23rd July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Notes from 60° north

For the love of the game

Last weekend my partner and I drove to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, for a peewee hockey tournament.

There are a number of striking things about that statement. The most obvious is the fact that Yellowknife is 800 kilometres from Fort Smith. That’s like a Shetlander travelling by ferry and car to Sheffield for a weekend football tournament.

Never mind that in the NWT most of the drive is through untamed boreal forest, with the single highway stretching to the horizon and just an occasional car passing every hour or so. And in our case, most of the drive was through a blowing snowstorm that slowed our car to a crawl.

But this is not a testament to the sheer size of the NWT, or to the weather that makes every trip outside of town a challenge. This is a testament to the love of hockey.

If memory serves, in the UK you know hockey as “ice hockey”. But for us in Canada, where children learn to walk with a hockey stick in hand, the concept of running around a grass field chasing a ball with a stick is ludicrous. Hockey is played on ice. There’s no need to classify it further.

Growing up in Ontario I spent most of every winter at the local hockey arena. Some of my fondest memories are still triggered by the unforgettable smell of an arena dressing room, the mix of sweat, old hockey equipment, winter boots and whatever greasy food was on sale at the canteen that day.

Like most other kids in my hometown, I hated hockey practice. Practice was boring. It was tough. It was an hour of torture we had to survive if we wanted to reach our mini holy-grail – the weekly hockey game.

So I was a bit taken aback when I started coaching peewee hockey in Fort Smith and the schedule read like an Inquisitor’s day planner:

Monday – practice. Wednesday – practice. Saturday – practice.

“When are the games?” I cried.

The league director looked at me, puzzled.

“There’s a tournament in January, and one in February,” he said.

Turned out in Fort Smith, like nearly every northern community, there are no games. With only eight players in peewee, there isn’t even enough for one team, never mind a game. Instead there are endless practices, stretching out from October until March like the barren, snow swept tundra.

Fortunately the kids don’t know any different. Their whole hockey career has been this way. Three times a week they bundle over to the arena, strap on the skates and work their butts off, trying to get better, all for the love of playing the game.

Which brings us to last week’s tournament in Yellowknife. In Ontario, or most other places on the planet for that matter, asking a group of parents to drive 800 kilometres each way through a snowstorm so their kids can play in a sports tournament would get you smacked. But here in the North, that’s just the way it is.

So parents took a Friday off from work, pulled their kids from school and hit the road just after sunrise to make the first game on Friday evening.

Of course, that is only the parents from Fort Smith.

Since we didn’t have enough for a team of our own, we had to recruit three players from Lutsel K’e, a tiny community of 300 people on the eastern shore of Great Slave Lake with no roads in or out.

Luckily for the Lutsel K’e kids and their families, the bush plane to Yellowknife happened to fly that day. Otherwise the only way for them to make it to the game was a 10 hour snowmobile ride across Great Slave Lake, the twelfth biggest freshwater lake in the world.

But the plane flew, and three boys from one of the most isolated communities in Canada were waiting at the arena when we finally made it to Yellowknife.

For two of them, this would be their first ever real hockey game, with the teams wearing jerseys, actual referees, goalies and a scoreboard keeping score.

Although the kids from Lutsel K’e didn’t know their new teammates from Fort Smith, by the time everyone had piled into the dressing room they were all joking around like old friends.

That is what made last weekend so special. It was a perfect example of the power of sport at its finest, bridging cultural and geographical barriers, bringing kids together in a way they could never have otherwise been.

While the players strapped on their equipment before that first game of the season, I could feel their nervous excitement like electricity in the dressing room. It brought me back to my own childhood. As I watched them tightening their skates, lost in their own dreams of the game ahead, I remembered the knowledge, in a pure and perfect way as only children can know, that for this moment at least everything and anything is possible.

Shawn Bell is an avid hockey goalie who writes for the Slave River Journal. He lives in Fort Smith, NWT.