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

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

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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