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100 years of Canadian passion

By Paul Knowles (first published in a shorter version in Forever Young)

As virtually every Canadian is well aware, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the most important institution in this country. No, not Parliament – the National Hockey League. As Canadian celebrates its 150th birthday, the NHL is marking its centennial. (Photo: The puck drop at the terrific 2017 All-Star Game in Los Angeles; many of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time were on hand to drop a multitude of pucks for the 2017 All-Stars; Paul Knowles photo).

 

The NHL kicked off its celebration with an outdoor game in Toronto, January 1, as the Leafs edged the Detroit Red Wings. The party has continued through the All-Star Game, staged as a giant and very successful party in Los Angeles, which included the on-ice introduction of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time – most of whom were present for the largest ceremonial face-off in history.

The anniversary was top of mind through the second half of the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs (during which Canadian teams redeemed themselves from their embarrassing no-show status in 2016, with five teams from north of the border making the playoffs).

The celebrations span two seasons, continuing this fall, with special events marking the historic November 26, 1917 meeting that marked the founding of the league, and an open air match in Ottawa on December 16, 2017, between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens, commemorating the first-ever NHL game, which featured those teams on December 19, 1917. That same day, the Montreal Wanderers played the Toronto Arenas.

There are exhibits and displays marking the centenary, including a travelling museum (very well attended in Los Angeles during All-Star weekend, and including such items as Jacque Plante's practice mask, above), and special events and exhibits at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

 Hockey – it goes without saying – is huge in Canada. Of course, it’s a sport now played very well in many countries; it’s never a guarantee that Canada will win international honours, up against great teams from around the world.

But while other countries may enjoy the game, Canadians live and breathe hockey.

We wanted to get a feeling for that special place hockey has in the hearts of Canadians; and to capture some of the personal reflections of NHL players, past and present.

And – full disclosure, here – I jumped at the chance to meet some of my own hockey heroes. So I undertook a months-long quest to find the heart of hockey, staring in three unlikely cities – San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles – and winding up in Ontario. Along the way, I talked to a young NHL star, a number of hockey greats, a few journeyman players, and one NHL owner – the very many whose team will host the historic, 100th-anniversary outdoor game in Ottawa.

Let’s start at the top, with The Great One. There is no question that Wayne Gretzky (below) is the face of hockey, even though he retired a full 18 seasons ago.

This season, Gretzky returned to his beloved Edmonton Oilers as partner and vice-chairman. I got an exclusive, face to face interview with the Brantford’s favourite son  in January, after the Oilers defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-0.

He says, simply, that hockey is “part of our culture” in Canada. He told me, “I don’t know if you can sum up in a statement or a paragraph how big it is in Canada. In any country, sports are part of society, sports are part of life; it just happens that in Canada, it’s hockey. In the United States, you have baseball, basketball, football, golf – in Canada all these sports are in a secondary position to the sport of hockey.”

Gretzky suggests that Sweden and “maybe Finland” view hockey in a similar way, but then adds, “It’s very unique… In Canada, it’s their life. They live it, they love it, from coast to coast, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, but every four years we unite as one, become all the same team. We stop everything to follow the players we love, and that’s the guys who get to wear the Canadian jersey.”

Gretzky laughed when he remembered a statistic about the 2002 Olympic Gold Medal hockey games, in which both the Canadian men and the Canadian women defeated the USA. When the men’s gold medal game was played, recalls Gretzky, “There were 36 million Canadians and 27 million watched the gold medal. I said, ‘What were the other eight million people doing?’”

And speaking of important hockey games, odds are good multiple millions will be watching the outdoor Montreal-Ottawa game on December 16. I spoke to Ottawa Senators’ owner and Chairman Eugene Melnyk (below) in Los Angeles, during the 2017 All-Star weekend. The outdoor game had not been confirmed at that point, but he couldn’t contain his excitement about what was about to be announced.

He said, “We’ve just started the party… Events right across the league – every city’s participating, including Ottawa in a big way because of the Centennial. It’s 25 years for the Ottawa Senators, 100 years for the NHL, 100 years since the first game was played, and we’re hoping to reenact that game come next December.”

That hope has since become a firm reality.

Melnyk thinks that it is entirely appropriate that this historic game will  be played in his city – the capital of Canada. He told me, “First of all, in Canada, virtually every child has skated and actually played hockey, including myself. It’s what binds this country together. We don’t have the basketball or the football of the NFL level or even a great soccer program, but one thing we do have is a great, and a very organized hockey program.”

He says that holding the commemoration of the first NHL game in Ottawa, “for me was a natural, because it is our capital, it’s a major G7 country, and this our sport.

People have to recognize that… for us, it’s hockey and I think it’s the greatest game in the world.”

Very few present-day Canadians were around when the puck dropped for the first time in an NHL game, but many of us remember key moments in our national hockey history – perhaps none greater than the Team Canada win over the USSR in September of 1972.

We remember as angst-ridden spectators; Ron Ellis remembers as a key participant in what for many was the series of a life time. Ellis is a long-time member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and today, after 20 years on the management team of the Hockey Hall of Fame, he continues on contract with the Hall.

The native of Lindsay, Ontario, says, “The 72 series certainly stands out as an example of what hockey means to Canada. Our team opened the door to other international events…. 1972 was the pivotal moment… All of Canada was watching that series. The whole country stopped to watch.”

Ellis did a lot more than “watch”. He played on a line with Bobby Clarke and Ellis’ long-time Toronto teammate (and his life-long friend), Paul Henderson – who was the series’ hero among heroes. Says Ellis, “I was in the right place at the right time, in 1972.”

Ellis first donned a Toronto Maple Leaf sweater in 1964, at age 18, “the first roster change they made in three years.” Three years later, the last year of the league now called “the original six” – although they were not all part of the original NHL season – Ellis saw his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

He told me, “You want to have your name on that cup.” And he’s still very proud of that achievement, joking – perhaps – that when he’s at the Hockey Hall of Fame, he tells the staff to turn the cup so his name is facing the visitors. “The 1967 Maple Leaf team has to be out front!”

Ron Ellis has seen a lot of changes since he first laced up skates, but he believes hockey continues to be at the centre of Canadian hearts. “I think it’s pretty clear that it’s still very, very important – part of our culture in our country.” He talks about “The excitement that goes across the country.”

And he is very aware of the memories that hockey has created. ““When I was younger, in my home, every Wednesday and Saturday night were special family times.”

And he knows he shares that experience with many Canadians. He says, “A lot of folks my age – seniors – want to tell me how important the game was to them in their childhood. And it’s being passed down to other generations.”

He told me, “It’s a world game, now. Things have changed… but it’s still a wonderful game. The Hockey Hall of Fame is filled with fans from all countries… but the game will always be Canada’s national sport.”

Ellis is enjoying the 100th anniversary of the league, especially since it coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Toronto Maple Leafs – which trace their origins to the Toronto Arenas, then the St. Pats, and now the Maple Leafs.

Ellis played his entire NHL career with the Leafs, retiring from the game during the 1980-81 season. For many of those years, he shared the bench with Darryl Sittler (below), named this year (along with Gretzky) as one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players of all time.

Sittler played for three NHL teams (finishing his career with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings), but there is no doubt in the minds of Leafs’ fans that he is entirely Toronto blue.

When you talk about Darryl Sittler, a number of highlights pop up. First, of course, there was his record-setting 10-point game (February 7, 1976, where he scored six goals and four assists against the hated Boston Bruins). Then, he channeled Paul Henderson as he scored the winning goal against Czechoslovakia as Canada won the 1976 Canada Cup.

But Sittler also remembers Henderson’s goal, four years earlier. He was a spectator as his team-mates Henderson and Ellis battled the Russians, but a spectator with a difference – because Sittler and his wife, Wendy “were babysitting the Hendersons’ kids. We were part of that celebration with all the other neighbours in Mississauga.”

Despite all the highlights of Sittler’s career, the most important is also the most poignant. He told me the story: “I lost my wife, Wendy, to cancer, in 2001. That year, Ken Dryden was the President of the team [the Leafs]. They wanted to honour my number and Frank Mahovolich’s number (they both wore 27) on the opening game of the 75th season.” The ceremony was to take place October 3, but Sittler’s wife was near the end. “Wendy died October 6.”

So the ceremony honoured Mahovolich alone, while Sittler was told he could choose another date. He says, “I waited about a year and a half.” He chose a game against the Canadiens, “because Jean Béliveau was my childhood idol.”

It was an emotional night, because Sittler had made a unique request that brought the most important elements of his life together in one special moment. “My three children were there,” he recalls. “I had asked Ken [Dryden] if they would allow me to put Wendy’s name on the banner… and they agreed. The greatest memory was that night, when the banner was going up, and the camera zoomed in and Wendy’s name was on it. That was the culmination of everything.”

Sittler has always loved the game of hockey. He grew up in the Waterloo Region village of St. Jacobs, where “we never had an indoor rink.” So during the day, he’d play outdoors, on a rink built by his neighbours, the Frey family – who, because they were Mennonites, “were not allowed to play organized sports.”

Saturday nights meant Hockey Night In Canada, with Darryl watching in his pajamas.

Sittler’s Grade 8 principal tried to discourage his commitment to hockey, because of the poor odds of making it in the NHL, but Sittler didn’t listen. The legendary Turk Broda recruited him for the London Knights at age 16, telling Darryl’s parents, “I’m going to make your son into a hockey player.” Whether Sittler owes his success to Broda, or other factors as well, there’s no doubt he became a hell of a hockey player. And as is evidenced by the special moment with his Leafs’ banner, hockey continues to be important to him. “It brings the whole country together,” he told me. “All eyes are focused on it.”

He gives a special shout-out to the Canadian women’s hockey program, “which has grown a lot, and gives a lot of opportunity for girls and women to play the game.”

He adds, “We see a lot of European and Canadian players playing at the highest level in the NHL, but Canada still procures a lot of great players, guys like Sydney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Connor McDavid. They understand their roots and have a great humility about it all… the respect they have for the players that came before them, and the traditions of the game.”

He told me that he say that same respect among the “greatest” players assembled in Los Angeles. ““I’ll always remember that call from Gary Bettman. I was surprisd to be selected as one of all those great players. I was tickled to death… I took it all in when I was in LA. I could sense the respect we all had for each other. Everybody has such a mutual respect.”

Edmonton Oiler goaltender Cam Talbot, from Caledonia, Ontario, is one of those young NHL stars; he made his league debut in 2013. I talked to Talbot after he shut out the Ducks in Anaheim, and he immediately demonstrated the respect Sittler had cited.

Talbot said, “Growing up, you idolize the players. You sit at home and watch hockey night in Canada with your parents, your siblings, every Saturday night.

“Being from a small town myself, it was a big thing to put the pads on, go outside and play road hockey. You pretend that you’re your favourite player. Patrick Roy was my favourite player growing up so. It’s a great feeling to have guys like that to look up to.”

To sum, up, he says, “It’s a great game.”

Tom Miller understands Talbot’s admiration for great hockey players. Miller played parts of five seasons in the NHL; he was a member of the first New York Islanders squad, scoring 13 goals that season, the most of any centre on the team.

Miller, who was raised in Kitchener, has the distinction of being a founding member of both the Kitchener Rangers Junior A hockey club, and the Islanders. His first season in the NHL was with Detroit – he played 29 games in the 1970-71 season.

His season with Detroit was packed with the stuff of life-long members. He told me that “playing at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Forum was a thrill,” and –æ with a certain ironic twist – he says, “Playing with Gordie [Howe] and Alex [Delvecchio]… and having Gordie wipe his nose on my jersey… very special.”

Miller thinks hockey is important. “Being part of a team, whether it’s midget or NHL, is the best experience for life. Learning all those words that coaches like to use (determination, desire, dedication, tenacity, sacrifice, etc), then living by them, makes you a better player and person.”

Laurie Boschman knows something about triumph in adversity. Boschman is one of a handful of players who played for four Canadian hockey teams – the Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Ottawa Senators, where he served as the first captain of the re-minted Senators’ squad. He also played two seasons for the New Jersey Devils during his 14-year career.

His biggest challenges came early in his career, and they happened off the ice – the Leafs’ eccentric owner Harold Ballard seemed to object to Boschman’s Christian faith. Laurie told me, ““I didn’t anticipate my challenges with Harold Ballard… maybe it was my faith in Christ. It’s never easy when something like that happens to a young player. But for the most part, the challenging times of the 14 years I spent in the NHL pale in comparison to… simply being there.”

His departure from the Leafs was tough, but Boschman found a way to continue his hockey career – and to be true to his faith. In fact, today, the native of Major, Saskatchewan is “still involved in hockey, still connected with people who are around the game,” in his roles Alumni President of the Ottawa Senators, the Eastern Ontario Director of Hockey Ministries International, and a leader of the chapel program for the NHL.

Like many Canadian kids, Boschman first simply loved the game of hockey, and as his skill level became obvious, he began to dream of playing in the big leage. Reflecting on that accomplishment, he says, “It’s an absolute privilege to have participated in something such as the NHL. It really is fulfilling a dream. To play a game at the highest level is an amazing thing.”

He says that hockey “is a unifying thing is this country. In small Canadian towns, hockey and the curling rink are the centre of the community.”

Boschman is a people person, and it’s not surprising that, asked about his favourite things related to the NHL, he simply offers a list of teammates. “I played with some great players: in Toronto – Ronnie Ellis, Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, in Edmonton – Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, in Winnipeg, Dale Hawerchuk… It’s the people.”

Mike Ricci, below, born in Scarborough, Ontario, played 16 seasons in the NHL, suiting up for five teams, including the much-mourned Québec Nordiques.  He was part of the Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche (1996). Almost half of that career was spent with the San Jose Sharks, where today, he is Development Coach. I talked to Ricci in San Jose, after a practice with the farm team, the San Jose Barracuda.

Growing up in Canada, he says, means that hockey is everywhere, all the time. “There are rinks in the schoolyards, everybody talks hockey… You see all the excitement and you want to be part of it.”

From his perspective in California, he’s aware of the advantages of being Canadian, if you are an aspiring hockey player. “Here, there’s not as many rinks, and teams are scrambling to get ice time. I don’t think they get as much ice time as we did in Canada. But the love for the game, the kids’ passion for the game, it’s similar. There are a lot of kids walking around here who want to play in the NHL some day, just like back home in Canada.”

He’s delighted to be able to play a role in helping young players improve their game – a lot of his time is spent with the young guys on the San Jose Barracuda team. “It’s a lot of fun. You want to see these young guys playing in the NHL, and you try to help them as much as you can. For me, it doesn’t get any better.”

Toronto Maple Leaf crowd favourite Wendel Clark (shown below) understands that kind of attitude – a passion for the game that makes the hockey arena your home.

Clark told me that one of the highlights of his career was watching the banner bearing his number ascend to the rafters of Air Canada Centre. The hockey rink, he said, “Is our closest thing to home as a player. Maple Leaf Gardens and Air Canada Centre are more home to me than any home I have had.”

Clark played for seven NHL teams, but his heart is with the Maple Leafs – and Maple Leaf fans return the love. His autobiographer is called “Bleeding Blue: Giving My All For The Game.” And although he did spend time on the ice for the Québec Nordiques, the New York Islanders, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Chicago Blackhawks, he spent 13 full or partial seasons of his 17 campaigns with the Leafs, returning to the team twice, including for his final 20 games in the NHL, in the 1999-2000 season.

The home-town hero of Kelvington, Saskatchewan, first skated when he was tdwo years old. He started playing hockey as a kid in a small town with no artificial ice. “You’d mess around on the ponds and the sloughs.” And on Saturday night? Like every other Canadian kid, that meant “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Ricci and Clark have something in common – both of them point to their parents, not to hockey stars, as their heroes. Mike Ricci thought about the question for a moment, and said, “My parents were my heroes more than anyone. They worked hard, and they taught me to work hard, and I think I would call them my heroes.”

Wendel Clark remembers travelling to another town to play hockey at the age of 13. He still lived at home, but his family drove 100 miles to practice, four times a week. “We wore out a car every couple of years.”

Like many knowledgeable hockey observers, Wendel Clark says “Hockey is a world game now,” having expanded far beyond Canada and the few other countries that cared about hockey during his playing days. But it’s still Canada’s sport: “We live and breathe it. We judge ourselves the harshest. We hold ourselves to the highest level.”