TORONTO — For the hockey-hungry kids in Fort McMurray, Alta., the closest NHL action is a five-hour drive south in Edmonton. Not the most convenient of weekend treks.
It’s no surprise, then, that the biggest show in town are the kings of Casman Centre, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. Even for the big-league mainstays whose NHL careers eventually swept them out of town, all hockey journeys with roots in the Albertan city can be traced back to that beloved junior-A club.
“Hockey was a huge part of growing up in Fort McMurray. I think we all had dreams of playing in the NHL, but we also dreamed of playing for the Oil Barons,” says Chris Phillips, the longtime Ottawa Senator whose 17 seasons with the club made him the longest-serving member in team history. “They were stars in our eyes as young players.”
Fifteen-year NHL alum Scottie Upshall remembers spending more than a few nights down at the rink watching the Oil Barons go to work, too. Even in his pre-junior hockey days, he was hooked on the local squads.
“Every minor hockey kid, we would go to these games Friday and Saturday nights in Fort Mac and watch our hometown Jr. Barons compete and beat up all the teams [from] all over Alberta,” Upshall told Sportsnet from Switzerland, where he’s now suiting up for HC Ambri-Piotta.
“Our building in Fort McMurray, it would get pretty loud. It would be rocking, maybe like 1,200 people — die-hard fans who live for hockey games in the middle of winter.”
There’s no denying Fort McMurray — the site of this weekend’s Rogers Hometown Hockey festivities — is a hockey town through and through. The roots of that love of the game weave all the way down to the youth level, with local kids flocking to the sport just like Upshall and Phillips did back in their day. Seven single-A and double-A teams play out of the four arenas in town, along with roughly 70 minor hockey house teams competing in the city’s own league.
“We’ve been on a pretty steady growth trajectory since 2010, and probably before that as well,” says Travis Galenzoski, president of the Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association (FMMHA). “With the exception of 2016. The end of the 2015-16 season and the beginning of the 2016-17 season, we dropped 1.5-to-1.6 per cent.
“That was the year of the fire.”
Any timeline that runs through Fort McMurray figures to feature a similar peculiarity when it reaches May of 2016. It was in the early days of that month that a wildfire swept through town with devastating intensity, forcing the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history — more than 88,000 residents forced to leave everything behind, many for the last time as roughly 2,500 homes were destroyed in the blaze.
“It was one of the toughest phone calls I ever received, when my sister called and [said] her whole family was in the truck trying to get out of town,” Phillips says. “They were explaining what was going on and I think in shock at the same time. Like they were living a movie.”
As the month wore on and the fires were slowly, painstakingly tamed, community members began returning to Fort McMurray, wondering how the costliest disaster in the province’s history would impact the routines they had come to know and love.
It was top of mind for Galenzoski even earlier than that.
“When we were all evacuated, the [FMMHA] executive group, we were constantly in communication with each other,” he says.
With the blaze tearing through the neighbourhood containing the associations home rink, the Frank Lacroix Arena, its president was anxious to get a handle on the damage, and became among the first to return to the city.
Getting back into town, Galenzoski confirmed with his own eyes that the arena was still standing.
“Pretty much the only things that survived around the arena were a set of condo buildings off to the northwest, the school behind it to the south and the church southeast of us,” he recalls. “Everything else was flattened. There was a lot of devastation.”
A different result would’ve ended any hope of bringing minor hockey back the next year, as Frank Lacroix wasn’t just the site of many an FMMHA game, it also housed the association’s offices and all of the organization’s jerseys and equipment for the participating kids, he says.
Still, even with the FMMHA one of the lucky organizations in town to not lose their home base, the plans for the following season seemed murky at best. Though they had been spared, heavy smoke damage required the jerseys be sent off to Edmonton for professional cleaning, and the arena be professionally scrubbed down as well.
“There was a lot of talk about whether minor hockey was going to go on that following Fall of that year,” Galenzoski recalls. “We put our heads together and made sure that we had that ability to ensure that our members had that sport there that they relied on.”
It was a situation many around town found themselves in, with plenty of kids simply wanting to get back to playing, unaware of the scope of the situation enveloping the city.
“My niece and nephew were going through that themselves,” Phillips says. “They made it down to Edmonton and actually got some equipment that they borrowed for them to play a little. [It] helped take their minds off of being displaced from their home.”
As much as securing the return of minor hockey to Fort McMurray was about getting kids back on the ice, it was also about preserving the heart of a city that seemed very much on life support. It was bigger than hockey.
So, from the Oil Barons to the Jr. Barons down to the house league teams, the sport was pulled from the ashes and put back on the ice, with all eyes on trying to restore some sense of normalcy after a string of life-altering weeks and months.
An essential step forward for all those families who had lost plenty in the fires.
“[The arena] is a common ground,” Galezoski says. “It’s a place where people go and talk. There’s a level of healing that happens just with that — being together with others and sharing stories and having your kids on the ice together or on a ball diamond together. That was what it was like in town.
“It was maybe a heightened sense of that. Everybody was more looking forward to getting to the arena so that they could have time with friends, time with neighbours and other families to compare stories and be there for those who lost.”
Upshall, meanwhile, was midway through the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the St. Louis Blues when those early evacuation orders came. He returned home to Fort McMurray when the rebuilding effort was in full force. Like Galenzoski, what stood out most to him was the unshakeable resilience of the tight-knit community.
“What you did see as it went on is the healing and the transformation and the strength the city,” Upshall said.
“[It’s] amazing to hear the stories of the community helping each other to find equipment for kids that lost theirs in the fire, and rally together around the re-building of the city,” adds Phillips.
Initially heartbroken at the thought of losing the rink he grew up playing in — the 36-year-old’s pee-wee championship banner hangs from the rafters of the Frank Lacroix Arena — Upshall was just as thankful to see the rink still standing.
“It’s nice to know it’s still there,” he said.
Three years on, the wildfire has begun its transition from present catastrophe to historic footnote, even if that shift is far from complete. But when it comes to the little things, the age-old routine of watching kids spin around a rink and swapping stories with fellow parents over paper-cup coffees, Fort McMurray is doing its best to get itself back.
“I don’t even think that today we’re truly back to April of 2016, to what normal looked like before May 3rd,” Galenzoski says. “[But] I think … we’re a fairly resilient community. I think we rebounded quite well.
“There’s still a lot of people that are in tough shape around town. But you know what — all things considered, I think the fire made us stronger.”