Our Hockey Dreams

Photo: the Gimli PeeWees. They were champs. Their dream was to play as Bantams, then Midgets, then as a member of the Gimli Wolves. There were dreams of being like our local heroes. That’s me in the goalie pads. That’s where they put you when you can’t skate, stick handle or shoot. You just  need to get in the way of the puck. If anyone has a picture from the 50s of the Gimli Wolves in action, and  you send it to me, I’ll add it to this post.
How can you separate out growing up in an Icelandic Canadian town like Gimli and growing up in a small town in rural Manitoba?
Take, for instance, hockey.
Hockey for Icelandic Canadians, particularly for Icelandic Winnipegers, was big for a while because of the Falcons winning the first Olympic competition but then it died down. By the end of the forties and beginning of the fifties, no one talked about the Falcons. 
According to Red Magnusson–one of the best, if not the best and most dedicated of the hockey playes to come out of Gimli–the Gimli team was just called the Seniors until 1951 when they became the Gimli Wolves. 
What I heard about were the Gimli Wolves, the Teulon Tigers, the Riverton Lions. Our hot players were local boys, not the hired help and they were local heroes. We knew how many goals they scored, who was the best stick handler, whose slap shot would rip your head off.
The games were often noisy with a lot of yelling and screaming and pounding on the boards. We’d be on the North side of the rink where there was only room to stand. At the far end on this side, snow scraped off the ice reached as high as the top of the boards that edged the ice like a fence. You could stand up there for a great view but risked being hit by a wild shot on goal. 
We hungered for broken hockey sticks. When they were thrown over the boards, we scrambled for them, kept them as treasures. They were, to us, like broken gladiator swords, wielded by our heroes of the moment.
The noise of players hitting the boards, of hockey sticks clashing, of the fans yelling, of our pounding the broken sticks flat onto the boards, made a tremendous amount of noise because of the echo in the cavernous space. As we yelled and pounded, strings of frost dropped from the rafters.
The games were fast, the action moving back and forth, first around one goal and then, in seconds, around the other goal. Our triumph turned to fear in moments. The goalies guarded their creases with ferocity. 
Breakaways were often greeted with a moment’s stunned silence, then waves of yelling.
When a period was over, we streamed into the narrow, enclosed front of the rink to get warm and if we had twenty five cents, we got a hot dog plus a coke. To get an order taken, we had to cram into the crowd in front of the concession stand. There was no orderly line. We were an excited mob. The couple behind the counter were pulling wieners out of a pot of boiling water as fast as they could, slapping them on buns. We slathered mustard and green relish on them. Wolfed them down.
When the break was over, we went back to the north side of the rink. Only wimps stayed in the heated enclosed room that extended across the entire front of the rink. There was no real view there. The windows were covered with a thick wire mesh. These spectators were at the east end of the rink and couldn’t see the action at the far end. They were always craning their necks to try to see what was happening further down the ice. Somebody was always saying “What happened, what happened?” when the action was on the other side of the blue line.
On the south side of the rink there were wooden bleachers. People who sat there brought cushions to sit on and blankets to cover their laps and legs.  Grownups sat there in rows, their heads moving as if on a single string as the action moved up and down the ice. When there was a scramble in front of the net, people stood up, yelling and waving their arms.
We stood along the boards on the other side of the rink. There were no seats here. We were ready to jump back if a stick was swung high or a player was boarded in front of us. We kept warm by constantly moving up and down the alleyway made by the boards and the arched outside wall.
Here, also, we could crowd close to the team boxes and the penalty box.
Our players were lumpy heroes. Under their team stockings were leg pads, then their padded pants, their gloves, the jersey over their shoulder pads. No one wore a helmet.
When they stopped, their skates threw up waves of spray. When they dug in, their skates left holes in the ice.
Sometimes, when games were close, the RCMP had to be called to escort the visiting players to their vehicles. Sometimes it did no good and players and spectators mixed it up on the ice.
Nearly everyone worked for themselves in those days and businessmen could shut down the butcher shop or grocery store or barber shop and form a cavalcade to whatever out-of-town game was playing that night. Local farmers milked their cows early so they could get to the games.
There was no hockey in Iceland. Hockey was a Canadian game played by kids with Icelandic names but it was played all over the prairies, in towns like Winnipeg Beach and Petersfield and Clandeboye. And, yet, for me, those days and nights at the local rink are inextricably linked with Gimli and Icelandic, as much part of the mosaic created by Icelandic coffee made in a poki or by celebrating Islingdingadagurin.

2 thoughts on “Our Hockey Dreams

  1. Many people from my home village in Scotland emigrated to Port Dover in Canada in the 20th century, including some of my own Watson relatives. Alexander Gardner Watson (“Sandy Watson”) qualified as a doctor and served as a wing commander in the Royal Canadian Air Force in WWII. Sandy was a keen hockey fan, and in 1948 when the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association announced it didn't have enough talented players to make up a team for the Olympic Games in Switzerland that year, Sandy Watson put together a scratch team from RCAF players and got permission to take them to St. Moritz 48 hours before the deadline expired. They beat Switzerland 3-0 in the final to clinch gold for Canada.

    In the UK “hockey” is played on grass, mainly by girls, and is considered a school game – the other version is “ice hockey”, and it has a dedicated following but is very much a minority sport that relies on talented Canadian and other non-native players.

    Harry Watson

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