CALAHOO, Alta. – When the Stanley Cup arrives at the only indoor arena in a hamlet like Calahoo it is a confirmation. A reminder to men like Emile and Roger Berube, the uncle and father to St. Louis Blues head coach Craig, that a lifetime of coaching kids through hockey and fastball had an impact.
There’s not a lot of credit given, or expected, when you are that community coach. Just a lot of Styrofoam cup coffee and sausage-and-eggers after a 7 a.m. practice. Then a kid makes it. And now the Cup marches in, and all the memories come flowing back, like all of those backseat Slurpees on the road home from Onoway or Alexander.
“When you’re playing, when you’re coaching, you’re always thinking if you ever won the Cup, what would you do with your day with the Cup?” said Craig Berube.
He is known throughout the hockey world as ‘Chief,’ the soft-spoken, Indigenous 53-year-old who played over 1,000 NHL games in the toughest role imaginable. A tough guy in the ‘80s and ‘90s National Hockey League, when large, strong men fought often.
“I always dreamt of bringing it back here, and letting people enjoy it, my family and friends,” he said, standing in the Zamboni room of the Calahoo Arena. “Everyone I grew up with lives here. My family is here still. They did everything for me as a kid to get me to where I am today. The hockey, the ball… We’re a great little town, and a great little sports town.
“For me to bring that Cup out here, let people take some pictures with it, touch it… It’s a good feeling.”
Calahoo is one of those ‘road sign’ towns, about 40 minutes northwest of Edmonton. It’s a hamlet you pass by throughout your life, unless your kid’s hockey team finds some extra ice there, or the wedding you’re a best man for orders its steaks from Calahoo Meats. Then you turn at the sign.
On July 2, 2019, the local farmers are taking off their first cut of hay, and the canola is yet to bloom yellow. At 8:15 a.m. the main street in town is already backed up with cars. The firemen are chatting out front of the volunteer fire department, and emergency vehicles are out in force to handle the crowds.
Somewhere just over 200 people live here, the locals estimate, but well over 3,000 folks came to the arena on Tuesday in hopes of getting a picture with Berube, the Stanley Cup and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. Phil Pritchard, the “Keeper of the Cup,” says he has seen even smaller towns welcome ol’ Stanley, though not very many.
“Niklas Hjalmarsson’s hometown in Sweden had just eight people,” he chuckled. “They had an axe throwing competition at the same time as he was celebrating with the Cup.”
Roger Berube, Craig’s father, can’t recall a bigger celebration in his lifetime, 80 years spent living about two miles up the road from this rink.
“We used to have some big parties here,” Craig’s mother Ramona said.
“Nothin’ this big,” Roger said. “Maybe the odd dance in here once in a while, but…”
There was a time when the Calahoos of Canada stocked NHL rosters with tough-as-nails farm kids like Dean Kennedy or Bryan Trottier. When the son of a furrier, like Bobby Dollas, had every chance of elevating to the top of the pro hockey ladder.
Today it is a rich kid’s game. Or upper middle class, at least.
The only way to make it out of Calahoo today is to get out of Calahoo as fast as possible, to the city or the Hockey Academy. That means the chances of the next Craig Berube bringing the next Stanley Cup home is even slimmer than Berube’s chances were.
“The odds of getting the Cup here are like winning the Lotto,” said Emile Berube, Craig’s uncle who was the coach of record as his nephew grew up here.
As a kid, Craig Berube, “was good. He was a big boy, and had that advantage,” Emile said. “I was coaching him in ball and hockey. Him and all the boys. I would take him to the hockey camps, and I guess that’s where he got noticed. And had a tough time getting noticed. He wasn’t like Mark Messier, or anything like that. He was a grinder.”
Berube left the fastball diamond in Calahoo for Williams Lake, B.C., leaving home to play Midget hockey for the Williams Lake Mustangs. “Bottom of the barrel,” Emile said. “And he climbed his way right to the top. He did what he had to do.”
Berube was a tough, tough hockey player. Feared by fellow fighters, and respected by all. You don’t get to the NHL or stay there if you can’t skate and play the game, but as his career wore on, the role he played was being weaned from the game.
Still, he played over 1,000 games, and when he took over a left-for-dead Blues team that had just fired its head coach last November, he was handed the “interim coach” title. That was until Berube coached St. Louis to its first Stanley Cup in team history, for which he was recently rewarded with a three-year contract.
“You go to your first training camp, and then you just keep going, day by day. Next thing you know, 15 years go by in the league. Then you’re coaching, and 15 years go by coaching. It goes by quick,” he marvelled. “I had to prove myself every year, being my type of player.
“You had to go into every training camp and you had to win a job. That’s the way I looked at it. I coach similar ‑ day by day.”
Few of those days were as memorable as this one, however.
The day the Stanley Cup came to Calahoo.
Who knows when the next time will be?