A big game in a small town

'It's a real barn burner," Adam Berkner tells his friend Tom Pritchard. The two, rigged out in Leafs and Oilers jerseys, a touque and baseball cap, stood in the back of a stairwell at centre ice.

‘It’s a real barn burner,” Adam Berkner tells his friend Tom Pritchard.

The two, rigged out in Leafs and Oilers jerseys, a touque and baseball cap, stood in the back of a stairwell at centre ice.

They were among the throngs of people at Saturday’s WHL game at the Takhini arena – the grand finale of Whitehorse’s Hockey Day in Canada

With their beer in hands, they resembled Bob and Doug McKenzie, commenting on everything from the Kamloops goalie’s bright orange pads to international politics.

“It’s getting down to the nitty gritty,” said Berkner as Blazers’ defencemen Corey Fienhag took a slapshot to the shin and was rolling around on the ice in the third period.

Moments later, what would be the winning goal was scored by Vancouver Giants’ Brendan Gallagher.

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“That there’s an off-balance hail Mary from the point,” said Berkner, a self-proclaimed expert on hockey terminology. “And an excellent tip.”

All the while, Pritchard sermonized about the sport’s nation-building values.

Holding his cup of Canadian, he pointed an index finger.

“This,” he said. “Is what Egypt needs.”

Directly across the ice, a white banner shot up.

On the other side, bashfully shaking it and cheering, is Kalla Ranford.

Ranford has travelled all the way from Red Deer for this hockey game – and it’s not just to show off the slapdash sign.

She is here with her daughter to watch her grandson.

“Number 19, Brendan Ranford,” she said with a proud smile, pointing to her grandson’s orange and blue Blazer jersey on the ice below.

Ranford has been to a lot of her grandson’s games, and for 15 years before that she went to a lot of her son Bill Ranford’s games.

Bill Ranford has played on numerous teams in the NHL as a goalie, and has won two Stanley Cups.

There were also the countless pre-professional games, for both boys, she said, beginning to list tournaments on her fingers.

But throughout all these games and years of sitting in a cold rink, this is her first, ever sign, she said.

“I don’t normally make a sign,” she said, embarrassed. “But I thought this was special.”

Between the two penalty boxes there is a constant commotion with people squeezing in and out of the small, boarded stall that acts as the control centre for the buzzers, scoreboard and speakers.

In the middle of it all, clipboard in hand, is Russ Smoler, head of the off-ice officials.

With WHL and Hockey Day in Canada crews in town, there had to be a clear division of who does what, he said.

“Everyone has to do a little piece.”

But Smoler and his nine-person crew had a lot of practice with all the hockey at the 2007 Canada Winter Games.

“We’re pretty familiar with what has to happen,” he said.

“Music, frozen pucks, making sure we’ve got water, penalty boxes, towels, stuff for the officials – there are 100 details,” and they are all taken care of locally, he said.

There is still some adjusting that has to happen, however.

For example, the rules were altered slightly for this game, because the glass on the boards is shorter than regulation. As well, the dressing rooms are much smaller.

“This is a fairly old rink,” Smoler said, explaining that they gave each team two rooms.

Last he noticed, they had put all their equipment in one so all the players could fit in the other, he said.

Just outside the rink’s doors, a sea of people begins to budge.

There are no lines, no real order, but people are polite and all after the same thing: the food at the Takhini snack bar.

Those still waiting stare longingly at the trays of hot dogs, burgers, fries and poutine, licking their lips as the lucky owner carries them past and the swarm of people moves less than an inch forward.

“The place isn’t made for that many people,” said Shirley Greek, who runs the concession – and has for over 24 years. “We’re used to the Native Hockey Tournament, you know, but this has been the biggest one.”

Greek had six workers running behind her, which is “all you can get in here without tripping,” she said laughing.

By the end of the WHL game, Greek wasn’t sure how many people they’d served or how many burger’s they flipped, but she did know that there was always a line and not a single person complained.

But just after 6 p.m. as the crowds slowly started to leave, Greek did start contemplating retirement, she said, laughing loudly, turning to her staff which were giggling as they cleaned up behind her.

Cheers erupted again inside the rink.

Don Cherry was at one corner signing autographs, Ron MacLean was at the other and someone spotted Pat Quinn going through the doors to the dressing room, but the cheers weren’t for them.

Circling the ice, leaving behind a shiny streak, is Zamboni driver Jeremy Raymond.

“I had a lot of friends and family there, in the stands, making it as uncomfortable as possible,” Raymond said after his job was done and he was already enjoying his after-work beer.

“It’s probably the loudest run I’ve done,” he said.

And for Whitehorse, it’s the biggest hockey game that’s ever been done.

While the 2007 Canada Winter Games packed the arena, it was announced over the loudspeaker after the game that this was, officially, the biggest hockey crowd this town has ever seen.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at