I had just turned onto the QEW this 3rd day of December, prepared for the two-hour plus trek to a small community north of London Ontario, called Mt. Brydges. The purpose of my trip was to watch my son Ryan play goal for the Lambeth Lancers against the local team, the Bulldogs. With Bob McCown voicing his criticism of the Jays latest GM hire faintly echoing throughout the car, I found myself day dreaming about what laid ahead in the next few hours.
About 7 months ago Ryan mentioned he’d like to play hockey again and bounced the idea off me for my opinion. He hadn’t played for a few years and to come back would be extremely difficult not only physically but simply because all the teams wouldn’t know who he was. To his credit he started a strict training regiment and was on the ice 5 times a week training with a number of pro-players making enough of an advancement to receive a couple of offers to try-out.
Late in August I set off for Listowel with the Jays game on the radio and a large double-double Tim’s in the coffee cup holder. Listowel Ontario, is a community of 6,000 centered in a farmland area north west of Kitchener.
Outside of the odd grunt or cheer depending on what was happening in the Jays game at the time, I wasn’t paying much attention to the surroundings whle heading north of Kitchener until spotting what looked like a horse drawn buggy about a mile ahead, plodding along the shoulder of the now two-lane highway. I realized I was in Amish country.
Coming to a stop at the small intersection after a short drive from the main street, I felt a warm smile break out on my face observing the sight in front of me.
There was the rink, but what really caught my attention was the community center, curling rink and ball field all centered right in the middle of this mature town, established first in 1852. All of the facilities were older but immaculately cared for. The ball field was encompassed with wooden bleachers and the field manicured to perfection. This was a Norman Rockwell moment.
My mind raced back in time to my childhood and even my hockey life travelling throughout the country. I was picturing this exact setting in every small town I ever played in, including Unionville, in the days the road leading to this then farm community arena was gravel and dirt. (I would end up living there for 18-years).
Walking from the car to the arena, I noticed how quiet, almost peaceful it was and crispness in the air, reminding that fall would soon be here. Opening the door to the rink I immediately was impacted with the “hockey smell” associated with any mature rink, along with the sound of pucks banging off the boards and the rush of cool air from the ice surface. Oh how I missed these simple pleasures.
The stale aroma of popcorn and fresh coffee was prevalent, yet most of the parents had Tim Horton cups in their hands. I paused for a moment to take it all in and must have been obvious because a few of the parents gave me an inquisitive look and then smiled. They get it.
My curiosity as a researcher had me scurrying around the rink looking for anything to identify some of the history. I struck gold discovering a plaque dedicated to famous hockey legend Cyclone Taylor who grew up 50-miles north of Listowel in the town of Tara but moved here in 1890. He would play professionally from 1905 -23 yet made a point of returning to Listowel every summer until he died in 1979. Thus the hockey club honoured him by naming the team the Listowel Cyclones.
The arena is on the original spot it was built, but tragedy struck Feb 28, 1959, when the roof collapsed on a boy’s hockey team playing a scrimmage game killing 7-of them along with the recreation director and a referee. They are all memorialized in an enclosed glass case.
The city player as a youngster will never experience this unless they move to play out of town or maybe the odd tournament. With the fast moving lives we all have, today’s rinks are complexes with gyms, restaurants and up to six ice surfaces. The only thing on anyone’s mind is, how close can we park to the rink and what will I order in the restaurant.
Travelling the circuit Ryan’s playing has revived a whole new awareness not lost on him either, usually arriving a few hours before the game, he will even take a quick drive around the town. I find myself envisioning kids playing pick up games on the frozen ponds around the small towns or just a simple road hockey game on the slippery streets throughout the winter. Its Canadiana clearly defined. It’s whom we are as Canadians and a part of our heritage that should not be lost on any of us.
Game nights in particular provide an insight to the rituals of the local hockey club. Groups of teenage girls and guys gather to cheer on classmates representing the town, the presence of family members standout and of course the resident rink rats who’ve not only attended games throughout most of their lives but may have even played for the local team blend in with the crowd. The local volunteers who sell the tickets, programs and 50-50 draws, are integral pieces, adding to the ambiance of the experience with a warm, small-town smile and thank you.
Taking this all in from the spectator’s perspective, I visualize this exact scenario unfolding right across the country in hundreds of settings such as this one. It really is the innocence of the game at its best with the whole community chipping in, providing the local kids an opportunity to play this great game of ours. But the real victory in all of this is those same kids grow up in the community and reciprocate the favour by volunteering themselves, giving a new generation of hopefuls a chance to play.
We as Canadians must never lose sight of what separates us from the rest of the world. Observing these small towns pull together for the benefit of the community really does identify us as a nation and for that, we should never forget.