When John Grisdale grew up in Toronto in the 1950s, he skated outside and played hockey with his friends all winter long.
“I can’t remember a December, or even sometimes November, when there wasn’t natural ice at our school, when I played in the morning and at recess,” Mr. Grisdale recalled.
During Mr. Grisdale’s decade in the National Hockey League – he played in the 1970s for the Toronto Maple Leafs and then the Vancouver Canucks – half the Canadians in the pros came from Ontario. The seventies, for the first time, marked the slow but sure emergence of B.C. players at hockey’s top level. Before then, the percentage of B.C. boys in the NHL could be rounded to zero.
Mr. Grisdale’s life in hockey, moving east to west, unfolded alongside that bigger story, and these days he is commissioner of the British Columbia Hockey League, arguably the best junior A level league in Canada for teenagers.
Meanwhile, B.C. has long shed its status as hockey hinterland and now has a fairly well established reputation as home to some of hockey’s best.
That reputation was significantly burnished this week when a hockey-obsessed country tuned in Tuesday morning for the official unveiling of the roster for the men’s hockey team that aims to defend Canada’s gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics a month from now.
Of the 25 men selected for the team, five are from B.C. – 20 per cent of the total coming from a province that is home to 13 per cent of Canadians. And of the five, two men will be absolutely key to potential victory – defencemen Duncan Keith of Penticton and Shea Weber of Sicamous – and a third, goaltender Carey Price from tiny Anahim Lake, could emerge as a hero. Jamie Benn from Victoria is 24 and his scoring ability could prove crucial, while 31-year-old Dan Hamhuis, a Vancouver Canuck from Smithers, will offer dependable defence.
There’s still no outdoor ice in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island, regions home to most of the province’s residents, but Canada’s game has changed. The fabled frozen ponds on the Prairies and in Northern Ontario and Quebec are far less often where boys begin their climb to the NHL these days, and even backyard rinks like the one Walter Gretzky poured and maintained each winter for his sons Wayne, Keith and Brent in Brantford, Ont., aren’t as commonplace – too warm.
The game, through the later 20th century, moved to indoor rinks across Canada – and for B.C., as its population climbed steadily, the transformation was a boon.
But it all actually began early in the last century.
A hundred years ago, hockey royalty and reformers, the Patrick family, were revolutionizing the nascent game, after moving west. The Patricks had made money in the lumber business, led by family patriarch Ted, in Quebec, before relocation to the ocean of forests in the B.C. interior. His boys were early hockey stars, Lester winning Stanley Cups in Montreal, before the Patricks rejected the stifling conservatism and sought a new beginning.
Lester and his brother Frank, with dad’s money, established the Pacific Coast Hockey Association and built the Denman Arena in Vancouver at the gateway to Stanley Park, which for a time was the largest indoor arena in Canada, seating 10,500.
Among the innovations the Patricks introduced to hockey: the forward pass, line changes and the allowance for goalies to drop to their knees to stop pucks.
But innovation at the top level didn’t produce locally bred pros, even in the vast rural area of the province where there is ice in winter. The NHL was established near the end of the First World War in Montreal, and it wasn’t until 1970 that Vancouver joined the club.
By then, the key elements that serve as the foundation for B.C. hockey today began to coalesce. The population started to shoot higher after the Second World War, and the dearth of outdoor ice was remedied by the widespread building of indoor rinks with multiple sheets of ice, so kids had no trouble getting time to practice and play.
The trends accelerated by the 1980s, not long after a legend of the game, former pro and long-time announcer Howie Meeker, had moved west to Vancouver Island. B.C. players in the NHL “were few and far between,” remembered the 90-year-old Mr. Meeker, “up until the eighties, when this place became a haven from snow and frost and winter, and a lot of working people moved here and have done well, and their kids have been exposed to all kinds of hockey.”
Critical mass emerged. Coaching improved, high-end competition for kids got tougher, and a more-direct path to the NHL became formalized, with more B.C. teams and even a B.C. division in the Western Hockey League – the major-junior level of teenage hockey, the most common path to the NHL.
In 2002, two heroes of the first Canadian men’s team to win Olympic gold in half a century were both from the Vancouver area, Joe Sakic (the team’s leading scorer) and Paul Kariya.
There is, however, an important asterisk. While B.C. is reliably producing some of the best players around – including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, No. 1 draft pick in 2011, and Sam Reinhart, forecast No. 1 this year – the province still lags somewhat on a broader basis. For one, hockey has gone global, and only a little more than half of NHLers are Canadian, according to data collated by the statistics website quanthockey.com.
Of Canadians, B.C. reached 10 per cent of the total in the mid-1980s and has never moved much beyond that. The figure is a bit below the province’s percentage of the national population. Provinces such as Alberta still punch above their weight, so there is something to be said for outdoor ice, never mind money, since hockey is each year a more expensive game for parents. In what probably can be attributed to a random quirk, Alberta has just one man on this year’s Olympic team, defenceman Jay Bouwmeester from Edmonton.
Growing up in B.C., even with outdoor ice, means ball hockey all year long, remembered Vancouver Canuck defenceman Jason Garrison, who is from White Rock. Indoors, there were always lots of rinks, strong competition and many good teams. Canucks teammate Mike Santorelli, from Burnaby, was on an elite spring team as a young teenager with 2010 Olympian Brent Seabrook.
And sometimes there’s not really a precise recipe, turning boys into multimillion-dollar men. Mr. Hamhuis certainly knows that. Playing as a kid in Smithers, an 1,150-kilometre drive from Vancouver, he was oblivious to the sort of pressure lots of kids know these days. Small-town play also meant Mr. Hamhuis was never part of top-end teams as a kid. He was fortunate to be spotted by a scout for the Western Hockey League as a young teen. “I was lucky,” he said. He was a first-round, No. 12 overall, draft pick in 2001 and is a first-time Olympian.
Goaltender Mr. Price’s story is almost legend. His home, the village of Anahim Lake, population 360, is a winding 900-kilometre drive north from Vancouver. It is ranch country, nestled against the eastern slopes of the Coast Mountains. The man who now backstops the Montreal Canadiens was first taught by his dad, Jerry, briefly a goalie in the minor pros, on a frozen creek. Organized hockey was hours away by car. When Carey’s promise was obvious, Jerry, a teacher, and his wife, Lynda, bought a four-seat Piper Cherokee plane to fly their son to practices and games.
Then there is Mr. Weber, one of the best defenceman in the world, from Sicamous. He wasn’t even drafted into the WHL as a young teenager.
Overall, hockey in Canada is still dominated by Ontarians, the most populous province – 39 per cent of the country. And Ontario’s 11 players on Team Canada represents 44 per cent of the squad. But the game’s growing potency out west is a point of pride – for fans, and the men who reached their dreams of pro hockey.
“You’re starting to see a lot more players coming from the West Coast,” Mr. Garrison said. “It’s nice – the game’s more coast to coast.”