Why hockey means so much to Ottawa Senators players and to Canadians

“The memories are still there. When we meet up in the summer, we still have conversations about it. Hockey is all about having fun.”

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It’s dark and cold, -16C, at 6:45 a.m. Saturday, and the parking lot at the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre in Ottawa’s south end is nearly empty.

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It’s an important first stop — a step back to the grassroots — for somebody who’s going to put the spirit of Hockey Day in Canada into words. The early-morning practices, parents with Timmy’s cups of coffee in hand, that’s where it began for so many National Hockey League players. It’s where, out of the glare of the spotlight, the coaches, volunteers and hockey moms and dads made a difference.

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There’s a magic and majesty to hockey. The arena is the theatre. There’s an entrancing beauty, with ruggedness and physicality and artistry and creativity, all done at high speed. It is so simplistic — score more goals than the other team and you win. Yet, at the highest levels, it is so much more complicated. With its X’s and O’s and strategies, the arena is an intellectual battleground.

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Hockey calms us, it angers us and it excites us; watching a game takes us through a rollercoaster of emotions.

Hockey unifies, it solidifies. It bridges borders and boundaries and political ideologies.

In Canada, it is our pride and joy, part of who we are. It is our game.

Ottawa Senators interim head coach Jacques Martin was raised on a farm in Saint-Pascal-Baylon, near Rockland. Martin, a goalie at the time, was at the outdoor rink a lot.

“The ice was about three miles from the village,” Martin said. “When we had icy conditions, I remember being able to skate from my house to the village. Those memories have always stayed fond to me. When I won the Stanley Cup (coaching in Pittsburgh), it was the first thing that came to my mind … those early days, in my boyhood.

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“My favourite team was the (Chicago) Blackhawks. My favourite goalie was Glenn Hall, and I’d always try to imitate what he was doing. In your head, you’re making a great save or you score in overtime to win the Cup. When I think about it it, it comes back to me.”

That takes us back to the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre, named after a former Ottawa mayor. There are two ice sheets: the Peplinski Arena and the Walkley Arena. Framed jerseys of longtime NHLers Jim Peplinski and Marc Methot hang in the lobby.

This early morning, the Ottawa Sting U10 team has a two-hour practice time slot on the Peplinski side, while the other side is occupied by the Ottawa Girls Hockey Association.

Before the kids begin practice, the ice glistens, freshly lathered by the resurfacing machine with a thin layer of water.

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Stepping in for Sting head coach Conor Rossiter on this day is his dad, Eugene, an assistant with the team.

Now 72, Eugene has been playing hockey for nearly 70 years. His grandson, Rory, plays for the Sting.

He developed his love for hockey as a kid in Prince Edward Island, in a small village, Morell (population about 300).

“We were out on the river playing every day,” Rossiter said. “It’d be the same group of guys on that outdoor ice, maybe 15-20 of us, all within three or four years of age of each other.

“You didn’t need a net, you just had to set up a couple of boots. Hockey really is a game for life. One half of one per cent of children playing hockey will ever play for a cheque. It’s for the love of the game. The kids that are here (practising) want to be here, they love being here.”

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Trevor Sturtevant has two kids playing hockey. On this day, he’s with son Tanner, a forward with the Sting. Sturtevant’s wife, Taryn Taylor, is with their daughter Teagan, an 11-year-old who plays with the Nepean Wildcats U13 AA team. The parents split the practices, then both try to get to the games.

Both kids started in minor hockey’s Initiation Program (Timbits).

To give Tanner a feel for being on skates, he was in the CanSkate program.

“He thought he wasn’t going to be a hockey player,” Sturtevant said. “The pads helped. When he fell, it didn’t hurt. In CanSkate, he was just on his skates.

“Now he loves going to the rink. These are his buddies. It’s all about the team. It’s never been a struggle to get him to the rink, even this early in the morning.”

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Being involved with the team as a parent is also special.

“The parents have become like a family, our friends,” Sturtevant said. “Some of my colleagues tell me how much we’re going to miss this when it’s all over.”

It’s now 9:15 a.m., and there are nearly 50 cars in the parking lot at the recreation complex. It’s still cold, but at least there is light.

The cafe inside the arena has opened. Many parents want coffee, but the menu also offers plenty: candy floss, Slushies, pretzels, bagels with cream cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, pogos, onion rings, burgers and nachos.

For the purposes of national television, this year’s Hockey Day in Canada celebration was based in Victoria, B.C. All seven of Canada’s NHL teams played, beginning with the Senators hosting the Winnipeg Jets at 3 p.m (a 2-1 overtime loss for the home team). Then it was Montreal at Boston, Toronto at Vancouver and Edmonton at Calgary.

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Nikolaj Ehlers Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg Jets left-winger Nikolaj Ehlers celebrates his overtime winning goal against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. Photo by Justin Tang /The Canadian Press

Mostly, it’s a territorial thing when we pick our favourite teams and players. Sometimes a love for a team is passed down through generations. Mostly, though, we just love hockey.

We look around the league, with so many uber-talented hockey players with jaw-dropping skills … guys like Connor McDavid, Jack Hughes, Auston Matthews, Tim Stutzle, Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon.

Turn back the clock, then twist it back some more … through a Who’s Who of hockey, players who have given us so many memories.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrice Bergeron, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Claude Giroux, Jonathan Toews, Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price.

For old and older fans, it’s Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, the Sedin twins, Mark Messier, Phil Esposito, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Ken Dryden, Dave Keon, Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Teemu Selanne, Jarome Iginla, Bobby Orr, Marcel Dionne, Paul Coffey, Jean Beliveau, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Sakic, Pat LaFontaine, Larry Robinson, Denis Savard, Steve Yzerman, Bryan Trottier, Mats Sundin … there’s Paul Henderson and Team Canada in 1972 … and so much more.

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So many heroes. So much magic.

Let’s look at the Senators and some of their childhood hockey memories.

Ridly Greig grew up in Lethbridge, with a neighbourhood pond behind the house. The rink’s caretaker was known to the kids as “Rod the Ice God.”

“He was kind of the MVP of the neighbourhood,” Greig said. “He made sure the ice was always flat. We spent hours and hours out there in the winter. There’d be 10-15 players on the ice.”

It was where the development began for the Senators centre. The kids would go on the ice, go home for a quick bite to eat, then go back out.

“It’s where you build your game without even knowing it,” Greig said. “You went out there without a worry in the world. You mess around, play shinny, do stupid stuff when you’re a kid. We’d be out there sometimes until midnight, it would get pretty cold out there. It was so much fun, just playing hockey for the fun of the game. They say that’s where the skill comes from.”

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Thomas Chabot Ottawa Senators Alex Iafallo Winnipeg Jets
Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot (723) applies pressure on the Jets’ Alex Iafallo during the first period of Saturday’s NHL game in Ottawa. Photo by Chris Tanouye/Freestyle Photo /Getty Images

Many of Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot’s early memories came from sitting on the couch and watching hockey as a family.

Thomas was a Canadiens fan, but his dad liked the Quebec Nordiques.

“It was funny because my brother and I cheered for Montreal to do well and my dad would be cheering for them not to win,” said Chabot, whose favourite player was Sidney Crosby. “There’d be little fights going on at home.”

There was an outdoor rink less than a minute’s walk away.

“We’d come home from school and play,” he said. “On weekends, we were there all day. I don’t know how many times we played those Game 7s. The memories are still there. When we meet up in the summer, we still have conversations about it. Hockey is all about having fun.”

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Mathieu Joseph and his younger brother Pierre-Olivier, who grew up near Montreal, played lots of hockey on their backyard rink, set up by their father Frantzi. The brothers would wake up at 6 a.m. so they could get an hour of ice time before school. On weekends, the neighbourhood kids would be invited over with Frantzi making hot cocoa. 

“It wasn’t work for us, it wasn’t a job, it was all about having fun,” Joseph said. “I don’t remember thinking about getting to the NHL until my second year of junior hockey.

“Hockey is like a religion in Montreal. It gives people something to cheer for. We’re proud to call ourselves Canadians.”

Drake Batherson Ottawa Senators
Senators winger Drake Batherson, far left, looks back as Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck makes a save during the second period of Saturday’s game at the Canadian Tire Centre. Photo by Chris Tanouye/Freestyle Photo /Getty Images

Drake Batherson, who spent time living in Indiana and Germany while his dad Norm was a pro hockey player, settled into New Minas, a village in Nova Scotia.

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“There was a pond in the backyard,” Batherson said. “We played a lot of hockey. One year at school, I don’t think people ever saw me at recess or lunch. They didn’t know if I was still in school or not. Me and my buddies were always playing ball hockey.

“You’d go to the rink with 20 of your best friends and play hockey, there was nothing better.”

Jacob Bernard-Docker said he has early memories of the outdoor rink his dad Thomas built in the family’s backyard in Canmore. His dad put together an ice-watering mechanism out of PCP pipe to keep the rink in great shape.

“We’d put my sister (Island) in goal and me and my brother (Seth) would pound away,” Bernard-Docker said with a laugh.

“I remember coming home from school every day and being pumped to get on the rink. Hockey really brings everybody together. The team atmosphere is unbeatable. It’s the same with fans and hockey, they come together.”

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