Canadian small towns are unique, often based around a mill or a mine or a lake that gave people a reason to settle there. There may not be a lot to do in a small town, other than work, but there's usually something that bonds such communities.
In Viking, Alberta, where the Sutter brothers grew up, it was the Carena, the local hockey rink, before the devastating 2006 fire. In Flin Flon, Kirkland Lake or Glace Bay, it was the mine. Throughout the prairies, towns grew out from the grain elevators next to the railroad tracks.
An experienced map reader looks at the 90-degree intersection of Line 32 and Road 130 and immediately knows we're talking farm country -- Stratford, Ontario, the host city for Saturday's Tim Horton
's Hockey Day In Canada, is a city of 32,000 people perched at the edge of Canada's most productive farmland. The city diversified brilliantly by capitalizing on its name and the Avon River that runs through it by creating the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and billing itself as "Canada's premier arts town."
But talk to many city residents and the binding force in Stratford is the Cullitons, a Junior B team in the Mid-Western Division of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. Since Culliton Brothers Ltd., a local construction firm, began sponsoring the team in 1975, the team has won 20 league championships and six Sutherland Cups, the provincial Junior B championship.
"Many communities are defined by buildings and the culture with the community," Mayor Dan Mathieson said. "Our community is defined by our 85-year-old Allman Arena and the culture within it. The Culliton family has ensured that many generations of young adults play hockey within our town and aspire to be part of the great game of hockey. Every child in this community dreams of playing in the NHL someday and they all believe the road to that success comes from being a Culliton."
The Stratford Cullitons have sent 26 players to the National Hockey League and dozens more to major-junior teams, and Canadian and American universities.
"Our community is defined by our 85-year-old Allman Arena and the culture within it. The Culliton family has ensured that many generations of young adults play hockey within our town and aspire to be part of the great game of hockey. Every child in this community dreams of playing in the NHL someday and they all believe the road to that success comes from being a Culliton." -- Mayor Dan Mathieson
"Playing Junior B allows you to play major junior or college," said Jim Clements, the Cullitons' president and former city fire chief. "Kids come through our team to get scholarships or to advance to major juniors. Not only do some of our players go on to the NHL but we have produced many lawyers, doctors and other solid people. Hockey is one thing, but we want our people to leave here wiser, smarter and better people and hockey players. I think there is an overall attitude here that attracts kids and their families."
Lifetime Director Sid Creek was honored in 2006 for 50 years service to the club. He doubled as team trainer for many years and was involved with the previous management. He and broadcaster Bob Smith
first brought the Culliton family in as advertisers on team broadcasts and then helped bring about the sale of the team. Creek has stories from the pre-Culliton years of directors taking out personal loans to keep the team afloat. The famed Stratford Indians Senior A team, national champions in 1907 and Allan Cup champions in 1952, folded in 1962.
"After we got the new sponsor, we hired Dinny Flanagan as general manager and Jack Nairn as coach and the organization rocketed from there," Creek said. "The Dinny Flanagan era, 1975-96, was very successful."
"It all started on a Saturday morning in the downtown market," said Keith Culliton, whose son Tim played with former NHL player Tim Taylor
on the Cullitons and now runs the construction company. "The broadcaster told me the Junior B team was looking for a sponsor. We had been sponsoring a juvenile team. My brother and I negotiated with Sid Creek, who's still with our organization, and we signed the contract."
Success came almost immediately.
"We won the league our first year and then won the league and the Sutherland Cup the next two years," Keith Culliton said. "I had two of the best people that ever handled Junior B teams in Dinny Flanagan and Jack Nairn. Dinny had a lot of connections and many universities came to Stratford to look at our players. Dinny recruited not only good talent but good kids."
New York Islanders
"It was a great community to go and start my junior career. I've been fortunate to play in a number of cities, especially in juniors, that have a storied tradition, and Stratford was the first. Stratford was a great place to play, the tradition of the team, the way the town embraced the team and its players, made you feel welcome. It was a lot of fun playing there." -- Chris Pronger
General Manager Garth Snow
, Chris Pronger
, Rob Blake
, Greg de Vries
, Rem Murray
, Mike Peluso, Ed and Ricky Olczyk, Bryan Smolinski
and Jeff Halpern
all advanced through the Stratford Cullitons.
"It was a great community to go and start my junior career," Pronger said. "I've been fortunate to play in a number of cities, especially in juniors, that have a storied tradition, and Stratford was the first. Stratford was a great place to play, the tradition of the team, the way the town embraced the team and its players, made you feel welcome. It was a lot of fun playing there."
Tim Culliton said his family has applied the same principles in operating the hockey team that they have in their construction company. The word he keeps repeating is quality.
"The quality of the hockey and the quality of the team has had a positive effect with the quality and reputation of the company," he said. "The association with a quality hockey team has been a positive name association. If you tie your name to something perceived as high quality, it can't help but transfer over to your company."
"My brother and I had just bought the company and changed its name to ours," Keith Culliton said. "Culliton is a different kind of name and what happened was once we started sponsoring the Cullitons, everyone in Perth County knew how to spell our name. When you know how to spell it, now you can do business with us."
For Tim, the hockey team has been a major part of his life.
"There's a real sense of community in that arena for hockey games," he said. "I went with my father. I have young boys and I take them to the games. It's a thread that runs through families in Stratford and draws the community together. We get good news coverage, a great fan following and a great booster club. With local coaches, trainers and directors, people have made the Stratford Cullitons a part of their lives and families."