WHITEHORSE, Canada – The Yukon capital might be better-known for dog sledding and snowmobiling, but the sport of hockey shone as brightly as the Aurora Borealis here at the 11th annual Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada.
2011 marked the first time the event has ever been held in Canada’s remote northern territories, above the 60th parallel. For most of the country, Hockey Day in Canada is a chance to hunker down in front of the TV and enjoy CBC’s marathon telecast of three straight NHL games featuring all six Canadian teams in action. However, for host communities like Whitehorse, the impact is more powerful and wide-reaching.
“It brings that great feeling of being in an arena downtown, with people coming together and celebrating,” said former Montreal Canadiens goalie and current Liberal politician Ken Dryden. That feeling pervaded Whitehorse streets strewn with Hockey Day in Canada banners. Locals took advantage of just-freezing temperatures to play road hockey just off Main Street, and participants ranged from little girls with pigtails to white-bearded retirees. That said it all.
Dryden, a six-time Stanley Cup champion, was one of several hockey luminaries who attended the five days of festivities (Feb. 8-12), enabling fans to claim a rare Gold Rush of autographs and photos.
CBC’s bombastic commentator Don Cherry and his sidekick, former Whitehorse resident Ron MacLean, starred at the gala banquet. Cherry scored points by visiting a young Bruins fan who had recently lost his father in an accident.
Beloved stars of Canadian teams were well-represented, from Vancouver’s Trevor Linden to Calgary’s Lanny McDonald to Toronto’s Wendel Clark. And Reggie Leach, who co-owns the NHL’s single-playoff record for goals (19) with Jari Kurri, was seemingly everywhere. If “The Riverton Rifle” wasn’t posing for photos with Air North stewardesses before getting off his flight from Vancouver, he was giving a cheerful “Hi” to strangers in the hallway at the Westmark Whitehorse Hotel.
The ex-Philadelphia Flyer star’s presence also reflected a commitment to celebrating the contributions of Canada’s native peoples to the game. Leach is of Ojibwa heritage. Nearly a quarter of the Yukon’s population of 30,000 is aboriginal, and for 34 years the Kilrich/Northern Yukon native hockey tournament has been played on the traditional land of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation (March 25-27 in 2011). That tradition was reflected at the “Stolen From a Hockey Card” showcase at the Yukon Arts Centre, which mingled short films about hockey with live musical performances by Canadian artists.
Weakerthans singer John K. Samson had the likes of Sarah Harmer backing him up on “Petition,” a folksy number encouraging the Hockey Hall of Fame to induct Leach. (A surprised Samson then met Leach onstage for the first time.) If it wasn’t event organizer Dave Bidini, the ex-Rheostatics frontman who wrote the classic book Tropic of Hockey, singing about putting part-Metis superstar Bryan Trottier’s face on a TV tray he made, it was accordion player Geoff Berner pounding through a tribute to the pugilistic prowess of former Canucks tough guy and Algonquin native Gino Odjick.
For an event celebrating Canadian hockey, “Stolen From a Hockey Card” also had plenty of European content. Rich Terfry’s hip-hop tune, “The Borje Salming Massacre,” was a gruesomely amusing commemoration of the lone Swede on the IIHF’s 2008 Centennial All-Star Team. It referenced the 1986 incident where Detroit’s Gerard Gallant inadvertently sliced open Salming’s face with his skate for 300 stitches.
Local songstress Kim Barlow played her tribute to Slovak netminder Jaroslav Halak (“Halak, Halak/He seduced me on the ice but he never wrote me back”). And former L.A. Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey shared an anecdote about a shampoo-throwing tantrum he had in the shower after teammate Petr Prajsler (a 1985 World Junior silver medallist with Czechoslovakia) gave away the puck for the winning goal, plus some good chill-out advice he got from Wayne Gretzky.
Chilling out is certainly de rigueur in Whitehorse, where the average low in February is -18.
Bounded by the icy Yukon River, with endless stretches of snow, pine trees, and mountains, Whitehorse retains the rough-and-ready feel of a frontier town, with pickup trucks and false-front buildings. Robert Service’s famous 1907 poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew was set in the Yukon. Beyond the relentless rush for mineral and oil exploration, what’s brought civilization to this northern outpost?
In so many ways, hockey.
It was visible in the faces of the Whitehorse kids who flocked to outdoor rinks to play shinny. Whether it was in front of the heritage SS Klondike sternwheeler or outside the massive Canada Games Centre (constructed to host a multi-sport competition in 2007), you could tell hockey clearly delivers fun, focus, and a sense of community.
“The only thing better than renting a rink and playing for an hour is doing it outside with a light snow falling,” said ex-NHLer Mark Napier, who ran on-ice clinics with Whitehorse minor hockey players.
A towering snow sculpture humorously depicted the 1905 Dawson City Nuggets’ challenge for the Stanley Cup versus the defending champion Ottawa Senators (then called the Silver Seven). That subject was explored in greater depth at a special hockey history exhibit at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History.
It was the most audacious venture imaginable. The seven-man Nuggets squad travelled by foot, bike, dog sled, steamship, and train via Skagway, Seattle and Vancouver to reach Ottawa. Compared to the Nuggets’ odyssey, Kelly Hrudey, who visited the museum, couldn’t complain about the travel his Kings faced in their 1993 Stanley Cup final run. The exhausted Nuggets were completely overmatched, losing 9-2 and 23-2 – still the most lopsided single-game result in Stanley Cup history.
But their lore lives on in the exhibit, which runs through August 31. Check out team leader Joe Boyle complaining in a reproduced newspaper article about how four Ottawa goals were offside in the 9-2 loss, proving some things never change. Turn-of-the-century hockey skates with leather boots are on display, plus film footage depicting the trip.
The current version of the Nuggets, featuring local senior industrial players, played a “return engagement” against the Ottawa Senators alumni, including the likes of Brad Marsh, Chris Valentine, and Doug Smith. Although they predictably lost 10-1 and 12-4, there was celebration aplenty when Nuggets forward Kevin Anderson (set up by ex-NHL ringer Brad May) scored Dawson City’s first goal in 106 years against Ottawa in the opener.
The MacBride exhibit reveals how hockey means even more in smaller communities, compared to, say, Vancouver, which has been spoiled with Olympic gold in 2010 and the Canucks’ success in 2011.
Here, everything is lovingly celebrated. The two Whitehorsers – forward Andy Gilpin and goalie Ross King – who suited up for the 1948 RCAF Flyers team that won Olympic gold in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The 1960s tours sponsored by Molson that brought Montreal stars like Bernie Geoffrion, Terry Harper, and Serge Savard to the North.
The pro careers of Whitehorse players like Bob House (who wound up as former Canadian Olympic coach Dave King’s assistant with the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers).
The 1993 Allan Cup triumph of the Whitehorse Huskies, marking the only time Canadian senior hockey supremacy has belonged to the North.
On sale in the gift shop is an adventure novel for young readers: Game On Yukon! Mystery of the Dawson City Nuggets and the 1905 Stanley Cup by Keith Halliday.
There is a bright future for hockey up here. That’s true even if many of the 375 kids aged 5-17 who are currently enrolled in Whitehorse minor hockey face a longer-than-average road to the NHL or Olympics. It was evident in the respectful enthusiasm of the fans who packed the 1,500-capacity Takhini Arena to watch the first-ever major junior game played in the North on February 12. They were treated to a great show as the WHL’s Vancouver Giants beat the Kamloops Blazers 3-2 on a late goal by Brendan Gallagher.
Indeed, Hockey Day in Canada has just delivered a glimpse of the Yukon’s mother lode of hockey potential.