best brands in footwear, apparel and sporting goods equipment while still feeling like they’re shopping with family.
Getting back to the community, Darrell says, “Maybe it’s the Northern spirit or distance from our provincial capital, but the entire Peace Country seems to be very supportive of one another. Grande Prairie and area have been very, very supportive of our family business. We’re indeed fortunate to call Grande Prairie home” The end result – Grande Prairie and Fort St. John are now home to one of Canada’s most exciting sporting goods retailers, Ernie’s Sports Experts.