for publication December 24, 2015
Two weeks ago, December 11 to be exact, my regular Friday column was a response prompted by Bauer’s “First Shift” nationwide promotion to get more Canadian kids playing hockey.
You might be thinking, “what, Canada needs to boost enrolment?” Sadly, the surveys don’t lie. The indications are, hockey is becoming a rich kids game. And it hasn’t happened overnight.
The calls and email that followed the column included comments from NHL players, past and present, all listing names of those who had contributed to their early hockey experience.
The most common thread repeated in the responses was the fact that one person stood out, usually a coach or a father, often one-and-the-same, a man who made the game easier to understand. Invariably, those minorf and youth hockey coahes taught players the great lesson that is “teamwork,” with the other being it isn’t always going to go the player’s way. Unfortunately, the bad coaches, didn’t teach anyone anything.
But I was fortunate, having the same coach for five years, long time ago, in what is now Thunder Bay, when I was one of those kids.
As a youngster growing up during the WWII era in the railroad division town of Schreiber, my first recall of “rink skating” was in the Quonset hut arena where the temperature was always ten degrees cooler than outdoors.
I was six, living in my grandparents home on Main Street, when I received an unwrapped Christmas gift of hockey gloves from my uncle Doug, a brakeman on the CPR. I have written before about coming down the stairs that Christmas morning and despite the dim light of the winter dawn, I could make them out. I have forgotten many a Christmas gift, but never that first pair of gloves.
Several years went by and I was back in the Lakehead with my parents. I experienced my first taste of organized hockey with the Elks Peewee program, as a Ranger, playing homes games at the Collegiate outdoor rink.
My father, a CPR fireman and a notable local baseball pitcher in his day, had no interest in hockey, he simply ignored it. The only skates I possessed were a large pair of hand-me-down blades to “grow into,” their origin remains a mystery. Those Christmas gloves, and a pair of flimsy felt-and-sticks shin-pads were the only gear I had. At the time the Elk’s ran a six-team league, and on the Rangers there were two coaches named McEachern, gave out itchy replica Ranger’s sweaters and stockings I never wore because I didn’t own hockey pants.
I played my first two games as a forward, but since our family wasn’t flush enough to consider hockey gear as a required expenditure. Therefore, since necessity rules I volunteered to play goal, because being a goalie came with free equipment. Pads, gloves, and a “protector.” Still, no pants, but I wasn’t quibbling.
The following year, at the urging of my lifelong friend Tony Kaplanis to join him, I took my one regular stick, the now inadequate Christmas gloves, barely protective shin-guards and big skates to a Minnesota Park rink tryout with the East End Athletic Association bantams.
Turns out it was the spring of that year when my parents split, and late in the fall came the day I first met coach Walter Shurget. He was a late-20’s parent, and after offering me a card to sign, he became a surrogate father, not only to me but others on the team.
We needed someone to set higher standards, to make us follow instructions, to believe in ourselves, and perform to our abilities. I was now converted to a defenceman, and over the next five winters as our age brackets changed, he moved up with us, a firm hand always coaching, guiding, and keeping us in line. I wore the “A” in two of those seasons and twice was his “C”. We won City, Intercity and District championships.
After all these years, in business and life, I and many of my East End teammates, adhere to his teachings to this day. I know this because those of us who remain talk. I don’t know any of the thirty-odd players over that five year period who didn’t live by his instructions and advice. We all went on to better things.
This is what minor hockey needs, influencers like Walter Shurget, more than they need coaches with salaries for hire, or exhibition tours to Finland. What they need is the chance to play.
I applaud the Bauer initiative in making equipment affordable to the parents and kids who would otherwise be left behind because of financial handicaps, without experiencing the positive result of shared teamwork, and the stabilizing reward of being part of a team.
Walter Shurget and the East End AA, were my role models. I was lucky.