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Hockey is Canada's great bonding agent

by Dan Pollard
While working at the NHL General Managers meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., recently, I was asked by one of the local TV crews working with us just how ingrained the game of hockey was in our Canadian culture. It was a great question. The best way I could answer was to explain that the way to get directions in a Canadian town was to ask where your destination was from the
(A) a Tim Horton's coffee shop

(B) the local Legion hall


(C) the local arena

Everyone knows those spots in town, especially the arena.

The rink is a gathering place, and if your town was lucky enough to produce an NHL player, chances are it's named after him.

I just got back from North Bay, Ont., where the local double-rink pad is named after Pete Palangio (and not far from a Tim Horton's, by the way). Upon further research I discovered Mr. Palangio was a scoring star with the North Bay Trappers in 1926-27 and while his NHL career was not long -- 71 games with the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks -- he was a member of the Hawks' Cup-winning squad in 1938. When he passed away in 2004 he was the last living member of that team.

North Bay council has gone one step further and named one of the ice pads in the rink after Ab Demarco. They get twice their bang for the buck with that name. Ab Senior played seven NHL seasons, while his son, Ab Junior, spent nine seasons in the dance.

The reason I was in North Bay was for an old-timer's tournament. I guess that speaks to how engrained the sports is in our culture. Father Time can't slow down 32 old-timer's teams.

No ex-pro's on our team, but there are connections. Greg Cooke is the brother-in-law of the Avalanche's Adam Foote. One of the goalies, Bill Henderson, at one time played on a pick-up team with Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson. That's less than seven degrees of separation isn't it? Bill also uses pads that used to belong to Steve Valiquette. Bill is not as big as Valiquette, who is 6-foot-6, but he's an old-school goalie -- he can sew, so he cut the pads down.

The tournament is part of an annual sojourn for the team and it really speaks to how the sport can unite. Once a year, we run into a group of players from Kapakasings, Ont. It's the only time we meet, yet it's as if we saw them a week ago. Moe Gendron, Pierre Millette, Claude Mayer, Yves Barbeau, Yvan Prevost and the group raise a glass in salute and we catch up on a years worth of activities.
Even local establishments open their doors. Jack Tennant's Steak House on Lakeshore Drive stays open and slaps up a sign to welcome the Uxbridge Islanders for a late-night meal Saturday night. I tell you, it's the sport that unites.

Last Friday, former NHL coach Pat Burns ignored his doctors' advice, jumped on a plane and flew to Montreal. Why would he risk his health? Well, Burns joined Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other dignitaries to announce plans to build a new arena in his name in Stanstead, Que., a town near the Quebec-Vermont border. The $8.3 million project will replace an aging 55-year-old rink.

Unfortunately Burns, 58, doesn't expect to be there for the opening in 2011. Cancer has filled his lungs and the former NHL coach says his six-year battle with the disease is drawing to a close. He's asked that you shed no tears. The Stanley Cup and three-time Jack Adams Award winner says having a rink named after him is one of the highest points in his career. He's told his kids not to cry when his life is over, just be happy that it happened. It is part of the life cycle.

The new arena replaces the old. It will be a new meeting place for youths dreaming of playing in the NHL, as it will be for hopeful teens, young men and women, and, of course, old timers who have the sport ingrained in their DNA.

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