How exactly would a young Southern Ontario blogger begin to write a column about legendary (and I use that word loosely) hockey player, Gary Bergman?
I really had no idea who Gary Bergman was. A quick study found that the fact that I did not know who he was really didn’t make me unique: A lot of people don’t know who he is.
“He was a coach’s dream” I remember hearing from one Kenora, Ontario resident. “A true rock on the blue line”.
Bergman, born in Kenora, played 838 regular season NHL games in his 15 year career. He is most notably remembered as a defenseman on the 72’ Canada team that defeated the Soviet Union. He notched 3 assists in that series.
I visited Kenora one December weekend in 2013 for a business trip. To this day, I still commend that it is Canada’s biggest-small town. Although it has a population of just over 15,000, in Kenora you truly got that ‘one stoplight town’ sort of feel. The locals embrace newcomers with conversations and handshakes, as if saying “hey” simply just isn’t good enough.
But much more importantly, this town loves hockey. They really love hockey.
The Jets are the king in this knights castle, but don’t be surprised if you see a Leafs, Habs, Oilers, or Bruins jersey on a typical Saturday night. If the Jets won, it was the talk of the town for the next few days. Laundromats, grocery store line ups, doctor’s office waiting rooms. There was no escaping it.
This hockey tradition here has bowdlerized and reshaped the past. Everywhere you go hockey references often function like passages and dialect. Most Kenoarians (I just made that up) will experience a crackling wit, perhaps a relevance, perhaps revulsion, but rarely apathy.
As in many hockey crazed towns, you don’t need to go far to find your hockey “experts”. The analysts at the local water hole had all the answers to the NHL’s biggest questions. Want to know how to fix the Leafs? Ask Bill eating the pretzels. Habs’ power play not clicking? Al has the solution. Hey Vancouver, want to know what trades will win you a cup? Just ask Tom.
(In case you were unaware, like I was, Kenora can have winters as cold as -40 celsius. Sun set is normally 5:13, which while I was there felt like 40 minutes after it just rose. It doesn’t faze them like it might faze us here in Niagara. We complain loud when it gets too cold and then we complain even louder when it gets too hot. They were born to endure this kind of weather. It’s embedded in their lifestyle)
In Kenora, you are, or have been, or will be related to a former or current NHL player. I dare you to try and play Six Degrees Of Gary Bergman with the locals. You won’t get past two.
Many Kenora residents start playing at the age of six. When parents push their children into the sport there is no choice involved; they are simply born into the game. For all Canadians, playing hockey is not considered a social or class statement in the the way that golf or skiing is thought to be, even though the expenses are similar.
This city alone has produced five Hockey Hall Of Famers, and has seen a Stanley Cup party in their city more than 8 times. They’re doing something right here.
The local bar, “Shooters” (one of 18,000,000 bars in Canada named that) has a special on Saturdays. A pint of beer and a fried dish they call “the puck”. It’s a biscuit with bacon, cheese and gravy on it. It’s served on a plate that resembles a hockey rink. That’s right…you’re literally fed hockey.
On a brisk, dry Saturday night, I left “Shooters” just as this towns beloved Jets scored the overtime winner to beat Carolina 4-3, their fifth win in a row. With a history as unpleasant as the Jet’s, any winning streak, big or small, is to be savoured. I did not stick around to indulge in the Jet’s fans after-game celebrations, but I believe I can safely assume that parade details were discussed.
The point is, our country is huge, but our hockey community is as small as they come. Do we over-embrace our national game? Absolutely. But it beats the hell out of the alternative. The best part of the game are the coffee-shop stories from those who have grasped the culture before us, as well as the assurance that there is much more to come. There is an oddly satisfying feeling in the coincidental effects that undercuts the sense of tradition, and the true sense that a whole community embraces the equation and solemnly agrees that Canada equals hockey, even if the ultimate result isn’t always as rewarding as you would like it to be. What emerges from a short trip to a hockey town like this is a heartwarming portrait of our national pastime on a small-town level, where its roots have always been. The game has flourished in the Torontos and the Montreals, but the heart of the game beats here.
On the last night in town I stopped at Richards Rink (named after Kenora Resident and current L.A. Kings Centre, Stanley Cup Winner Mike Richards). Every hour, every day, this rink is filled with kids yearning to indulge in the game they were born and bred to love.
Twelve year old, Brayden, quietly puts on his helmet and politely asks me to do up the chinstrap. With puck and stick in hand, he begins to tell me how much he loves the game, and will for the rest of his life. He assures me that he will be the first line centre for his beloved Jets.
I wouldn’t bet against him.