Sunday, January 14, 2007

Hockey Day in Canada: Welcome Home

Photo courtesy of Boris Mann at flickr.com

From Sooke, BC to St. John’s, NL, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation celebrated Canada’s game yesterday. Live. I caught bits and pieces on the NHL’s Center Ice free preview channel but am reliving the greatness of the game’s grassroots via the magic of Comcast’s DVR technology.

Nelson, BC is the heartbeat of the all-day affair, which is headlined by three NHL games featuring teams based in Canada, where the theme of the seventh annual program is not the NHL game but rather the volunteers who helped NHL players reach their lofty goals.

Nestled in the mountains of southeast British Columbia, Nelson is where Hockey Night in Canada fixture Ronnie MacLean—wearing a toque atop his head, gloves gripping his microphone, and his breath vaporizing—chats with the locals about one of the city’s favourite (that’s how they spell it in Canada) sons. Danny Gare, wearing a dark green Nelson Maple Leaf sweater (that’s what they call hockey jerseys in Canada) will call the play-by-play for the Blue Jackets in Columbus against the Nashville Predators later but is now perfectly content to speak to the crowd surrounding MacLean and the national audience in front of the TV.

“What do you want to do?” Gare recalls his father’s words from four decades ago, as the young Danny was still basking in the glory of Nelson’s first Bantam championship.

“Play in the NHL,” Danny responded.

His father, all business, told his son that he’d have to shoot 500 pucks a day and start working out.

Danny went on to lead the Buffalo Sabres—and the NHL—in scoring with fifty-six goals and thirty three assists in 1979–80, but on this day, he’s grounded in gratefulness for the support of his hometown. His dad was his mentor, but his mom was one who always had hot cocoa or hot chili ready for her son after his uphill walk from the rink to home. But beyond his family circle, lots of volunteers helped Danny graduate from the Nelson Civic Centre to “the Aud” in Buffalo.

Gratefulness abounds in Ontario, too, where former Colorado Rockie and Boston Bruin Mike “Dobie” Gillis takes time out from the St. Mike’s alumni game to recall how the coaches at Toronto’s famous junior hockey program helped him mature as a hockey player and how his classroom teachers at St. Michael’s College School were vital to his academic development.

Back in Nelson, Don Cherry, sporting a plaid suit, makes his grand entrance. Walking in the snow toward the rink where Gare learned the game, “Grapes” shakes hands with hockey fans of all sizes. He bends down to befriend a sociable bull terrier that resembles Cherry’s pet Blue (you remember Blue, don’t you?)

Inside the arena, Cherry and MacLean introduce the second game of the NHL tripleheader, Canucks versus Leafs.

In between Vancouver’s walloping of Toronto at the Air Canada Centre, even the commercial aspect of the game is appealing: This broadcast is the same one destined for the Maritimes because I hear the Newfoundland accent in the ad produced in front of a St. John’s courthouse.

In another commercial, a mite-sized Sidney Crosby begs his coach for a couple more minutes on the ice…fast forward to today’s Sid the Kid, surrounded by a gaggle of giggling and gliding youngsters, their shinny session about to end. “A couple more minutes?”

Like those youngsters at the local rink, I’m almost out of time—and Stuart McLean’s Welcome Home is waiting for me--so I, too, ask you for a little more time as I wrap up this piece with a great big thank you to all the readers from BC to Newfoundland and Labrador. I hope to visit the Great White North at least a couple times this year. And to those Canadians who share AMHL ice with me—“Penguin” Pat Obrien, Chris “Tower” Power, Mitch “Commish” Weiss, Claude Corbeil, Kenny “KISS Fan” Tarr, Scott Lauder, Steve Nicolle, John “the Pest” Greszczuk, and Matt Mullally (forgive me for not mentioning those I may have not met yet)—thanks for sharing your game with me. See you at the rink!

Update: 1/15/07
If you'd like to order the DVD, which cost $9.99, visit the CBC online shop.
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