Thursday, October 24, 2019

How the Heritage Classic in Saskatchewan is bringing outdoor hockey back to its roots

Image result for heritage classic regina

Ask Dave King about what hockey means to his home province and he talks you through a guided tour of some of Saskatchewan’s lesser-known parts.

“It goes beyond just Gordie Howe,” the former NHL coach and member of the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame said. “If you drive through Saskatchewan and get to Foam Lake, there’ll be a sign that says: ‘Home of Bernie Federko.’ When you go through Val Marie, the sign says: ‘Home of Bryan Trottier.’ Some towns have got three or four players, and they’ll list those players’ names on a billboard outside of town.

“We’ve had a romance with the game for a long time.”

Saskatchewan may not be the birthplace of hockey, but the game’s roots are firmly embedded here — in the geography and the climate, in the people and the land. If a sport can have a beating pulse, you can hear it thump, thump, thumping here.

Area-wise, the province is almost four times the size of New England, but its population is less than a quarter of Boston’s.

And yet, Saskatchewan has produced an outsized amount of hockey talent. The greatest female player of all time, Hayley Wickenheiser, is from Shaunavon; and yes, Mr. Hockey was from Floral.

To King’s point, it doesn’t stop there. The generations of players, coaches and managers born and raised in Saskatchewan, who eventually left their mark on the hockey world reads like a who’s who of the game’s greatest legends. There was Elmer Lach and the Bentley brothers, Doug and Max. Emile Francis and Sid Abel. Johnny Bower and Glenn Hall. Trottier and Wendel Clark, Federko and Red Berenson. The McCrimmon boys, Brad and Kelly. The Odeleins, Lyle and Selmar. Other hard-knock guys: Joey Kocur, Dave Manson, Tiger Williams and Kelly Chase. Current NHLers: Patrick Marleau, Ryan Getzlaf and Jordan Eberle. Pivotal administrators: Charles and Bill Hay. The expansive coaching tree: King, Mike Babcock, Todd McLellan. Berenson qualifies in that category too.

Long before Shattuck St. Mary’s became the must-attend preparatory school for teenage players in North America, Saskatchewan had Notre Dame College, in Wilcox, run by Father Athol Murray. Today, it would be described as an academy, perhaps even an incubator. In those days, it was a barebones boarding school in a tiny Prairie town that grew into a national feeder institution.

In addition to all its homegrown talent, Saskatchewan has also drawn players from all over the world so they could hone their craft in their formative years. Mike Modano left a comfortable middle-class Detroit suburb to play in Prince Albert. So did Leon Draisaitl (of Cologne, Germany). So did Josh Morrissey (of Calgary, Alberta). Future Tampa Bay Lightning teammates (and Stanley Cup champions) Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier landed in Wilcox. Every other punchline in the movie “Slap Shot” is seemingly peppered with references to the province; to Eddie Shore (of the Cupar Canucks) and to old-time hockey. Saskatchewan hockey.

This weekend, the NHL has found Saskatchewan again in a splashy, visible way. During the era of the “neutral” site games, the NHL previously played six regular-season games in Saskatoon, all at SaskPlace.

But the 2019 edition of the Heritage Classic will bring the NHL’s first-ever regular-season outdoor game to the province. It will take place Saturday night – live on Hockey Night In Canada — at Mosaic Field, home of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. The game will feature the two NHL teams from neighbouring provinces – the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets. The long-range forecast calls for moderate temperatures, with the snow not expected to fall until Sunday.

In some ways, scheduling the game for January might have been a truer reflection of what outdoor hockey really looks like in Saskatchewan, because by then, winter will have genuinely and forcefully sunk in. A night in late-October should be a comparative skate in the park by the local standard — no extra layer of long underwear required.

But for this event, the where matters far more than the when.

Outdoor hockey conjures up images of the game at its most basic grassroots level, and if there is a place where the grassroots element remain an actual fact of hockey life, it is here in Saskatchewan.

Because here in Saskatchewan, the temperatures still get cold enough for the ice to freeze on its own – and then stay frozen for long stretches of winter.

“There’s an old Saskatchewan expression that maybe reflects a little bit of old-school thinking is, but it’s true: You can’t love the game of hockey until you freeze your toes a little bit,” King said. “I would compare the outdoor hockey tradition in Saskatchewan to the kids that played inner-city basketball in the United States. It’s a pick-up game. No referees, no rules really. You can do what you want to do. And you’d see that in hockey in Saskatchewan.

“On a Sunday afternoon, you’d play down at the rink – with grown-ups. You might be 10 or 11, and you’d be playing pick-up hockey with people who are way older than you, and way better than you. So, if you wanted the puck, you had to really work hard to get it; and when you had it, you had to work really hard to keep it.

“Often, you’d have to clear the rink of snow before you could play. And on a snowy night, you’d sometimes have to stop the game to scrape the ice a little – and then you’d go back and play again.”

Federko is one of the dozens of Hockey Hall of Famers who began playing hockey, both indoors and outdoors, in a small Saskatchewan town. Many are known for their toughness and grit. Federko had that too – but also an uncommon skill level that eventually helped him score 1,130 points in 1,000 NHL career games. For years now, Federko has been a television analyst for the St. Louis Blues, a team that had three Saskatchewan-born players on its 2019 Stanley Cup team.

Federko described his upbringing in Foam Lake as “pretty typical” for a small Saskatchewan town. Geographically, it is located smack dab in the middle of the Prairies, with all the surrounding land dead flat. The only trees that grew were the ones the townspeople planted. In the summer, the weather got hot and windy. In winters, cold and windy.

“A town in Saskatchewan is judged by how many grain elevators it had,” explained Federko. “We had seven or eight, so that made us a big town, one of the bigger towns on the Yellowhead highway.”

The original rink in Foam Lake was across the street from where the Federkos lived, but it burned down when Bernie was five or six years old. When they built the new recreation centre, they moved it to the edge of town, by the railroad tracks. That eventually became the main hangout for Federko, his brothers and his friends. But once winter socked in, they didn’t have to go very far to play.

“Dad used to flood the garden for us,” Federko said. “By Halloween, it was cold enough to freeze, and so we had outdoor ice, usually from the end of October until about mid-March. The snow would get so high that sometimes it would be six or eight feet high around the boards because you’d be shovelling it all winter. There’d be only one way in eventually, and the puck would almost never go out of the rink because the snowbanks were so high.”

Part of the challenge of growing up in a small town in that era was avoiding boredom, Federko said. Keeping busy was a priority.

“As kids, because there was only one channel on the TV, you grew up finding things to do,” Federko said. “We played baseball, cricket, kick the can, rode our bikes – anything to pass the time.

“We lived a block away from the high school, where my uncle was the caretaker. So, we used to go to the gym and shoot hoops – help him sweep up and clean the chalkboards and that let us spend some time in the gym. It was a town of 1,200 people; so, you knew everybody and everybody knew you; and you could come and go as you please.”

According to Federko, everyone in his circle shared the same essential values – and knew early on in life that the only way to prosper was through hard work. Eventually, to make their way in the world, they also knew they had to leave their small towns behind. It didn’t mean you couldn’t come back – because most still do, to pay the debt forward. But when once you were out there, pursuing your dreams in the larger world, your roots gave you stability and structure.

“When I think back to my entry into the game and my brothers’ entry and my friends, here’s what I would tell you: In Saskatchewan, we’re given and then we earn,” said McLellan, the Los Angeles Kings’ head coach. “Our parents would go out and get us all our equipment and take us to the rink, and put us out there. That’s given to us.

“From there, they made us earn it. For example, for us to continue to play the game, school was important. School came first. My parents also stressed proper etiquette at home; respect for elders; being on time; participating in a team environment; work ethic. There was never a lot of systems stuff when we played. It was ‘put your work boots on and go to work.’”

McLellan is listed in his NHL biography as being from Melville, but he grew up in Goodsoil, listed on Wikipedia as the “central gateway to Meadow Lake provincial park.” Current population: 281. It is also home to former Ranger Ron Greschner, whom McLellan describes as “the NHL guy that we all knew.” In Goodsoil, the only paved street was the highway.

“But every other street, the snow just got so packed down that when I was younger, I remember sometimes skating to school,” McLellan said.

Almost always, they would bring their hockey sticks along.

“If you took a hockey stick to school now, they’d probably view it as a weapon,” McLellan said, “but back then, we would put them in our lockers and as soon as the bell rang, you’d go outside and play hockey. Every school had an outdoor rink and there could be four different games going on at the same time. After school, you didn’t go home. You went out on the rink. Some kids played in their boots, some in their skates. Instinctually, that gave us a lot of creativity in the game. It wasn’t at all structured. It was just fun.”

If there is a further common thread linking players and officials from small-town Saskatchewan, it is that focus on community.

For years, every social interaction was filtered through the local hockey or curling rink, said King.

“It’s changing quite a bit now, but in the past, the curling rink or the hockey rink usually had a concession stand so in the mornings, people would gather there to have a coffee,” King said. “It gave people a place to socialize. Now that’s been replaced a little bit by Tim Horton’s.

“But when I was a little guy, everyone went to the rink. I lived in Battleford, a little town right across the river from North Battleford, so we – all of us as kids – you had a game either Friday or Saturday in your community and we’d all go. There wasn’t TV like there is now, where you could compare the product, so we thought our level of hockey was the best. We thought our players were like NHL players.”

And if something ever happened to the rink, it could be disastrous for the town. Former NHLer Gord Sherven – one of 48 members of Notre Dame’s Wall of Honor – grew up in Mankota, a small community, where he says he had his own key to the rink.

“Everybody went to the rink in winter because there was nowhere else to go,” Sherven said. “That was the heartbeat of the community. People would go there in the mornings and just sit and watch a hockey game.

“In 2002, the rink in Mankota was condemned – the Centennial Arena, built in 1967 – and they couldn’t get it insured anymore, so they had to tear it down.

“All of a sudden, boom, it seemed like the heart and the pulse of the community was gone. They still had the curling rink, but it wasn’t the same. My brother was still living there at the time and said, ‘We will never be the same town without the arena.’ I mean, they still had an outdoor sheet, but the kids had to go and play for teams in other towns. It was just not the same after they lost the rink.”

Some of those Saskatchewan communities were so tiny they had to combine forces with other towns to ice a proper team. In his bantam year, Federko says Foam Lake combined with Kelvington to form a team that played in the provincial B division – which was designed for towns with populations under 2,000.

“Even with the towns combined, we were still under 2,000,” Federko said. “It’s where I got to know Barry Melrose really well. We played together on the same teams and actually won the provincials when I was 13 – our first taste of playing (province-wide).”

Hailing from a too-small town actually helped some players progress faster through the ranks, according to King.

“If a young guy was 12 or 13, and wanted to play competitively, one of two things usually happened,” King said. “Either he might have to go to another community because there might not be enough 12- or 13-year-olds in your community to form a team. Or failing that, you would play up, at a higher age level.

“So, you’d enter a team in a 14-year-old league, but fill out the roster with a lot of 12- and 13-year-olds. For a lot of our young players, that’s how they got so good – because they were playing above their heads, at a young age. That gave them a real kick start, in their development.”

If there is such a thing as an urban hockey tradition in a mostly rural province, it is focused on two cities – Saskatoon (current population 246,376) and Regina (236,481).

Among current NHL players from Regina, the New York Islanders’ Jordan Eberle has perhaps the deepest connection. He was born in Regina in 1990, played his novice for the Regina tier-1 Kings and moved to Wilcox to play one year of bantam as a 14-year-old at Notre Dame.

He was drafted in the seventh round by the Regina Pats, his hometown Western Hockey League team, and after spending one year playing midget hockey in Calgary for the AAA Buffaloes, he spent the next four seasons with the Pats — culminating in 2010, when he was named the Canadian Hockey League player of the year. Eberle, who grew up as a fan of the Oilers, eventually started his NHL career in Edmonton but says a lot of the rural hockey experiences of his peers were also mirrored in his upbringing in the (comparatively) big city.

“In summer, we’d use the community rink for ball hockey, and in winter, they’d flood it when it got cold enough,” Eberle said. “That was close to where I lived so I would say the majority of the outdoor hockey I played was there. But we also had a backyard rink.

“There was something you could buy at Canadian Tire – an inflatable thin plastic sheet that you could fill with water, and then it would freeze and you would peel the plastic off and that was your outdoor rink. My dad did that for us every year. I mean, it was tiny – just enough that you could take five strides and make a play and shoot. I skated on that thing hundreds of times with my brothers and sisters.

Eberle’s parents now live in Calgary in the lake community of Auburn Bay, and back in his Oiler days, he would drive down the highway to spend Christmas with his family. Part of the tradition was playing shinny – but this was a completely different outdoor experience than his youth.

“They have their own Zamboni and the ice is pristine,” Eberle said. “The weather there was pretty nice too, so you’d be out there, just in a track suit and gloves — and it was awesome.

“But when I was outdoor playing as a kid in Regina, it could get to minus-40 – and I’d still be out there playing. Even playing in indoor rinks, as a kid, I remember the air would flow through them, and you literally had to wear mini-mitts under your hockey gloves, because it was so cold and your hands would freeze.”

This past summer, the Blues’ Saskatchewan trio – of Tyler Bozak, Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz — brought the Stanley Cup to Mosaic Field to celebrate the championship during a CFL game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Calgary Stampeders. The trio wore their Blues jerseys, but at an appropriate moment in the ceremony, stripped them off to reveal Rider jerseys. The place went wild.

Spending a day with the Stanley Cup is now both a long-standing tradition and a worldwide phenomenon, but according to Federko, it didn’t change the fact that its appearance at a ‘Rider game really resonated with the people of Saskatchewan.

“Maybe it’s just our upbringing that makes you never forget where you come from,” Federko said. “The neat thing about the Saskatchewan boys is they wanted to bring it back to where it all started. It’s important – where you came from, and to show your thankfulness to the people who supported you early in our lives.”

According to King, that tradition – of thankfulness — dates back generations in Saskatchewan.

“As a young player, I played for Vic Lynn,” King said. “Lynn played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and he won the Stanley Cup (three times: in 1947, 1948 and 1949). His nickname was Bear – because he was a big, thick, strong guy, a real competitor and he was one of the greatest guys to play for because you always knew where you stood with him. He’d played in the NHL. He lived in some big cities down east. But he never lost touch with his Saskatchewan roots. He was a real bread-and-butter kind of a guy. He was just so humble, a straight-forward, honest man.

“I’ve met so many hockey people like him, who never lost that flavour of Saskatchewan, even though they made it to the big time and made big bucks by the standards of those days. Gordie Howe used to come back in the summertime to Waskesiu, him and Johnny Bower. Johnny had the hamburger place and used to flip hamburgers and hot dogs; and Gordie worked at the golf course, cutting the greens. They had to do that to supplement their salaries. Even now, our NHL players who are making big money still come back to Saskatchewan.

Perhaps the best example of hockey’s humble Saskatchewan origins is the presence of Notre Dame College, officially known as Athol Murray College of Notre Dame. Founded in 1920 by The Sisters of Charity of St. Louis as a residential elementary and high school for boys and girls, its motto reflects ingrained Saskatchewan values: “Struggle and emerge.” Its current mission statement: “To develop young men and women to become purposeful leaders, with virtuous character.”

In the beginning, Notre Dame had no running water or central heating.

“They got old railroad boxcars and that’s what they converted into dormitories,” King said. “They would glue newspapers to the walls to keep the breeze from going through too quickly. At Notre Dame, you went to school and you played hockey. That’s basically all there was.

In addition to Richards, Lecavalier and Clark, Notre Dame’s alumni also includes Eberle, Gord Kluzak and both Jaden and Mandy Schwartz. Three current NHL coaches (Barry Trotz, Jon Cooper and Rod Brind’Amour) are all grads — as is current Alberta premier Jason Kenney. Sherven was recruited to Notre Dame by Martin Kenney, Jason’s father, who was the school president for 17 years (1975-1992).

“Back in the day, it’d be minus 20 or minus 30 degrees out and they froze in those dorms,” Sherven said. “They would put a coal stove in the back of a cloth-covered truck, and the players would all pile in the back and that’s how they went to hockey games.

Sherven was recruited to play on the Notre Dame bantam team when he was 14 and remembers how “the first month was tough. I was in Grade 10. It was a very hard school – the old boy/new boy system. You’d listen to what the old boys did and there were consequences when you didn’t. But within a month, the hockey started. I loved it. Terry O’Malley was my first coach. Arguably, Terry along with Barry McKenzie, were the two best coaches for development anywhere in Canada. They’d just left Father Bauer and the national program; from a development standpoint, it couldn’t have been better.”

In the WHL’s current 22-team incarnation, five franchises are based in Saskatchewan: The Pats, the Saskatoon Blades, the Prince Albert Raiders, the Moose Jaw Warriors and the Swift Current Broncos. In 1986, four players on the Broncos died in a bus crash on the Trans-Canada highway bound for a game in Regina. The survivors included Joe Sakic, the future Hall of Famer; and Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHLer who became an activist for players’ rights.

Eighteen months ago, a second bus tragedy befell the province, when the Humboldt Broncos bus, heading to a Saskatchewan Junior League playoff game in Nipawin, was hit by a tractor-trailer truck. That collision took 15 lives. In its immediate aftermath, the NHL’s Saskatchewan community rallied behind the community, offering assistance however they could. McLellan, then the Oilers’ coach, and his Calgary counterpart at the time, Glen Gulutzan, joined forces and went to Humboldt immediately, distributing team gear, but mostly just to let the families of the victims and survivors know the hockey community had their collective backs.

The memory of the tragedy is still fresh in people’s minds, says King, who spends his summers in Saskatchewan’s lake country.

“Even now, you can hardly drive down the street without seeing a car with a bumper sticker that reads ‘Humboldt Strong,’” King said. “I worked in Yaroslavl, the city which had the plane crash that killed 37 people, and that’s never going to go away. It’s similar in Humboldt. For all of us in Saskatchewan, we know what it’s like to travel those rural roads, to go to hockey games. We had the Swift Current bus tragedy. People don’t like to talk about it a lot, but it is still very much on people’s minds.

“I know for me, I go on every morning because I can see the results of games from around the world and I almost always end by going to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League results to see how Humboldt is doing. It’s made you very aware – that it’s a special team now and a special situation – and it’s always going to be that way.

In 1983, during Federko’s seventh NHL season in St. Louis, the Blues were tentatively sold by Ralston Purina to (Wild) Bill Hunter, a smooth-talking promoter and a Notre Dame grad himself, who had plans to relocate the team to Saskatoon. In the end, the NHL’s board of governors vetoed the idea, on the grounds that Saskatoon was too small a city to sustain an NHL franchise long term. The Blues had two important Saskatchewan connections then – Emile Francis, the team’s GM, and Federko, most of whose family was living in Saskatoon by then.

“The one thing that’s bad about Saskatchewan is that the two biggest cities aren’t big enough to support NHL teams,” Federko said. “When there was all that talk about St. Louis moving to Saskatoon, deep down, you knew there was no way they could support that – especially now when payrolls are $80 million.

“So, I think it’s great that they’re doing this outdoor game for Saskatchewan because there are so many kids that have gone through there and played in the NHL – and people want to see the real thing. They want to see real players and a real game and they deserve it. For Saskatchewan to have a game, out in the open air, it’s just great.”

Knowing Regina the way he does, Eberle predicts the event will be a rousing success.

“I grew up in Regina, played my junior hockey in Regina. Regina’s always been home to me,” Eberle said. “When I played there as a hometown kid for the Pats, the community got behind me 100 percent. I remember my final game – standing ovation. Regina’s always had the Pats and the Riders. The new stadium there, it’s so nice. I went to a game there this summer. With the way the weather should shape up, it should be an awesome, awesome outdoor game.”

McLellan too believes the game “will be well-supported, a big celebration. It’s the halfway point between the two rival teams that are going to play. There’s going to be Jet fans and Flame fans there, wearing their colours.

“But more importantly, there’s going to be hockey fans there too, who will appreciate the 40 players on the rink – and I guarantee you, there will a lot of conversations, in the stands, or near the concessions, talking about when we played outdoors in Rosthern or Wakaw or wherever.

“It will take people back in history — to a lot of their own outdoor hockey experiences.”

(Eric Duhatschek--the Athletic)

No comments: