Words and photos by Tim Johnson
Winter is long in Port aux Basques — cold and snowy and, often, wet and raw. And then there’s the wind. Gusts topping 100 kilometres an hour routinely blast in off the Cabot Strait, which separates Newfoundland from the mainland. Just north of town, in an area known as “the Wreckhouse,” savage winds scream over the peaks and through the valleys of the Long Range Mountains and head for the nearby sea, blowing over everything in their path — including tractor-trailers on the Trans-Canada Highway and, in the past, freight trains.
But even on the coldest nights, the Bruce II Sports Centre glows with warmth. Referred to as simply “the stadium” by residents, the Bruce II is a state-of-the-art complex that includes a pool, a bowling alley, curling facilities and workout area. Those are all fine and good, but everyone around here will tell you that its heart is made of ice. Port aux Basques, home to some 5,000 souls, is an unabashed hockey town. Last winter, the town marshalled 959,312 votes (almost 200 times its population, and more than twice the population of the entire province of Newfoundland and Labrador) and finished third in Kraft Hockeyville 2008, a national competition run by the CBC, the NHL, the NHL Player’s Association and Kraft Canada, in which communities seek to prove that they’re the best hockey town in the country.
Their lofty finish in Hockeyville was merely a reflection of the town’s passionate relationship with the game. From autumn to spring, families gather at the Bruce II, the kids suiting up for practices or for games against teams from Stephenville, Corner Brook and other neighbouring communities, while parents form social huddles in the stands, coffee cups in hand. It’s a time-honoured practice; Port aux Basques has long been big on hockey. “Growing up here, there was hockey, and there was everything else. You played road hockey until you froze to death or you had to come in,” laughs David Penney, whose son, Luke, 7, is now in his third year playing the sport. “If you weren’t playing on the road, you were playing it on the pond or you were playing in the rink. That was it.”
Hockey is more than a sport here. It’s a vital force within families, and one that forms strong bonds between them. On the night I visit Scott and Andrea Strickland’s family, their son, Luc, 8, proudly shows me his room, decked out completely in a Montreal Canadiens motif. As we sit down to chat in their rec room, in the shadow of cardboard cutouts of Sidney Crosby and Mark Messier and not far from air hockey and table hockey games and a full-sized net, the deep groan of a foghorn sounds every minute or so, somewhere out in the mist that rolled in off the sea earlier in the afternoon. Scott coaches Luc’s novice team and serves as a minor hockey divisional director. Luc’s first full sentence was a memorable one: with the family assembled in front of the television to watch the gold medal game at the Salt Lake City Olympics, he blurted out, “Go Canada Go!” A few years later, when Andrea was pregnant with their daughter, Kailey, 4, Scott was playing in a hockey tournament up in Corner Brook, about two and a half hours away. Before heading out for some post-game refreshments, Scott checked in by phone with Andrea, who told him she was feeling fine. Then she promptly went into labour. Because Port aux Basques has no delivery room, Andrea was transported more than 200 kilometres to the closest one — in Corner Brook. “We got back to the hotel, and there were 30 messages, saying she was on the way here in an ambulance,” Scott remembers, a bit sheepishly. When Scott arrived at the hospital, flanked by the entire team (including David Penney), the nurse asked which one was the father. Penney was the first to pipe up. “We all are,” he said. Strickland missed just one game, and then was back on the ice, before Kailey even had a name. “We just called her the hockey baby,” says Strickland, with a smile.
Things are bustling the next day when I visit Edgar Allen’s Barbershop downtown. A steady stream of men pass through Allen’s classic, deep burgundy Reliance chair, and the conversation in the packed waiting area flows easily from the maritime weather to fishing to hockey. Beside a print of Gordie Howe in Wings red and white hangs a photograph of the Port aux Basques Mariners’ 1989 Herder Memorial Trophy (provincial championship) winning team. This wasn’t merely a team victory — it was the triumph of an entire community. The story has become the stuff of legend, and
in the re-telling, people involuntarily move to the edge of their seats or, alternatively, lean their heads back, the pose of people enchanted by their own tale.
Home games took place on Sunday afternoons, and churches let out early — after the minister prayed for a win — to allow parishioners to get a good seat. Practices drew as many as 600 spectators, and for games, everyone remembers, the rink was “blocked” (Newfoundland parlance for filled to overflowing). Fans gathered behind the wire mesh that separated the stands from the ice, tormenting the opposing goaltender and even spraying water guns at the visiting team. The Mariners in those days were gods among men. The calibre of play was very high — some players went on to play in European elite leagues, the AHL, and even the NHL. Allen’s son Glenn played on the team. So did Shawn Tobin, while Ossie Coffin served as the team’s general manager, and both men happen to be in the shop today, awaiting a trim. Each one offers his own recollections, and Coffin shows off his championship ring. The final series against the St. John’s Capitals went five games, and, in the fifth — a home game — people literally hung from the rafters. The winner came off the stick of local boy Juan Strickland, arguably the best player the area has ever produced, a disputed goal that lifted the team to a 2-1 victory. Almost lost is the fact that the team went on to win the national championship. Somehow, being the best in Newfoundland seems to mean more. The league folded the next year — not enough people and not enough money to support that level of play. But Port aux Basques will always have the Herder.
The Mariners played in the original Bruce Arena, which was named after a freighter that plied the waters between southwest Newfoundland and Cape Breton. It sat, like a crown, at the crest of a hill right in the centre of town. On September 24, 1995, a date chiselled into the collective memory of Port aux Basques, the rink burned to the ground. The town was devastated by the loss. It was an electrical fire, and residents remember a sky painted orange, and the period of mourning that followed. Lois Keeping, who now teaches high school science and co-coaches the town’s high school boys’ hockey team, was just 11 at the time. “Being at the stadium was our life. I remember going there at six o’clock in the morning for figure skating and then being there in the evening for hockey, and on the weekends we spent all of our time there,” she remembers. “We thought: What are we going to do if we can’t play hockey?” Keeping and a friend named Kathy Morris decided that they had to do something about the situation. The next day, envelopes in hand, they went door-to-door to collect funds for a new arena. Everyone gave. And like a wrestler who refuses to be pinned to the mat, the town sprang into action. Just over a year later, the Bruce II opened its doors. In a tongue-in-cheek move, Port aux Basques renamed its minor hockey teams the Port aux Basques Blaze and redesigned their jerseys to include bright orange flames. To this day, the trophy case at the new arena contains a plaque and the first $5 collected, commemorating Keeping and Morris’ spirit and efforts.
But in the intervening days, during the winter of ’95Â/’96, the town had to improvise. Port aux Basques teams played all of their games on the road, and an outdoor rink was constructed for practices. Christa Meade and Susan Billard, who, along with Crystal Blackler, co-coach Port aux Basques’ female team, remember the cold very well. It wasn’t always easy, but “Off we went with our mitts and helmet liners on and our long johns, and we just about froze, but we pulled through it,” Billard recalls. “There was a lot of wind, too. It was sometimes like a blizzard out there.” The opening of the Bruce II coincided with the first year the town had an all-female team, and both Billard and Meade were on it. “We tried to recruit as many girls as possible. I remember one girl came out with full hockey gear and a pair of figure skates,” laughs Billard, who wore her brother’s hand-me-downs, while Meade suited up in a mixture of her father’s and brother’s gear.
Girls’ hockey is alive and well in Port aux Basques. In addition to the female team (for those aged 12″“19), girls play alongside the boys. In fact, in this small town, they’re often needed to round out lineups. And, says Keeping, who played hockey at a prep school in the United States and went to a Canadian university national championship with Saint Mary’s University, the boys on the high school team respect her as a player and a coach. There were a few questions at first — one boy asked if she would actually be out on the ice with them, running the practice. She responded with good-natured sarcasm. “I said, “No, no, I think I’ll be standing in the stands with my ballerina slippers. Yes, of course I’m going to be on the ice!”
Not every transition is perfect, and, while everyone in the community is proud of the Bruce II, residents who live in Channel, the oldest part of town, are quick to point out that the fire meant a permanent loss for them. Although you can drive anywhere in five minutes, Port aux Basques is comprised of distinct areas, and the new rink was built over in Grand Bay, where there was more land, leaving those in Channel feeling a bit robbed. They claim that the downtown died when the stadium moved. These inter-neighbourhood rivalries used to play out on the street. A band of brothers from Mouse Island would march down the road and challenge the boys from Channel or Grand Bay to a game. “It was dog-eat-dog then. When we were out on the street, we were bitter enemies, but when we played together in the rink we all came together,” says Strickland. The old rivalry continues in the form of an annual men’s road hockey game, pitting the Republic of Grand Bay against the Channel Liberation Army (a reference to the less-than-serious desire of Channel to secede from the rest of Port aux Basques).
But there were certainly no neighbourhood distinctions a few months ago, when Port aux Basques vied to become Hockeyville. Being in the top five meant that Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) actually broadcasted live from the Bruce II. Andrew Parsons, the young president of the local minor hockey association, spearheaded the Hockeyville effort. He and his committee had just one week to organize and prepare for the visit, and the town responded in a big way. Classrooms created artwork that papered CBC’s temporary control room at the rink, local businesses volunteered staff and resources, every single business in town decorated their shops and encouraged staff to wear hockey jerseys, and the Newfoundland diaspora, from Alberta to the Middle East, registered thousands of votes. A rally and game were organized for the night before the broadcast, as were other ceremonies, including a traditional “screech-in” for HNIC’s Kelly Hrudey (a traditional welcome for mainlanders that involves kissing a cod and at least one shot of “screech” — dark rum). On the day of the broadcast, thousands packed the rink from noon until five the next morning. Mario Roberge, who played for the Mariners and went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, came back for a visit, and the town retired his jersey. “It was like a superhero showing up,” says Parsons. “People were kissing his Stanley Cup ring like it was the Pope’s ring.” The town later received $20,000 for finishing third, but Parsons says that the money is almost secondary. “I don’t think you could ever put a dollar value on what that meant to us.”
The sky is a glorious blue on the first day of the 2008″“2009 hockey season, but it’s cold, with an icy wind that cuts right through my jacket. Although it’s still morning, inside the Bruce II the smell of canteen supervisor Maggie Battiste’s famous fries and gravy already hangs in the air. As fathers and their kids stream in, hockey bags in tow, there are warm handshakes, smiles, talk of summers spent at cottages in the Codroy Valley, and of the prospects for a successful season, how many players have signed up for each level, and jokes about how much time will be spent in this very place. Shawn Tobin, whom I met theday before at the barbershop, greets me like an old friend. He’s a minor hockey divisional director, and coaches the novice team that his son, Benjamin, 6, plays on. While we chat, Stephen Strickland (no relation to Scott) arrives with his son, Jack, 5, who is fully suited up except for skates and helmet. “First game ever,” Tobin smiles at Jack, then, to Stephen, “Get used to being here at the rink. Monday to Sunday.”
For some, that’s not an exaggeration at all. With three kids — Tristan, 11, Jackson, 8, and Daniel, 4 — in hockey, Cindy and Curtis Butt are at the rink seven days a week. Their life revolves around the sport. Summer vacations are spent at hockey schools, the tree at Christmas is packed with equipment, and homework is often completed in the stands at the Bruce II.Jackson’s birthday was in August, but the celebration waited until he could have an on-ice party. “We literally live at the stadium,” Tristan jokes. Cindy adds, “We feel like we should get a room upstairs.” Her face and tone then grow serious. “If we could get a piece of land across the road from the stadium, we would build a house there. But they’re not developing that area.”
Port aux Basques is remote, even for Newfoundland, and road games routinely take families two to four hours from home, one-way. Locals see their willingness to travel anywhere, in any weather, for a game as a sign of their passion for hockey. But it’s not just about what takes place between the boards. Hockey parents admit that these games provide the nice opportunity to stay in a hotel, and, for the kids, to have a little McDonald’s (the closest one is in Stephenville, almost two hours away).
On these trips, hockey moms and dads form close-knit communities, just as they do at rinks all across Canada. But in Newfoundland especially, that community can also serve as support group. The island’s men have long sought employment abroad, and this tradition continues today. The most common employers are the oil fields and related industries in Alberta, and “the boats,” lake freighters where employees typically work away for three months and then enjoy one month at home. This leaves a significant group of women to perform the tasks of a hockey mom — shuttling kids to practices and games, fundraising, organizing schedules and activities, airing out hockey equipment — on their own. Alisa Chard’s husband Jeff worked in Alberta for five years and, although he’s back, drilling artesian wells around Newfoundland, he’s been home only about 12 days in the past five months. Chard, whose son, Ryan, 12, plays at the PeeWee level, estimates that 25 percent of moms find themselves in the same position. But while the busyness can sometimes feel overwhelming, Chard notes that it’s all more than worth it. “I love hockey. Growing up, I never missed a game,” she says. “Fortunately, I have a little boy who loves hockey as well. I really enjoy coming up and socializing with the parents — you feel very bonded. You know every child on the team and most of the parents, and you share that sense of everyone doing the same thing, and lots of them, like me, are doing this alone.”
On my last night in town, I attend a meeting of the minor hockey executive committee. Chatting outside beforehand, the sun has just set, and the sky over the little homes that dot the seashore is streaked with orange and red. Various people mention the surprisingly large crop of entry-level players, four- and five-year-olds, who have signed up, and how that bodes well for future years. Inside the meeting, I note three 20-something executive members, including Parsons — homegrown kids who have gone away to school and are now back, building their lives. Times have changed, and the days of the Mariners will never return. But winter is long, and community is essential. And hockey will always have a home in Port aux Basques.
Contributing editor Tim Johnson would like to thank the people of Port aux Basques for the unbelievable warmth and hospitality they showed him during his week in town.
Winters may be harsh, but summer in Port aux Basques is filled with natural charms. You can have acres of space to yourself at the town’s hidden beaches, or drive the highway to the historic lighthouse at Rose Blanche, taking in the picture-perfect Newfoundland communities, nestled into the rocky cliffs and hills by the sea, along the way. Direct flights connect Toronto with Deer Lake, Nfld., and transportation from the airport is available from Gateway Taxi and Buslines (888-695-3322). You can also reach the town by Marine Atlantic ferry ( “_new”>marineatlantic.ca; 800-341-7981), with two departures daily from North Sydney, N.S. And while you’re in town, dine and stay at the Hotel Port aux Basques (hotelpab.com; 877-695-2171).