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Allan Maki

Flyers tap northwest pipeline Add to ...

If you didn't know better, you'd think it was Philadelphia north by northwest.



The storefronts along downtown streets in Kenora, Ont., have been adorned in orange with signs urging on the Flyers. The mayor and one of his councillors have been photographed wearing Flyer jerseys. The councillor happily stated a local sporting goods store had received a new shipment of Flyer ball caps, six dozen in all, and that they were in hot demand for the big event - Friday night's gathering at the Recreation Centre arena, where fans watched the Flyers host the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final.



"We had to get a projector flown in from Winnipeg to show the game on a 15-foot-by-20-foot screen," councillor Chris Van Walleghem said. "Everyone's cheering for the Flyers."



More to the point, everyone in Kenora and neighbouring Dryden is cheering for Philadelphia captain Mike Richards and that notorious puck-stealing defenceman Chris Pronger. In a Stanley Cup showdown that boasts a wealth of Northwestern Ontario-trained talent, from Chicago's Patrick Sharp (Thunder Bay) and Duncan Keith (Fort Frances) to the Flyers' Claude Giroux (Hearst), Richards and Pronger are the marquee masters and the reason why Kenora is awash in Flyers' fever.



With their Olympic gold medals and Stanley Cup efforts, Richards and Pronger have helped shine a spotlight on a part of the country that is too often neglected. They're big-time performers with long-time roots.



Pronger played his minor hockey in Dryden and with rep teams in Kenora and was coached by Barry Reynard. Richards was born in Kenora, played all his minor hockey there and was also coached by Reynard, who used to run the local Rec Centre. Now working as the parks and recreation director in Dawson Creek, B.C., Reynard wished he could have been in his hometown for last night's Flyer-fest.



"I know that being a small centre [population: 15,828]Kenora doesn't get a lot of attention," Reynard acknowledged. "But they'll be really excited about this, for sure. Our family is glued to the television every game. There are a lot of Flyer jerseys in our household."



Reynard's connection with Richards runs deeper than simply being a former coach. Richards is the godfather to Reynard's grandson, Ryder. Reynard's daughter Shallyn and Richards were good friends as kids and have stayed such. The two even went together to their high school prom.



Reynard could see there was something special about Richards even at a young age.



"The number of parents in that community club of Evergreen, they put in a lot of work on that outdoor rink where Mike and his brothers played," Reynard recalled. "Mike's skills and tactics and puck protection were learned on that ice. He played because he had a passion for the game."



As for Pronger, the gangly kid with the long reach stood out from the start.



"He never lacked for confidence," Reynard said. "I coached a lot against him, too, and I always wondered how he always ended up with the puck."



Asked if Pronger ever skated past the opposing team (as he did against the Blackhawks) to pick up the puck at game's end, Reynard laughed and replied: "No. He never did that."



Whatever the outcome of the Stanley Cup final, Richards will be in Kenora this summer. He has a cottage on Lake of the Woods and a golf tournament that raises money for his favourite charities. The locals are looking forward to seeing his Olympic gold medal. It would be nicer, they insist, if the medal had a Cup to go with it.



"There are signs here that say, 'Bring the Cup home after 103 years,'" said Van Walleghem, noting how the Kenora Thistles won the Stanley Cup in 1907. "And there are other signs that say, 'Go Mike Go.' It's been a lot of fun."

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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