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The Kirkland Lake arena. (The Globe and Mail/Roy Macgregor)
The Kirkland Lake arena. (The Globe and Mail/Roy Macgregor)

our game

Former NHL factory Kirkland Lake proud of growing minor system Add to ...

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.

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“Steeeeeeee-vennnn! Dinnnnnner-timmme!”

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.

His energy seems endless and, at times, his patience, too. He has to find coaches, signing up the final one needed just days before registration. Whereas once they had to turn them away, today he sometimes finds himself “begging” someone to take on a team.

There not being enough players for in-town “house” league competition – the least competitive level of hockey – house teams are forced to travel, often an hour or two along Highway 11 to find games in such nearby Ontario centres as Cobalt and New Liskeard. “Rep” teams – more competitive – this year will sometimes have to go as far as Wawa, Ont., six hours away, to play a league game.

Parents signing their children up for Timbits pay $470 for the season and can qualify for $260 back if they complete their volunteer commitments. Laveille and his executive are working on a plan to see if local sponsors could help make the initiation program free of charge – in the hopes of bringing in more players.

“Everything goes up, up,” Leveille says. “We try not to raise the fees too high – because everybody will quit.”

Rick Witty, head of the local detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police, runs the Timbits practices and agrees with Leveille that times have dramatically changed for the national game in the small towns. The game is so expensive it will likely never again see a Gordie Howe, able to play only because a neighbour in rural Floral, Sask., brought over a bag that contained some old second-hand skates.

Ice time is extremely limited in a town with only one ice surface. When practices by necessity start at 6:30 a.m., it tends to discourage parents far more than it might the kids themselves. Nor is there summer hockey in Kirkland Lake, the ice going out of the Joe around the same time it goes off the surrounding lakes.

“We don’t see the kids on the outdoor rinks the way we used to,” says Witty.

There are some, of course, who see in this trend great concern. “How much have they missed,” a handsome and sentimental coffee-table book for sale at Hockey Heritage North asks, “those boys on skateboards in their baggy pants and their backward ball caps, these young girls with their cigarettes and nose rings and green hair and direction no one seems able to define…?”

Those directly involved with minor hockey, however, are resigned to changing times and reality. They accept what is and try to make the best of what they have. Both Leveille and Witty say that the small centres cannot compete these days with the big cities, where there is more money, where there are far more ice surfaces, many year round, where schools (“hockey academies”) cater to the game and where, increasingly, young players even have their own personal trainers.

Leveille laughs. “If we wanted to get a kid special training, we’d have to take him to Sudbury – or more likely Toronto.”

Patti Mullins is the mother of two youngsters – Cormac, 6, and Finn, 4 – in the Timbits program and also served as a director on the association executive. Her boys, she says, will play soccer in summer and spent time outdoors during the off-season, with no intention ever of making hockey a family obsession.

“We don’t intend to travel all over the place to pursue hockey,” she says. That travel, she says, is a huge concern for an isolated small community.

“When my brother played,” the Kirkland Lake native says, “there were always three or four house teams to play against, but now there’s one team and they have to travel. It’s off-putting to some parents, especially when you consider winter travel.”

What she wants from the game is simply some fun and activity for winter. Nothing more.

“Having fun,” says Witty. “That’s the key.

“This is a sport I grew up with and I love it,” Leveille says. “And if I can give these values I have picked up from the game on to others, then that’s enough.

“Besides, what values are the NHL showing our kids right now? Greed .”

“We tell parents right off,” adds Witty as the 30 little skaters step and trip and fall off the ice, “your kid is not going to play in the NHL.

“It’s fine for kids to dream – but parents have to be realistic.”

The first part in a series chronicling hockey across the world. Throughout 2012-13 Roy MacGregor will examine the game, from house league to World Juniors, from the Women’s World Championship in Ottawa next spring to a Thursday night beer league.

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