In Our Game, a season-long series, Roy MacGregor examines hockey, from house league to the National Hockey league. This is the debut installment.
It is a scene that could grace the back of the five-dollar bill.
Youngsters are playing hockey outdoors, the sounds so familiar – skates scraping over ice, sticks striking pucks, a barking dog – that they even include the winter call of the Canadian mother, once so common now so rare.
But it is not real.
It is, instead, a diorama represented what once was, the roots of a game so important to this small Northern Ontario community that Kirkland Lake even has its own impressive Hall of Fame – Hockey Heritage North – that celebrates what Foster Hewitt once called “The town that made the NHL famous.”
It is registration week in Kirkland Lake, Ont., that time of year when the town’s youngsters sign up for a sport that once defined Kirkland Lake every bit as much as the gold the various mines pulled from the quartz and faults of this dense northern bush.
The Timbits are on the ice at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex, locally known as “The Joe.” All three age groups are on at once.
There are four– and five-year-olds together, six-year-olds and seven-year-olds – making a grand total of 30 hockey players learning to skate and turn without crashing into the boards.
That number, 30, is precisely the number of NHLers listed on a bronze monument downtown where the old rink once stood and where championships were regularly won.
There are actually more than 40 local players who went on to play at high levels, and as the 30 Timbits skate and fall about the ice surface, they do so under the gaze of giants in Kirkland Lake hockey history and giants, as well, in the murals that surround The Joe.
Among the 42 players on display, such familiar names as Ted Lindsay, Dick Duff, Ralph Backstrom, Floyd Curry and Mickey Redmond can be found. There are the three Plager brothers (Bill, Bob, Barclay) as well as the three Hillmans (Floyd, Larry, Wayne). Claude Noel, coach of the Winnipeg Jets, is on the wall in the Washington Capitals jersey he wore for just seven games in the NHL.
It cannot pass notice that most of the heroes seem to come from the Original Six era and early NHL expansion. The most recent local to reach the big time was Kurtis McLean, who played four games for the New York Islanders four years ago, scored a single goal and then went off to finish his career in Europe.
Kirkland Lake is producing gold once again – downtown’s “Mile of Gold” is booming with new business – but the production of hockey stars, as in almost all small northern towns, has virtually gone bust. Whereas a town like Kirkland Lake could once claim it produced more NHL hockey players per capita than any other town in the country, today they are happy to claim a healthy enough minor hockey system where, this year, the numbers are happily up at the Timbits level: 30 this season, only 19 last season.
“We need to get the kids into hockey early,” says minor hockey association president Stephane Leveille. “Not later, when they’re already involved with other things.”
It is no longer a matter of merely opening the arena doors and have the kids flood in to play – or, for that matter, opening the back door and have them flood out to play. Times have changed.
Overall, Leveille’s association hopes to match last year’s total enrolment of 175 kids or come up just a bit short. Shrinking numbers are nothing new to small town sports.
The mines are hiring, but that no longer means new families moving into this town that claims 10,000 people on the highway sign on the way in. Instead, miners come in for seven-days-on-seven-off shifts and leave their families back in larger centres such as Sudbury, Ont.
Leveille, a retired warrant officer medic with the armed forces who works part time in the emergency department of the local hospital, figures he spends a minimum 20 hours a week at the arena, likely much more. He is president and equipment manager, the handyman who builds the lockers, the helper who works with the midget rep team and who has his own hockey obligations with his youngest of four children, David, who this year is playing pee wee hockey.