Kukla's Korner

Canucks and Beyond

Bright Lights, Small Town

imageWhen CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada came to the Cowichan Valley [map] last weekend, it was an exciting experience for a community accustomed to being somewhat isolated on this Pacific island. 

With a climate more suited to year-round street hockey than frozen ponds, Vancouver Island might be unique environment when it comes to hockey culture in this country.

But I think it’s also fair to say that the game is as important to people here as anywhere else in the nation, and Valley resident Greg Adams—veteran of the Washington Capitals and six other NHL teams over his eleven-year career—gave me his thoughts on why that is.

“I think the Valley in general is a very blue-collar, hard-working town, and you know what? That’s what hockey is,” said Adams. “It’s blue collar, it’s hard working, it’s exciting.”

“A small community like this, it brings people together. You get a couple thousand people together, and it’s kind of like having a high school reunion every Friday night.  You go to a hockey game, you see everyone, you have a beer, you cheer on the kids, you yell at the ref, it’s all beautiful. It’s Canadian.”

And so it was likely with that in mind that CBC found themselves in this virtual wilderness for two days, a satellite location for the events of their 13+ hour live production, being broadcast primarily out of Winkler, Manitoba.

The network was also kind enough to let me shadow their crew, with whom I spent about 14 hours getting an introductory education in live broadcasting.  Not to mention experiencing first-hand the kind of exhaustion that’s oddly achieved from standing around and just waiting so much. (sheesh…)

imageThe five-person team was comprised of reporter Karin Larsen (the on-air host and a Vancouver news anchor and sports reporter);  Dick Schaver (an agreeable engineer charged with maintaining the extensive gadgetry of the truck); Ron Greenwood (a satellite technician with the patience of a saint, as he tried to explain to me how satellite technology worked while I tried desperately to seem intelligent enough to grasp it); David Malysheff (a cameraman contracted from Victoria for the project, who willingly answered a thousand questions); and Brad Coates (the producer. a.k.a. “the boss” to the dozens of people would wander by randomly, declaring “Hey. I need to talk to the boss…”).

In addition to those broadcasting professionals, I also spent time with dozens of local fans, discovering the many ways hockey is part of their lives on this island.  Never having been involved in minor hockey myself—except as a fan in the stands for occasional games—that was an education in itself.  A building crammed with the sweaters of maybe fifty different teams, from Sudbury to Nanaimo and beyond. And so many stories to go with them.

In Adams’ case, he retired to this place after life in the NHL, and in addition to a successful business career since, has remained attached to hockey by the local BCHL team, the Cowichan Capitals.  Formerly head coach, he currently sits on the Board of Directors and also has the pleasure of watching his son Cody playing defense for the team.

imageIn Adams’ opinion, CBC’s visit here was not simply a special event for this community, it should also illustrate an important mandate for the NHL in general.

“I hope the NHL understands the impact that they have on these small communities, and that they should be doing these kind of events.  Because you know what? We are what feeds the money to them… because we’re what feeds the hockey players to them.  So in return, they should be feeding this energy and this ‘thank you’ back. 

“And it is a good mutual relationship.  We feed it upwards and they feed is back to us.”

CBC’s presence on the island was a part of that, illuminating a hockey market that fans who only follow the NHL might nearly forget exists at times. 

Famous names obviously weren’t born the day they were scouted; most fought their way up on teams like this.  And indeed, most that spend time here will never achieve NHL status.  But the NHL is by no means the only goal of the minor hockey system, and most players move on to their own successful ventures.

The BCHL in particular is proud of their record of recruiting and developing some of the best players in the USA and Canada, and Shari Paterson of the Cowichan Capitals believes there’s a very good reason for this.

“Well, BC is a real hotbed. The BCHL does such a good job of developing these players and moving them on to the next step.  With these players, while they’d love to be an NHLer at some point in the future, reality is that their education comes first. 

“So if they make it to the NHL, all the better. But this is a development league, and we’ve put over eighty kids through NCAA college scholarships from this team alone.  And some of those scholarships are worth two or three hundred thousand dollars.”

The BCHL maintains that they are the single most-recruited league for all American colleges, and the Capitals themselves have sent kids off to play for an impressive collection of Ivy League schools, among others. 

But during their time here, these players are an important cornerstone of life in the Valley.

“This team is a big part of this community’s entertainment,” says Paterson.  “When you see those little kids with our players, it doesn’t get any better than that. I see Doug Bodger [assistant coach of the Capitals] standing in the hall, and those kids will bolt right past him because they just saw a player walk down that hall.”

Doug Bodger played some sixteen years in the NHL, and appeared as a guest that night on CBC’s After Hours program, immediately after the Canucks were destroyed by the Avalanche, and Bodger’s own team suffered defeat at the hands of the visiting Victoria Grizzlies. 

Karin Larsen handled the interview, managing the logistics of the events going on around her while also asking her own questions, and joining the discussion over satellite with hosts Kelly Hrudey and Scott Oake.

Larsen is a successful athlete herself, having been a competitive synchronized swimmer before retiring in 1988 after the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.  A communications graduate from Simon Fraser University, she knew she’d have to find a “real” job sooner or later, and after that final Olympics, managed to get her foot in the door at CBC.

“I did a lot of stuff in the community which was a great training ground.  Just getting out, going somewhere and figuring out the story.  Learning how to talk to people.” 

Working weekends only during those early years, Larsen was earning her due.  She tells the story of how one of her regular jobs in those days was to call over to a nearby restaurant favored by CBC sports legend, Steve Armitage, to order his dinner.

“He ordered the same thing every night for the 5 years I was in that job,” she told me with good humor.

Since then Larsen has come a long way. Working exclusively in Vancouver most of the time, she currently she has her own daily, midday news program in addition to producing various sports pieces for the evening news broadcasts.  She also travels on occasion, being a regular commentator and reporter covering major world sporting events for the network, including several Olympic games. 

But being part of Hockey Day was clearly one of her favorite assignments.

“The smaller the sport, the better the interview,” she quipped after explaining her schedule for the day, an assortment of everyday people lined up to talk with her on the air, and on the intermittent webcast set up to broadcast live online all day.  And there were indeed fascinating people everywhere we turned.

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I stumbled across one such interesting story myself when I ran into Janet Reckemesser. 

I met Janet as she was busily cleaning in the arena the day before the broadcast, in her job as custodian and doing general maintenance around the building.  But her attachment to hockey doesn’t end there. 

In addition to this job and another one, Reckemesser also happens to be the coach of a local Bantam hockey team (13-15 year old boys) which she’s been doing for eight years now.  Furthermore, her own daughter, Kassidy, plays on that team and is also the only girl in the league.

“I love it. I love hockey. It’s my life. I love it, I love it!” Reckemesser said, ever-enthusiastic for this sport that is such a big part of her world. 

Her words were echoed by many others I spoke with as well, and it was evident that the national spotlight focused on this small town meant a great deal to this community.

Which finally brings me to the reaction of Globe & Mail columnist William Houston on Monday, who questioned the “schmaltz” of the day, commenting:

The CBC needs to balance the Hockey Day fluff with journalism. Or is everything in the game, as Hockey Canada and the establishment media would have us believe, so perfect there is no need to ask questions or criticize?

While I can appreciate what Houston is saying, I’m not convinced that it’s all bad to have one day dedicated to positive stories. After all, Hockey Day in Canada isn’t entirely about the sport—it’s a metaphor, idealized as it may be, about the people in this country. 

HDIC builds its own mythology out of hockey vignettes across the landscape, stories that are ultimately about people’s lives as much as they are about hockey.

So I was happy to live without “journalism” for a day—I figure Al Strachan and others will be back in front of a camera fast enough.  But meanwhile. I see no harm—and a great deal of good—in sharing a day of “fluff.”  Shmaltzy as it may be.

Witnessing the excitement of those involved first-hand—from the players, the organizers, the fans and even the CBC crew, including Larsen who was often as effusive off-camera as she was on the air, interested in everyone she met—I think that was a story worth telling.

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_____________________________________

*With sincere thanks to the CBC for this opportunity, particularly to those members who came to Vancouver Island and tolerated my non-stop presence as they went about their work; to Shari Paterson and the Cowichan Capitals organization for their gracious hospitality and offers of assistance; and finally, to all the people who shared their personal stories with me over the two days. Though I wasn’t able to fit enough into this piece, I loved hearing them all.

Filed in: hockey media, nhl general, | Canucks and Beyond | Permalink
  Tags: bchl, cbc, cowichan+capitals, cowichan+valley, duncan, hdic, hnic, hockey+day+in+canda, karin+larsen, minor+league+hockey, vancouver+island, worlds+largest+hockey+stick+and+puck

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About Canucks and Beyond

Alanah McGinley has been blogging hockey since 2003 (with a notable gap in time through 2010, kicking it with new baby Lucy while living knee-deep in chaos while reading "parenting for complete idiots" during every spare minute) sharing opinions, rants and not-so-deep thoughts with anyone who will listen.

In addition to writing Canucks & Beyond and helping manage Kukla's Korner, Alanah was one of the founders and co-hosts of The Crazy Canucks Podcast. She has contributed pieces to FoxSports.com and the New York Times Slapshot blog, as well as other stray destinations in cyberspace.

So that's me. Who the hell are you? smile

Email: am@kuklaskorner.com

Alanah's Twitter: [@alanah1]