A long way from pond hockey

Juris
Juris Graney
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Transcontinental Media-St. Anthony; The Northern Pen

Willie P. Simms and his wife Millie stare at the photo for a few seconds, then look up in different directions.

Mr. Simms peers over his left shoulder towards a royal blue jacket slung over a chesterfield chair in the lounge room; Ms. Simms stares straight ahead at a wall featuring photos of the same bright young faces.

Had they never muttered a word at that point, the look in their eyes would have said all you needed to know.

The photo of their four grandchildren was taken in Moncton earlier this year at the Atlantic Challenge Cup - the breeding ground of future hockey champions.

All four were pictured wearing the same black-sleeved and grey jerseys, with Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador emblazoned in bright colours across the front, and all of them have beaming smiles, especially the girls in the centre, cousins Heather Richards and Natasha Noel.

Flanking the girls are Jordan Richards and Nathan Noel.

It's not unusual for sporting flair to run through a family, but to have a quartet of talented teens become successful at the same time is rare.

"Oh my," Ms. Simms says, taking a deep breath. "Aren't they beautiful children?"

It's more of a rhetorical question than anything else.

"We are just so very proud, very very proud," she says, resting a hand on her husband's shoulder.

Mr. Simms takes his time to respond.

"It's hard to express how I feel when I see this photo," he says.

"They are very special. They are dedicated to hockey, but more than that, they are all just down to earth and they treat everybody with the same amount of respect."

There's an argument that genetics might play a role in a family with four provincial representatives, but Mr. Simms laughs at the suggestion it has anything to do with him. Instead, he deflects his grandchildren's success onto their fathers.

"Curtis (Richards) is a very talented player. He spent a lot of time with them on the ice and he is a good coach. He taught them how to win, but also how to lose. And Glen (Noel) is a good athlete. He was a good goalie and ran the Boston Marathon," he says.

"The genes are not from me."

But that blue jacket, with its bright yellow hemmed pockets, glossy canary coloured press buttons and oversized white hand-embroidered St. Anthony Saints logo, says otherwise.

The left arm patch features a Canadian and American flag above the name Bill, on the right arm is the number 20 and the letter C.

The patches are older than the jacket, but Mr. Simms' stories of hockey in and around St. Anthony are older.

In the blood

Winter wasn't nearly as sluggish to arrive on the Northern Peninsula in the 1950s as it is today.

Whereas the ponds now struggle to freeze before December is out, 60 years ago there was always a place for hockey to be played by October and November.

There was no Olympia Stadium until 1963, so up until then all hockey was played outside on whatever frozen surface players could find.

Before the game, players would clear whatever snow had fallen during the day and push it up to create makeshift boards to give players somewhere to fall if given a push and also to prevent the puck from escaping too far away from the action if a pass missed its target or a shot on goal went wide.

"We'd be up at the reservoir as soon as it froze and then we'd move down the harbour just as soon as it would freeze up," Mr. Simms remembers.

Around 1957, the game moved from the ponds to the area next to where the Olympia is today.

It wasn't anything flashy, but for those with hockey in their blood, it might as well have been the Forum in Montreal or the Gardens in Toronto.

Three-foot-high boards were erected and the Grenfell association allowed players to use their Wagex pump to flood the area in the morning.

Because everyone was working during the day, lights were strung across the playing surface and simple oil heaters kept the players warm on the bench.

The evening before the game would begin, as they did on the harbour or on a pond, the players would trade $10 wooden hockey sticks for wooden planks and shovels to clear the surface.

There was no such thing as a Zamboni in northern Newfoundland in those days.

As Mr. Simms remembers, the first senior men's competition started with just four teams, all of them from St. Anthony, and where you lived dictated who you played for.

The Saints came from the west side of the harbour between Bottom Brook and the Orphanage, the Polars were from the Orphanage down to Fishing Point and the Aces and Ramblers were on the east side of the harbour.

For 20 years, Mr. Simms not only played centre for the St. Anthony Saints, but he was also captain and wore the number 20 with pride.

"The games were really competitive," he says. "It was a genuine and serious competition.

"There was never any sponsorship back then, so every team member would buy their own uniforms, sweaters and stockings. Some of the sticks were homemade and I can tell you, because they were wooden, there were very few slap shots.

"You just couldn't afford to break a stick."

Unlike today, where goalies have more padding than a mattress store, there was no armour for those who played in the nets. Even players had very little in the way of protection and the spectators who clustered around the boards did so at their own risk.

The players were in the firing line not only from the opposition but from the crowd.

"If there'd been enough snow and there were banks, supporters would stand up there and kick snow in your face when you were up against the boards," he laughs heartily.

"Sometimes you'd get snow thrown at you as well. Players don't get that these days."

With a lack of sponsorship and crowds getting a free game of hockey, it was decided at one point that in order to keep the competition going, funds would have to be raised.

You couldn't charge an entry fee to an open-air stadium and players couldn't be expected to keep footing the bill.

"So we started up a collection," he says.

"Someone would be in charge and they would go around the boards and collect money from the crowd. It'd never be much, but sometimes you'd get about $8 or $10 which, looking back, was a bit of money, but it'd go towards covering things like pucks and expenses."

The competition slowly expanded to include teams from surrounding areas - the Raleigh Heebees joined and so too the Griquet Braves, but come 1963, when the stadium was opened, the halcyon days of outdoor hockey were over.

Supporters were protected by a mesh net, protective gear for goalies started to improve, as did that of regular players, who started wearing helmets and mouth guards.

The game hasn't stopped evolving- those wooden sticks over time would advance into space age material and next year a new page in the development of hockey in St. Anthony will be complete when the multimillion-dollar Polar Centre replaces the Olympia.

It's a long way from pond hockey.

Lasting legacy

Only for a brief moment, when he moved the jacket into the dining room, did Mr. Simms let go of the photograph of his grandchildren.

With all the talk of hockey, Ms. Simms has moved to the lounge room to read a book, every now and again looking up with a reminder and a smile.

"I can't watch them play," she says of her grandchildren. "I get too nervous."

"I'm petrified one of them is going to get hurt, so I stay at home now."

Because Natasha and Nathan have grown up in St. John's, the Simms rarely had the chance to watch them. They dearly wanted to, but instead of being at the rinks, they followed their young careers by phone calls and family visits.

"We'd love to see Nathan and Natasha play more, but distance is the real obstacle," he said.

Getting to watch Nathan play has become even more difficult, considering he now goes to school at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota, where he plays at the boys' bantam Tier 1 level.

The tyranny of distance and representative honours means the Simms are finding their chances to watch Jordan and Heather are also diminishing, but the memories of past matches are still strong.

"I remember watching Jordan skating when he was four years old," Mr. Simms adds.

"I was so uptight. I was afraid he'd get hurt. And watching Heather play makes me nervous even now, especially when she's up against the boys - there are some heavy lads out there.

"But the thing is by playing alongside them she's learning extra skills on how to avoid them.

"She can do things backwards I couldn't do forwards."

While the grandkids are always in the thoughts of Mr. and Mrs. Simms, the same can be said about Jordan, Heather, Natasha and Nathan.

For instance, playing for the Western AAA Kings, Jordan asked for the number 20 jersey, the number Mr. Simms wore for so many years.

And they are always ready to pick up the phone and call their grandparents for a chat.

As for that royal blue jacket slung across the chair, Mr. Simms takes one more look at it before carefully folding it in half.

"I'm going to give to Jordan at some point," he said. "I know he'll look after it."

 

Organizations: Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador, Boston Marathon, Gardens Grenfell association

Geographic location: St. Anthony, Moncton, Jordan Northern Peninsula Montreal Toronto Northern Newfoundland St. John's Minnesota

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