My first memories in life are of Timmins Ontario, a gold-mining town 500 miles north of Toronto. Spring was six weeks during May and June. Summer was July and August. Fall was six weeks during September and October. The rest of the year was hockey season.
The first hockey game I went to was in the MacIntyre Arena, in Schumacher, Ontario, just outside Timmins. It was an unusual outing as it was after church at McKay Presbyterian where the Reverend Sharkey had just preached enough fire and brimstone to last us through the week. Seldom were we ever able to do very much on a Sunday, as it was the Lord’s Day, a tradition that continued in the family for the next seventy-two years. Well, it seemed that long to someone who had to wait until he was fourteen and finally wore down his parents before being allowed to visit his friends to play on a Sunday.
The MacIntyre Arena – home to the Schumacher Puckhounds – still stands, not all that far from the (Timmins native) Shania Twain Civic Center. I didn’t know the first thing about hockey but my dad understood it, I guess among his first adaptations to a new country, climate and culture.
He followed the Toronto Maple Leafs and watched Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday on our black and white television. Back then the NHL was only six teams, the others being Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago and Detroyit. Yes, Detroy-it, that’s how we pronounced it in Timmins.
Maybe that’s how you had to pronounce the word when you had no front teeth, like many players, as personal protection was nominal back then. Slowly, goalies started to wear masks, then the youngsters playing minor league hockey were mandated to wear helmets that continued as they grew into NHL players.
Salaries for good NHL players were $35,000 per year. I can remember getting into trouble in grade three or four after moving to Ottawa when someone in our class did a biography on Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens, one of the greatest goalies of all time. Bob Stephens and I found it hysterical that Jacques owned a couple of Beauty Parlors in order to make a living.
Digressing just a little, I included a picture of this store, the Schumacher Corner as it reads on the Pepsi sign – quite probably an “epicerie”. This could be a picture of a hundred towns in Northern Ontario and at one time or another, one career or another, I think I’ve been in most of them.
Years and years later, I first worked a project in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a beautiful, sunny, warm place to be. Next stop was Portland Maine, through the winter and into spring. What a shock. From Paradise to Portland. As the snow started to thaw and all the debris from the winter plus the accumulated sand that they used on the icy roads started to show, I was driving through a residential part of the town.
Everything started to look familiar. I was sure that I had never been in Maine previously, but I would swear from the houses around me that I had seen them all before. It dawned on me why they looked familiar. They looked like every other mill town that gets snowed in for six months a year.
If someone was to blindfold you then lower you by helicopter into one of these towns, Timmins, North Bay, Hearst, Longlac, Cochrane, Kapuskasing, New Liskeard – even down into Renfrew and Pembroke – then remove the blindfold, you would have no idea which town you were in. They all look the same, including, apparently, Portland, Maine.
Looking different because it is built on jagged rock, perhaps conspicuously missing from my list of Northern Ontario towns is Sudbury, home of the Sudbury Wolves Hockey Team and where I saw my next arena hockey game.
The Sudbury Wolves are still in existence today and part of the sixteen-team Ontario Hockey League, including two teams that slipped across the border from Saginaw and Plymouth Michigan. Hockey is big-time in Canada.
I remember an incident well at that Wolves’ game as it is an example – perhaps unfair by hindsight – of the atmosphere of hockey games in Canada. My Sudbury friend, my brother, Ian, and I were watching the game when a fight broke out between two players.
We fans jumped to our feet to get a better view of the revelry, egging on the local player. My brother made the heathenous error of yelling, “Beat the… uh.. “snot”, shall we say??… out of him.” My Sudbury friend immediately elbowed Ian in the chest, knocking him backwards over the seatback behind him and onto the floor. As he sat there looking bewildered and with fortunately nothing more than a bruised ego, it was explained that one cannot swear at a hockey game.
I attended a couple of games at the Temple of Hockey, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. It seems cavernous and steep, seating about 20,000 well-dressed people around a relatively small hockey rink. When play was on, the seats were in virtual darkness. I doubt that there were any concession vendors in the stands as there was complete silence, except to cheer when the action called for it, plus, someone walking up and down the stairs would block a patron’s view at some point.
Canadians are serious about hockey. We do not go to games to eat popcorn, peanuts or guzzle beer. We do that in copious amounts before and after the game to either celebrate a win or drown the sorrows of a loss. If a patron is deemed to have been standing for too long – ten seconds or more – as the puck is in play, very quickly comes the call, “Down in front!”, meaning, “sit down, you’re blocking my view.”
When I went on the road for the Inventory company, the job that led eventually to my moving to the U.S., among my first projects was a winter return to the north – Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the very top of the Great Lakes. I had forgotten what that much snow that far north was like.
Sidewalks were a canyon that you walked down with snow banks over your head on each side of you. Four lane roads in the summertime were reduced to a lane and a half in each direction as a ten-foot high snowbank at the side of the road means a ten-foot base that juts out onto the thoroughfare.
Now the Thunder Bay Thunder Cats, at the time, they were the Thunder Bay Senators, a farm club of the Ottawa Senators, the team that the politicians stole from Hamilton. Hockey was about all there was to do at night in Thunder Bay – and a long night it was. That far north, in the winter you go to work in the dark and drive home from work in the dark. The arena was about the same size as in Sudbury, seating about 3500 people. The atmosphere of the game was the same, dark stands and hushed, reverent tones during regular play.
One night returning to our motel from a game, my co-worker who was driving, got mixed up in the dark, snow-covered streets and as we found our bearings and got headed in the right direction, he proclaimed, “Indian not lost, wigwam lost.”
In stark contrast was my first hockey game in the South – Huntsville Alabama and the Huntsville Channel Cats. A ‘channel cat’, properly named a ‘channel catfish’ is a local food favorite. The Channel Cats played in the Von Braun Center, one of the more prestigious smaller hockey rinks that I have ever been to, seating 6,600 for hockey.
The atmosphere of hockey in the South is completely different. Hockey in the South is a social event. There’s the old joke, “I went to see a fight and a hockey game broke out”… in the South, it’s, “I went to a social event and a hockey game broke out.”
The lights are never dimmed in reverence. Movement is constant. There are vendors walking up and down the stairs selling Pepsi, peanuts and Pabst. Teenagers tour the loop between the lower section seating and the upper section seating, cruising for a new beau or belle. People talk constantly and the main attractions seem to be on the concession mezzanine more than the ice surface.
In the same league with the Huntsville Channel Cats was a team from Macon, Georgia. They were called the “Whoopee”. Harold Ballard, Conn Smythe and Gordie Howe are rolling in their graves at this one… The Macon Whoopee. I wish I was making this up.
Next came hockey in the desert – Laredo, Texas. Laredo, on the Mexican border in south Texas, is home to the Laredo Bucks. In doing the research to compose this, I found out that the franchise has folded, and what a shame.
I have been to hockey games where people wore baseball hats, stocking caps, toques, ear muffs and scarves to cover their heads. But I had never been to a hockey game where they wore cowboy hats. I have seen white people, black people, Indians and Frenchmen at a hockey game, but I have never seen a crowd of Mexicans. Yes, there were plenty in attendance who were Americans of Mexican extraction, but I mean people from across the border in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, whose cars filled the parking lot.
We all expect to see the bounce-and-jiggle cheerleaders at a football game, but Laredo was the first ones I had seen at a hockey game. A bar in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, sponsored teams of bare-midriffed seňoritas who were positioned at the foot of the stairs going into the stands. It was their job to, well, bounce and jiggle every time the play stopped, when the arena dj would blast a thirty-second snippet of a jigglable song.
It was culture shock to me, to leave a Laredo hockey game – a game whose roots were freezing temperatures and frozen water – to walk to the car in 100 degree heat.
My most recent game was here in Atlanta, to see the recently folded and moved to Winnipeg, Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers are the second Atlanta hockey team to leave the city, the Atlanta Flames folding in 1980 and becoming the Calgary Flames.
The atmosphere in Atlanta’s Philips Arena is a festive one that is geared as much to the social event as the game itself. Perhaps borrowing an idea from the Laredo Bucks, when play stopped here in Atlanta, they had bare-midriffed girls on skates who came onto the ice armed with shovels to repair the divots. Where they found bare-midriffed girls in Atlanta who could skate, I’ll never know.
That might just be it for me and hockey. Maybe if I return to Canada I could find a 3,000-seat arena to watch not necessarily good hockey, but definitely fun hockey.