As one reaches the Ontario border from the Manitoba side, it feels like one has been transported from fields of green to lakes of blue, especially on this warm Thursday. The winding highway through lake country is surround by faces of rock and small cliffs thanks to the Canadian shield, making the drive to Kenora feel more like a trip through a small, picturesque mountain range. But as one nears Kenora on Highway 17, it becomes apparently clear why this is cottage country as the lakes take over the landscape.
Kenora itself isn't a huge city by any means. The town boasts about 15,000 people as its populace, but that number can swell to double the size in summer as thousands flock to the area for boating, fishing, and cottage life. I expected a quiet town on Thursday as I pulled into the city, but what I expected was far different than what I found.
The city had not only embraced Hockey Day in Canada, but personified it in every way. From billboards welcoming people to Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada to every shop and store in town having a Hockey Day in Canada logo in its windows to jerseys of every team and every generation of Kenora Thistles hockey, Kenora was living and breathing the game of hockey with every foot I went deeper into town.
My first stop was the Kenora Recreation Centre which houses the Kenora Thistles Rink and the Kenora Aquatic Centre. The rink can be described as a modernized "old barn" as it still has the feel of an old-time rink, but has a number of modern amenities that allow it to host all sorts of events. Located at 18 Mike Richards Way in the city, the 1900-seat facility plays host to the vast majority of hockey events in and around the Kenora area including high school and AAA hockey games.
My arrival coincided with meeting Bob, an amazing man who runs the merchandise stand in the rink. Bob is a lively gentleman who loves his hockey almost as much as he's proud of his city, and his knowledge of the history of the Kenora Hall of Fame players is second-to-none. He and I must have spoken for an hour about all the history and great players who have grown up in the Kenora area, and his knowledge on the Thistles teams from the Stanley Cup-winning squad through to today was a lesson in hockey history I'll find nowhere else. Bob is a gem of a human being, and I highly recommend stopping by the merchandise stand if and when you visit Kenora.
The next person I met was a young lady by the name of Casey who was in charge of all things happening at the rink. If I had a question, she had the answer. To call her a resource would be doing her an injustice because she's quite literally the lifeblood of the Rec Centre. She was on the go the entire time I was there, but had time to stop for every question, every fan, and every visitor to ensure that they were doing well. I don't know what she's earning in her role, but I'm quite certain she's worth double the amount with how vital she was during the day in my time at the arena. She's everything that one could hope for in an ambassador, and that only scratches the surface of what I saw from her.
Bob caught me again, and this time he had guests to introduce. Bob introduced me to Len "Kroppy" Kropioski's niece and her husband. Kroppy, as you may be aware, is a legend in Winnipeg thanks to his unwavering support of the Winnipeg Jets who he would drive in to see for each and every home game from his hometown of Kenora. This couple were two of the nicest people one could ever hope to meet, and I feel blessed having met them.
From there, I was able to speak with Sportsnet's Ken Reid, pictured in what he called a "Kenora Dinner Jacket" above, for about ten minutes prior to the Skate with Stanley event happening at the Kenora Rec Centre. I also got a nice nod and smile from Hall of Fame legend Bryan Trottier after I said hi to him. He was also there for the Skate with Stanley. Mark Napier was late and blew by me as he rushed to get his skates on, but he blurted out as he entered the arena, "Man, look at this great old rink. I love it!" Clearly, the appeal of the Rec Centre was not lost on the NHL legends.
I ran around a little in the afternoon as I picked up a few groceries and checked into my hotel room. In both the grocery store and the hotel, every staff member was wearing a Hockey Day in Canada or Kenora Thistles shirt! While the hotel staff is managed by an independent owner who certainly can approve this choice of uniform, the national grocery store chain I visited has an approved uniform. However, it appeared management was entirely in the spirit and had their staff in the spirit as well as they all were in hockey gear!
Upon returning to the Kenora Rec Centre, I went about getting the radio broadcast set up. Lots of people using the concourse walking/running track stopped by the table I was getting set up on to ask what I was up to and pass on stories about their meetings with NHL legends and local hockey heroes. I can't express how incredible this interaction was as people literally were brimming with excitement in being able to tell someone that they met their favorite hockey players. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing their excitement and listened enthusiastically as they told their stories.
The show, if you listened, went off without a hitch as we chatted hockey and had some laughs. The women's hockey game that went on while we went to air between Beaver Brae Secondary School and St. Thomas Aquinas was nothing short of epic as they took a 4-4 tie into the shootout where there played about 30 rounds of the shootout before St. Thomas finally prevailed. Ok, maybe 30 isn't entirely accurate, but we watched a number of shooters score and be denied before a final goal caused a massive celebration on the ice. Honestly, it was one of the best women's high school hockey games I've ever watched.
We were fortunate to feature Mr. Ken Reid on the show as well, and that man is a professional. Ken was gracious enough to spend about an hour with us as he told stories of new books, his time on Sportsnet and working his way up to that illustrious position, and he had some great views on some of the topics we covered on The Hockey Show. He knows his hockey, he's well-versed in broadcasting, and he was a delightful guest. Ken Reid is truly one of the best men in the business!
I also need to give thanks to a number of people as we wouldn't have had this experience without them.
First and foremost, Joel Darling of Sportsnet was incredible to speak with when it came to granting us this opportunity. He understood the importance of this broadcast and made it clear that we were to cover the game with the utmost professionalism, but he also was quick to remind me that it was about having fun. I hope we made you proud with our broadcast of the NHL/Kenora alumni game, Mr. Darling. I would not hesitate to jump at the opportunity if you asked us to work with you again. Thank you, Mr. Darling.
I also want to thank Bruce Johnson, Thistle Alumni Coordinator, for allowing us to set up in our broadcasting location for the game. Bruce was vital in getting a pile of Thistles alumni to play in the game, and he was the man in charge of the game's progress once the seats were filled. He allowed me to stand between the benches for a unique perspective on the game while allowing TJ and Beans to broadcast from the concourse at center ice. Bruce was a gentleman, a professional, and he ran a tight ship. The alumni game wouldn't have been possible with his efforts. Thank you, Mr. Johnson.
Lastly, but in no way least in any way, I want thoroughly thank Miss Kerri Holder, Communications Clerk for the City of Kenora, for being my point of contact in getting me in touch with Mr. Darling, Casey, and Bruce. She was vital to UMFM's experience in Kenora despite her being incredibly busy on Thursday. I cannot express how much gratitude for her efforts in getting our little show down to Kenora to be part of the festivities, but she absolutely deserves the recognition. Thank you, Miss Holder, for everything you did to help us.
Of course, this event would have been nothing if not for the people of Kenora, and I want to thank them as a group. My time in Kenora barely spanned 24 hours, but the warmth and welcoming nature of the town was more than I ever expected for some little radio broadcaster. Thank you, Kenora. I love visiting, and you're going to be exceptional hosts for the entire country on Saturday for Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada.
You may have heard us on The Hockey Show during the World Junior Championship wrap-up talking about how the smaller communities live and breathe junior hockey when it comes to their towns. Kenora is a shining example of an entire city embracing their moment in the spotlight and running with it. While personalities such as Ron MacLean, Don Cherry, Darcy Tucker, and Lanny McDonald visit, the star of this weekend will be the city and citizens of Kenora because of how they are embracing the event.
We implored the World Junior Championship to return to its roots where hockey is a part of the culture and brings people together from all walks of life at all hours of the day in every season. Kenora is the embodiment of this plea from our show, and its citizens are exceptional ambassadors of this wish. Look to the communities where hockey's stars found their path, and you'll find the passion for this game once more. Hockey is still a game. In the end, it shouldn't be about record-breaking profits or the most-attended event in the game's history. It's always been about the love of the game, and I think I saw my passion re-ignited in Kenora thanks to its citizens' outpouring of passion for the game.
I'm proud to have been a part of this event and to have had the privilege of working with some exceptional people. But the real stars of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada are the City of Kenora, its citizens, and the memories made as a result of these important pieces. Thank you, Kenora. It's an experience I will not soon forget.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!