Arriving in Port Alberni, BC, it seemed like any other small town I’d ever visited, notwithstanding the distinct aroma of sulphur that was overwhelming the minute you exited your car.
I had an invite to tryout for the Port Alberni Islanders, who played in the Pacific Coast Hockey League. It was late in August, the year 1976 and I had just turned 21.
I’d spent the last week travelling across Canada by car with a guy I met training over the summer who didn’t have an official tryout, but was going to attend camp as a “walk-on.”
The original intent was to fly, but the idea of experiencing small town Canada driving across the country seemed more appealing and it was just that.
Port Alberni is the most westerly part of Canada, located on Vancouver Island. Forest products and fishing were the two main industries. It is an hour and a half drive from the Nanaimo, after a two-hour ferry ride from Vancouver. The roads are narrow, winding and the Island Mountains are quite steep, but the drive is breathtaking.
After meeting one of the executives of the hockey club, he directed us to the hotel that would be home the next few weeks. The Barclay Hotel had an aging charm to it and had definitely seen better days but it was clean.
Not surprisingly, the rink was old and had that great vintage hockey smell, where the boards had wire screen on top circulating around the nets instead of glass to block stray pucks. This old barn held a few thousand spectators. A sign from the previous playoffs had hung above the seats and read, “WELCOME TO THE ZOO.”
First morning at breakfast I couldn’t help notice the array of people who all seemed to know each other. The teenage girls pushing strollers that I thought were daughters helping out at home, I’d soon find, wasn’t the case at all.
The scent of sulphur was present again as we walked to the car to attend the first day of camp. We did notice a layer of dust and woodchips had covered the car that had been sitting in the parking lot all night. This it turned out was quite common and to be expected from the numerous smokestacks burning off debris 24-hours a day.
The town produced every type of wood product you could imagine, from 2×4 to cedar shakes with all the major forest product companies represented and customers as far away as China.
Port Alberni was a thriving union town in the socialist province of BC.
People lived conservatively. Work boots, Levis, work shirt, down vest and ball cap (without a sports team on it) seemed to be the choice of attire. Trucks were the vehicles of choice, long before the fancy SUVs of today and were a necessity for work rather than a cool ride.
The working man, did his shift, liked his beer, hunted, fished and followed the local hockey team. Friday and Saturday night home games were a ritual. The team had a great following and was very difficult to play against. Life in the Alberni Valley was pretty simple; people didn’t need much to be happy and in fact some locals not only planned vacations around the hockey team’s schedule, some had never left the Island.
My first day of camp went pretty well except during the scrimmage. I managed to get around a defenseman and score a goal. After deking the goalie and admiring the puck in the back of the net, I suddenly felt an uncontrollable force slam me into the backboards with my face mashed into the screen. I thought my face had screen implanted on it like a pretzel, but before I could see through the stars circulating throughout my head from the hit, a very firm voice screamed in my ear,
“Listen you rook, you every effing show up an Islander veteran by effing admiring a goal again and I wont be so effing nice next time and your effing face will be on the other side of this screen.”
He was of course right and being Captain he had to set the standard for new players, but it didn’t stop me from running him later in the scrimmage to show I couldn’t be intimidated. It cost me a black eye, sore nose and face, but I knew the consequences.
My apartment was just completed when I moved in after making the team and it still had that lingering “new” smell. But something was missing. It then hit me. No food aroma and no mom here to cook. And those dirty clothes, which I had to do something quick about. I really was on my own, except for some Maple Leaf memorabilia, which still managed to be displayed throughout the apartment, much to the chagrin of some of my teammates.
Port Alberni became home for two years and we had a good team. Personally, my game improved and paved the way for me to play in Europe after turning down a couple opportunities in the U.S. minor leagues. The adjustments to life in the Alberni Valley took time; things like one movie theatre (I’m still probably the only person of my generation to not have seen Star Wars) only a couple places to eat, drink, and TV was a couple of channels. However, where else in Canada can you play nine holes of golf in the morning and pond hockey on a glacier lake in the afternoon?
I stayed in Port Alberni one summer to train, play golf, baseball and visit some of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. Lakes that were so clear, you could see bottom twenty feet below, while you swam.
I grew up those two years out west and if anything it taught me to appreciate things and not take anything for granted.
A few years ago I took Deb, her son and mine to the new Bear Mountain Golf Resort in Victoria. We spent a day to visit Port Alberni. It had been almost 35 years since I left and things had certainly changed. The forest industry had been long gone and the city ran into rough times financially for a number of year’s prior. But things seemed to be turning around with the city now profiting off the beauty surrounding the Alberni Valley as biking, hiking, skiing, water sports all now drew tourists from around the world.
The old rink had been replaced by a community centre with three rinks, fitness centre, curling rink, restaurant, home to the Alberni Valley Junior A hockey club and in 2009 hosted the World Under-17 hockey tournament. One of my ex-teammates runs the sports complex and we had a few pops catching up over the years.
We then went to see the old rink that was now a storage warehouse for city antiques. I managed to find where our old dressing used to be and even showed them what would have been my stall. We had a burger at J+L’s that was still owned by the same guy and they were still just as good.
Things had changed and everything seemed so modern, but there were still some remnants of the past. Nevertheless, I was happy to see the city adapting to change and flourishing as a tourist attraction.
The junior team of today, as I knew, had replaced for a few years now my old team, but the one thing I missed the most was now just a memory.
That smell of sulphur.