Hockey’s past, present and future

Fort Frances was the place to be this past weekend if you were a hockey fan. Anyone who made it down to the Ice for Kids Arena between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon was afforded the opportunity to glimpse the game’s storied past, its current state, and its future. The undeniable sporting highlight of last week came Friday night as a group of NHL Legends skated into town to play the local Hopper’s Bruins in a charity game, with all proceeds raised benefiting the “Just Imagine” campaign for a CT Scanner here. As a journalist, I’m supposed to stay completely impartial when covering an event. But that having been said, I’ll admit to being pretty excited to see some of the most famous hockey names of my youth ply their trade—even if they are years past their prime. I, like most people my age, fondly recall watching the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty in my grade school years. Therefore, it was particularly exciting to get a chance to watch a key component of those old Oiler teams—Glenn Anderson—skate up close and personal. But he wasn’t the only player I was excited to have the opportunity to watch. The 1980s were a trying time to be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Winning seasons were few and far between, but there occasionally were players for whom it was easy to cheer. One such player was Gary Leeman. I fondly recall the 1989-90 season when Leeman caught fire and scored 51 goals for a Leafs team that finished the season with a 38-38-4 record and then was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the St. Louis Blues. On a complete side note, the Leafs took on less importance in my life when Ottawa was awarded a franchise and began play in 1992. I later became openly hostile towards Toronto in June, 1994 when they dealt Wendel Clark to the now defunct Quebec Nordiques. I’ve never forgiven Leaf management for dealing Clark. I don’t care that he was on the downside of his career or that the player for whom he was dealt, Mats Sundin, has had a long and successful career as a Leaf. There are some things you just don’t do in life, and one of them is trade the heart-and-soul of the team you idolized growing up. Simply unforgivable. Of all the entertaining events surrounding the Legends game (the game itself, the Timbits hockey game during the first intermission, and the shootout during the second intermission), the highlight of the night for me was getting a chance to go into the locker-room afterwards and interview the players. Each of the former NHL greats proved to be nothing but friendly and eager to share their stories. My favourite conversation took place when I asked Bryan Trottier which of the two Stanley Cup-winning teams for which he played, the N.Y. Islanders or Pittsburgh Penguins, would win in a head-to-head game. For the record, Trottier claimed it’s far too close to call. If Friday’s Legends game was a look into hockey’s past, Saturday’s Muskie boys’ exhibition game against the Eveleth Golden Bears was a glimpse at hockey’s present. With two-thirds of the Muskies’ regular season in the books, a few things have become glaringly obvious. The first is that unless this team suddenly abandons its work ethic (an unlikely event given that head coach Shane Bliss demands his players perform to their utmost potential each and every night), the black-and-gold should roll through the rest of the NorWOSSA regular season undefeated. I hesitate to hand Fort High the league crown prior to contesting a single playoff game (after all, anything can happen in the playoffs), but this team clearly is head-and-shoulders above their NorWOSSA rivals. The second fact that’s emerged is that this Muskie team is only scratching the surface of its potential. If this group is good now, they could prove to be even stronger next season when the primarily young squad returns with a full season of experience under their belts. Provided all the players who are eligible to return next season do so (by no means a slam dunk), the Muskies could be a real threat to win gold at the all-Ontarios. And from the present, we look to the future. The Fort Frances Knights of Columbus won a thrilling 4-3 overtime win over the Volunteer Pool Bearcats (Thunder Bay) in the ‘A’ final of their own tournament Sunday afternoon at the Ice for Kids Arena. Any hockey fan who hasn’t seen this group play is doing themselves a real disservice. I was impressed with the wide-open offensive system the team employs and their ability to fill the net given the slightest opportunity. The KCs easily were the class of their home tournament and were extremely deserving champions. But perhaps the best part of the weekend was watching a group of kids who genuinely were having fun playing the game. I won’t claim to know the team inside and out, but the impression I got in watching the Knights was of a close-knit group who enjoy playing together and who are successful because of it. I would hazard a guess that years from now, when competitive hockey is a thing of the past for the majority of these kids, each will be able to look back at their time playing for the Knights and smile fondly. And isn’t that how it should be for every kid who laces up his or her skates? acruickshank@fortfrances.com

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