Hockey was a way of life in my hometown

Life in Cambpellton is full of memories, and most of them have to do with hockey.

Whether it was playing on outdoor rinks or sitting in the Gardens watching the Tigers, hockey held the community together

Players from the Cambpellton Tigers celebrate another victory in the 1970s. ((Courtesy John Van Horne))

It was one of those moments where you pause just to make sure you are hearing right.

It was mid-June and I was attending the NHL Awards ceremony in Toronto. The glitzy event was just about over when Ron MacLean came on stage to announce that Campbellton, New Brunswick, would play host to Tim Horton's Hockey Day in Canada.

I remember looking straight and saying, 'What! Campbellton?' My hometown is a barely discernable dot on the map of northern New Brunswick, and it is the last place I thought would play host to the showcase weekend. 

But after the initial shock wore off, the video replay button in the little grey cells in my brain went off and the memories started to roll across my mind's eye.

There I was on a backyard rink my father made. We used to boil a kettle or a pot on the stove and then pour the hot water over the outside tap to thaw it and then flood the ice with the stiff garden hose.

I recalled how my dad bought me my first pair of skates and made me push a box around the rink to learn how to skate. When I mastered the box, I was given a wooden hockey stick with a straight blade as support. I also thought of how many times I broke or someone else broke the window in the pantry at the back of the house with a wrist shot I thought was as hard as Boom Boom Geoffrion's.

No shortage of backyard rinks

Being in a hockey-crazed town in the middle of nowhere, there was no shortage of backyard rinks and we'd have home-and-away series against other neighborhood teams. The Charlongs on Chaleur Street were formidable, and Darleen Charlong - the only girl in the league - was the toughest of the bunch. You'd go into a corner with her and end up five feet into the snow bank.

The local arena was called Memorial Gardens and that's where everything happened. Friday night was huge because it meant the Tigers would be at home to the rival Dalhousie Rangers or the Bathurst Papermakers or the Amqui Aces of the North Shore Hockey League.

With about two minutes left in the first and second periods, you'd see steam wafting out from the northwest corner of the rink. The barrels they used to flood the ice with were overflowing. When the period ended, 10 rink rats would form a line and scrape the ice, while four teenagers hauling two barrels would follow, flooding the ice, creating what we thought was the most beautiful ice surface in the entire world, as good as any you would find in Montreal or Toronto or Chicago.

The Campbellton Tigers line up at the blueline in the old Memorial Gardens ((Courtesy John Van Horne))

The Campbellton Tigers was our team and the roster was made of men from the local area, defencemen and forwards who would work on the CNR by day and play hockey at night. My mind's eye pictured towering Mel Francour, a squared-jawed defenceman with a brush cut who was a cattle farmer from down the Gaspe Coast. He was also the "meat-man" and on Friday mornings would make the rounds, delivering sirloin tip roasts and steaks from house to house, and then suit up for the Tigers that night.

Prime seats in Doylesville

In later years, when the Tigers were playing at the intermediate A level, I became a resident of Doylesville, an area where Tigers enforcer Marty Doyle would always play to his fans by pounding the lights out of an opponent. A few buddies and myself would get to the Gardens early, especially if hated Dalhousie was playing, because we wanted a rinkside seat for the heavyweight bout, and Marty never disappointed us.

Saturday was minor hockey day, and I remember playing in the "Squirt League." My dad had a yellow car - called the Yellowbird - that ferried me and a handful of friends to the Gardens every Saturday at 7:00 a.m. We wanted to get their early to make sure we got the new goalie gear and new helmets when they opened up the equipment room because we felt that gave us an edge. The dressing rooms were on the second floor, behind the canteen, and we dressed in the room closest to the ice, which meant we always had a cold wind blowing in through the broken window.

The first game after Christmas was always special because you'd see the new skates and gloves that were left under the tree.

I remembered playing in a peewee house league game and standing in front the opponent's net, trying for a hat trick. I looked up and there was my dad, standing in the corner, and I was so proud of my two-goal performance I skated over to the corner to tell him how great a player I was. He shook his head and pointed to the other end of the rink, where the play had moved to and the other team had just scored.

This is one of the last hockey memories I have of my father. He died shortly after in 1968 and every year since the Campbellton Minor Hockey Association awards the Ken Adams Memorial Trophy to a volunteer who goes above and beyond in helping out.

Saturday afternoon was time for public skating - 90 minutes evenly divided on going around in circles clock-wise for 45 minutes, then 45 minutes counter-clockwise. The pattern never changed.

The arrival of the Zamboni

Trains were the best way to get to Campbellton and when a regional airport opened nearby, it was something else to see a plane swoop in for a landing.

Truth be told, the arrival of the Zamboni created more of a stir than a turbo-prop plane. No more steam wafting out of the corner of the rink. No more rink-rats cleaning the ice and teenagers hauling barrels. The Zamboni meant Campbellton was joining the big leagues, and it was the same feeling when glass replaced the wire mesh that ringed the arena.

The Memorial Gardens burned down in the mid-80s and was eventually replaced by what is now known as the Memorial Civic Centre.  My fondest memory of the new rink is having Russia's Victor Tikhonov all to myself.

Here was the legendary Tikhonov, winner of Olympic gold medals, and countless world championships, in my hometown coaching a Russian team at an end-of-season tournament. Tikhonov had fallen out of favor in Russia and I remember telling him that he was as close to the edge of the flat earth as he had ever been. 

I offered to drive him to his hotel and when we got in the parking lot, he had this look on his face. So I threw him the keys and off we went and having Tikhonov as my chauffeur was something else. I showed him where I grew up, where the backyard rink was and took him to the site of the old Memorial Gardens. We had a blast.