BY KEVIN PUTMAN
Hockey in Sylvan Lake has been a way of life for generations. For myself personally it's been a relationship of 26 years. I moved to Sylvan Lake from Fort Simpson, NWT in 1988 as a 10 year old kid for work — well my dad's work technically.
I didn't want to move because, let's face it, what kid ever wants to move away from their friends and town they've grown up in. Upon arriving in town I saw the beach, the waterslides, mini golf course, bumper cars, bumper boats, go karts, ice cream shops, etc., etc. Maybe this place wouldn't be so bad after all.
The one thing I did know about and was looking forward to was Sylvan Lake Summer Hockey Camp, simply known now as Sylvan Lake Hockey Camp. My parents had signed me up for camp that summer and I was really looking forward to it, being from a small town in the north who's only ice rink was an indoor, yet natural, ice surface. The idea of playing hockey in the summer was so awesome to me.
I remember walking into the rink and being blown away by how many kids were there. I was scared, nervous and excited. I figured I was going to meet a bunch of new friends and I wondered if I'd be as good as them. For the most part I wasn't, but I did make friends. To my surprise though none of the kids except me were from Sylvan Lake. That was my first glimpse into how popular this camp was. Kids from other provinces and even the United States including my coach, Bill Thomas, who played college hockey in the States were there.
Some of the kids acted like they were from Sylvan Lake and in a way I guess they were. They were summer residents who actually lived in the arena upstairs in the dorm. Imagine that. A bunch of kids from other towns living in a rink. Literally a home away from home. I thought that was cool and was always kinda jealous of the kids who lived in the dorm. They'd come for multiple weeks some for even a month. The atmosphere at the camp was intoxicating for a little kid. Being at the rink all day with no parents, playing hockey, going to the beach, the waterslides and eating nacho cheese dogs and sloppy Joes for lunch, it was hockey heaven for kids.
In the four years I lived in Fort Simpson my hockey playing experience was limited to one practice a week Ñ about an hour every Tuesday. At least that's how I remember it. We played two games in those four years both against Fort Nelson. So the idea of being on a real team and having the opportunity to play real games was exciting for me.
When fall came I tried out for the Atom A team. I was the goalie in Fort Simpson so I was obviously going to be the goalie in Sylvan too. No big deal. Little did I know I'd end up being the goalie turned forward on the Atom D team. Who cares! I made it! I was on a real team! I even led the team in goals that year with 23. So naturally the following year I became a goalie again.
As the years went by Sylvan Lake Arena became the old cliché; it was ‘my second home’. It’s the truth though. I refereed minor hockey on way too many cold mornings but a nap in the referee room was always only 20 minutes away. OK sometimes 40. I played minor hockey right through till the end of Midgets.
In high school I started working at the back door rink. For four years, myself along with Chris Michaylow spent five hours a night almost every night maintaining the ice, enforcing the rules and making sure it was a fun, safe place for everyone to play. We were getting paid to basically play shiny and when nobody was there we’d still be shooting pucks (tennis balls after 7 p.m. though).
The fact everyone in town referred to it as the "outdoor rink" was unique to Sylvan Lake because to get to it you simply walked out the back door of the arena and it was ten feet away. Because of this Sylvan Lake Arena was actually a place where parents would drop their kids off even if they didn't have a practice or game and just leave them there. They never had to worry if their kids were getting too cold, or wonder when they needed to be picked up. The kids would simply walk into the rink and call their parents if they needed something and there was always an adult nearby in case of an emergency.
Kids could collect pucks and trade them in at the concession for quarters until they had enough to buy hot chocolate or play video games or blow it all on 5¢ candies.
Having the back door rink also created an even better atmosphere at the arena because even when nothing was really happening inside, the back door rink was alive and kicking. Ask anyone who ever played on that back door rink in Sylvan Lake and they'd argue it was the best outdoor rink in Canada. Access to a concession, a warm place to put on skates and a Zamboni flood three times a day — It was awesome.
Sylvan Lake's love of hockey doesn't begin and end with the arena. Growing up and even today when I drive by the lake in the winter and see the massive ice surface that the town floods every year, I can't help but stare at the hundreds of people skating and playing hockey. It's the quintessential picture of Canadiana. And with the lake it's not only Sylvan Lakers using it.
People from out of town flock to it on weekends for all types of activities, hockey being one of them. The annual pond hockey tournament is a popular event which attracts roughly 50 teams every year. Not only is skating on a frozen lake one of the purest forms of the game, it's also a luxury in Sylvan Lake given the closeness to restaurants and shops downtown, including Hockey Central. It's as if they planned it this way.
I started coaching full time at Sylvan Lake Summer Hockey Camp in 1997. All towns in Canada claim to be hockey towns and they're right. In Sylvan Lake though it seems to ring more true. Sylvan Lake is on the map for two things. #1 the Lake. #2 the Hockey Camp. When I tell people I’m from Sylvan Lake, the first topic of conversation is inevitably the hockey camp. Either they’ve been or their kids have been or they know someone who’s been. You begin to realize how many people have come through Sylvan Lake because of the camp.
The fact it’s run every summer since 1975 is absolutely remarkable. Sylvan Lake has been the go to place for summer hockey over the last 40 years. Roughly 100 families per week for eight weeks every July and August. They have come from all over Canada, the United States and Europe and have been doing so for decades. I'm not just talking about the students either. The number of quality coaches that have made Sylvan Lake and its arena literally their home year after year in the summer time is too long to list. Some of my best friends today are people I've met at Sylvan Lake Hockey Camp. I feel proud and fortunate to have coached there full time every summer for 18 years.
On January 20th the hearts of many, many Sylvan Lakers sank when we heard the news our beloved arena had collapsed. Our home away from home gone in the blink of an eye as decades worth of memories came crashing down. Luckily nobody was injured but sadly so many of us were hurt.
Rinks all across Canada are special places. There's no denying anyone's claim that their rink is the best rink because to them it is. One thing I can say for sure though is that Sylvan Lake Arena had a personality all it's own. As much as I dislike the Boston Bruins, Sylvan Lake Arena was Alberta's version of the Boston Gardens. The incredibly small ice surface which gave home teams a legit home ice advantage. What seemed like a 10 foot drop from the benches to the ice and the fog that always seemed to linger in the air. Not to mention the best concession anywhere. When rinks all across Canada were shutting down Sylvan Lake Arena was gearing up for it's busiest time of year (summer). I always wished my friends and I had a place to hang out the way kids did on that 1970s show in Eric Forman's basement. I realize now I had that place for 26 years. It was Sylvan Lake Arena. Losing that hangout is a devastating blow to the community.
Being Canadian you tend to get sentimental explaining stuff like this. Hockey is in our blood so how do you explain what can’t be explained? It's a feeling and we just have to go with it. Hockey means a lot to Sylvan Lake for all the obvious reasons. Friendships are made, lessons learned, communities within a community are built. More than that though, hockey has contributed so much to Sylvan Lake's identity when it comes to how other communities view us.
When people think of Sylvan Lake they think of hockey. They think of Sylvan Lake as a year-round hockey hot bed and though the game of hockey and our arena mean the world to us Sylvan Lakers, it's not just for us.
Hockey in Canada is all about relationships. The relationships forged through hockey in Sylvan Lake and with Sylvan Lake Arena expand well beyond the town limits. Our arena meant a lot to people from all over the world and that is not an exaggeration. For that reason not only does the game of hockey mean a lot to Sylvan Lake but Sylvan Lake has meant a lot to the game of hockey. If I was going to rename the Town of Sylvan Lake it just might be Hockeyville.
Kevin Putman, now living in Whitehorse, Yukon, is one of the campaign organizers for Sylvan Lake’s bid for the Kraft Hockeyville grand prize.