Every day is hockey day in the Yukon. The sights and sounds of the world’s greatest game have been part of life here as far back as I can remember.
The sound of steel blades on a frozen pothole lake behind Riverdale, or of the eerie noise a puck makes as it skitters across transparent ice before the snow comes. The bleary-eyed cheering of parents in the rink on Saturday mornings. Or just the noise of the kids playing street hockey in front of the house till midnight in July.
I’m glad the CBC will share all this with the rest of the country during this week’s Hockey Day in Canada shindig.
It’s hard to imagine life in the Yukon without hockey. Unlike those newfangled snow sports we keep inventing so we can win medals at the Olympics before the Russians figure out how to do them, hockey has deep roots here.
When stampeders hefted the first camera over the Chilkoot to the Klondike gold fields, pretty much the first thing they did was take photos of themselves playing creek hockey with tree branches (MacBride Museum photo No. 1990-1-3-141 if you don’t believe me).
When my kids step onto a frozen Yukon lake, they know their great-grandparents did the same thing. They’ve seen the old photos of their great-grandmother’s brother Brod playing on the old rink near Hansen Street in the 1930s. Of Uncle Vin on the U of A Fairbanks Nanooks in the 1960s. And of their Dad in his old Igloo Eskimos shirt in the Jim Light Arena.
Yukon News readers of a certain age, the ones who remember the Igloo Eskimos, will know that Yukonomist was the kind of player best described as “an anchor of the third line.” I knew at an early age I wasn’t going to the NHL, or even the Whitehorse peewee A team.
Both my boys are much better players than I ever was. The same guys who tried not to say anything on the bench after I would try a clearing pass up the slot in the 1970s now come up to me in the Canada Games Centre and say, slightly incredulously, “Is that your son?”
I’m glad to see them learning some of the same things I did on the ice. That famous folk philosophy guide about kindergarten really should have been called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Minor Hockey.”
The first lesson was trying hard. Even when – or maybe especially – when things aren’t going your way.
I was on the Whitehorse B team headed to Faro for the Father Rigaud tournament. Faro was full of hockey-loving miners in those days and had a strong team. That year they had a real star, a big, fast and tough centre. He put us all on notice early, scoring at will against Watson Lake. He skated along the Watson Lake bench and rattled his stick along each face mask in turn, just like in Slapshot, and challenged the whole team to bring it on.
It was obvious to us the Faro star was headed to the NHL or federal penitentiary, or probably both. Our first period against him did not go well. At the break, our coach encouraged us to reach deep inside and tap into our full potential.
“Chad is the smallest guy on the team and is the only one doing any hitting!” he screamed.
My buddy Ian lined up against Faro’s star. I was on defence and watched as Ian tracked him up and down the ice, breaking up his plays. Then suddenly Faro’s star broke out of his end into open ice. I knew in a flash it would be another end-to end-rush, likely to end up with me deked out of my underwear and the Faro parents playing Queen’s We Are the Champions on the PA again.
Then Ian came across the
ice and delivered a perfect open ice hit. He knew it was like trying to bodycheck a Faro ore truck, but he did it anyway.
Faro’s star went up in the air and we cheered as the puck bounced safely to the boards. Then he came down, on top of Ian with his skate blade landing heavily on Ian’s finger.
It was an ugly injury, and Ian still has the scar, but he was back on the ice next shift chasing the same guy.
Hockey also teaches you teamwork in a way that no team-building seminar can.
You learn that, for example, even if a guy on your hockey trip to Fairbanks buys the largest possible bag of ketchup chips, won’t share them, and pukes into the aisle near Haines Junction and turns the remaining 10 hours of the bus ride into vomity, ketchupy hell, you still have to pass to him if he’s open in the slot.
You also learn to be bold. You’ll never score unless you drive for the net. It also takes a certain audacity to board the bus for Team Yukon and go to play in a much bigger place.
The story of the Dawson City Nuggets challenging the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup in 1905 is a classic example. In the same vein, kudos to folks like Whitehorse Coun. Ranj Pillai for sticking their necks out and pushing for Hockey Day in Canada to come to Whitehorse (the Yukon will put on a much better show this time than Dawson City’s historic 23-2 shellacking in 1905).
I am now trying to pass on some of these lessons to my own children. They don’t really like it when I tell them it’s our turn to shovel the neighbourhood rink before the Thursday flood, but they get it. And they’re over there with their shovels after their homework on Wednesday night.
It is perhaps passing on hockey to the next generation that is the most rewarding thing about hockey. There’s no better feeling for a parent than teaching his kids the backhand, and then seeing the pure joy when they roof it for the first time.
Other people might aspire to make a million bucks, or to occupy the deputy minister’s swivel chair, but I’m proud to say that I’ve achieved my dream: a pair of old nets, a garbage can full of sticks and a driveway full of kids.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of Game on Yukon: The Mystery of the Dawson City Nuggets and the 1905 Stanley Cup and other historical adventure novels for young readers.