ST. LOUIS — “Welcome to Fort McMurray — We Have the Energy.”
It’s just a run of the mill welcome sign at the side of Highway 63, 435 km northeast of Edmonton, the kind you see at the outskirts of every Canadian town. But when you’re a hockey player, and you leave your hometown at the age of 16 to chase the dream, those signs mean something.
“When you come in from the south on Highway 63 … you see the billboard: ‘Welcome to Fort McMurray — We Have the Energy.’ It was a warming feeling when I came through there,” said St. Louis Blues winger Scottie Upshall. “For me, as soon as you got there you knew you were finally home after a four-hour drive from Edmonton. I was going to see my parents.
“Hockey was usually over, and I was coming up to do a charity golf tournament with Chris Phillips, or coming in to see friends.”
You probably know more about Upshall’s hometown today than ever before, with Fort McMurray dominating the news cycle as the largest fire evacuation in Albertan history. And it’s not over, with shifting winds and high temperatures forecast for Wednesday, and an empty city with some 80,000 citizens spread out over the province, both north and south of town.
“I grew up in Thickwood Heights. Right near the arena where I won a Royal Bank Cup. Literally the arena grew up in,” Upshall, 32, said in an early morning phone conversation Wednesday. “The first arena I ever skated in was called the Beacon Hill Arena. Man, I can still remember the smell of that place. I’m told Beacon Hill is completely gone.”
Good news: We found out later in the day that the old Beacon Hill Arena, which became the Frank Lacroix Arena, survived, even though 80 per cent of the homes in Beacon Heights burned. The reports have been sketchy, though the truly important news has kept Upshall’s spirits up as his Blues make their run through Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
He awoke from his pre-game nap on Tuesday to see a tweet that read: “I’m sure Scottie Upshall will play for his city of Fort McMurray tonight.” He thought it was just an everyday shout out.
“I retweeted it, and then I started reading on Twitter. I said, ‘Holy (cow).’ ”
It was three hours to game time, and Upshall had his mother, three nieces and another dozen family members on his mind. The Dallas Stars? Forget about the Dallas Stars.
“I did not care about the hockey at the time. Once I started reading and I saw photos and video on Twitter, hockey was kind of the last thing I was thinking about,” the 10-year NHL vet said. “I called my mom, (Mandy) and she said she and the girls were safe and hopping in the truck shortly.
“I was on my phone for most of the pre-game warmup, in the dressing room.”
His brother Brent and his fiancée Shannon sat through Game 3 here in St. Louis, worried sick about the three kids they had left in their mom’s care back in Fort Mac. They were in good hands, with help from family, and eventually Upshall could turn his attention to a series-shifting 6-1 Blues victory in Game 3.
“My head was in the game, but I could see where my brother was sitting. I could see him on the phone for most of the game. In the back of my mind I was hoping I would get some good news.”
The good news is the people. Miraculously we’ve not heard reports of deaths or injuries coming out of Fort McMurray, Canada’s oil capital. But for those who’ve been through something like this — whether it’s flooding in Manitoba or High River, Alta., or the fire that obliterated Slave Lake, Alta. in May of 2011 — it’s a faraway feeling when you can’t be there to help.
“We both have so many friends there and people we know, and guys I’ve coached with, guys that have played for me,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “Last night when I got home (he was) trying to make contact with guys, and obviously this morning looking at it, it’s a tough spot. There are some pretty nice areas, like Beacon Hill, that got hit pretty hard, so you’re just … (Damage) is obviously very substantial right now, especially when they’ve evacuated the whole town.”
Post-game, Upshall’s phone blew up with messages from across the great hockey family. George Gosbee, a part owner of his old team, the Arizona Coyotes, left him a text, as did Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke.
“Burkie said, ‘We’re going to do something this summer. We’re going to raise a ton of money for the people, the victims in the city.’ I’m sure the NHLPA will get involved.”
They’ll pull together. They always do.
It’s the side of hockey we like the best.