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True North, Way North

Just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the town of Yellowknife hosts the annual Hockey Day in Canada in a pure show of unity through sport

by Mike Gastineau / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Seattleites certainly know how sports can unite a region. We've celebrated the championship parades and admired the outreach work by our teams' athletes on behalf of communities and charitable causes. We love our sports and they love us back.

Such community spirit and symbiosis was on display last weekend in Yellowknife, a town of 20,000 in the Canadian province Northwest Territories, which hosted this year's Hockey Day in Canada broadcast aired by the CBC network. Yellowknife is approximately 1,500 miles north of Seattle and just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Brrrr, yes it was cold, as in a few degrees below zero Fahrenheit can be the high temperature of all of February-which makes the esprit de last weekend all the more impressive.

Hockey Day in Canada started in 2000 as a day-long televised celebration of the game in the country where it was first played and where the sport is an unparalleled cultural touchstone. Originating the show in Yellowknife for this February's 20th anniversary year is fitting and not so far-flung as it first appears.

Deline, an aboriginal settlement 330 miles north-yes, north--of Yellowknife, was visited by legendary British explorer Sir John Franklin during his series of Arctic expeditions in the 1800s. In his diary during the winter of 1825-26, Franklin described his men playing a game of field hockey on ice. This game was played 50 years before the first indoor game was played in Montreal and 92 years before the NHL was founded.

As part of this year's Hockey Day show, The Stanley Cup via its white-gloved handlers journeyed to Deline, giving the town's 500-some residents a chance to see and touch hockey history. Deline is the only human settlement on the shores of Great Bear Lake, which runs along the Arctic Circle. It is the eighth largest lake in the world with a surface bigger than the country of Belgium. The community is largely made up of Sahtuto'ine people, translation Bear Lake People who keep the body of water pristine for practical, cultural and prophetic reasons.

Lanny McDonald was born in the tiny Alberta town of Hanna who played 16 seasons in the NHL, a fan favorite with both Calgary and Toronto, making him a shoo-in selection for 1992 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Last weekend marked McDonald's 10th consecutive Hockey Day appearance. He said he thinks staging the event in smaller locales is a magical formula.

"We were in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland two years ago, and in Swift Current, Saskatchewan last year," he said. "Now we're up here in Yellowknife. The smaller towns give us such a great setting."

McDonald, wearing a Hockey Day sweater and matching stocking cap, is standing on a plaza overlooking decidedly frozen Frame Lake. That signature bushy mustache is a smart move up here. While snowmobiles and the occasional truck zoom past on the lake, a day-long hockey tournament continues on two pond-hockey style rinks below. There's an oval carved behind those rinks where people can test their skating skills.

There are table-top hockey games and another game that involves shooting a puck through a maze. Fire pits and warming tents are set up to help battle the nine-below -zero air temperature (with wind chill factors dipping to minus-20). By the way, that's nine below in Celsius...although at these temperatures it's debatable how much C or F matters. Three huge snow sculptures decorate the area around the plaza. One is titled "Not Your Average Hockey Mom"; it features a Sno-cat "tracked vehicle" (used for Arctic expeditions) with a hockey stick attached.

Hundreds of residents with kids and dogs in tow sip hot chocolate and coffee while visiting with each other, snapping pictures and cheering their kids on in the tournament. People line up to meet and get autographs from several NHL legends but the longest line all day was the queue to get your photo taken with the Stanley Cup. McDonald smiles as he takes it all in.

"People playing outdoors and loving every second of it," he said, smiling. "When you see all the girls and boys playing the game and learning so much about teamwork and being a part of the community...that's why we're here. It's a true celebration of the game."

Wendel Clark played 18 years in the NHL primarily with Toronto. Like McDonald, he is from a small place (Kelvington, Saskatchewan). Spending a couple of days in the sparsely populated Northwest Territories feels right to him.

"It's great to share hockey up here because you realize how much they like it," said Clark. "We don't get to see what they're doing because they're isolated. In a city of this size with the extra-long winters, hockey is a big part of community togetherness."

Yellowknife is remote and a veritable metropolis compared to the tiny dots in the road where McDonald and Clark are from. The town is served by daily flights on several airlines. Bars and restaurants are lively and serve local fare like Arctic char fish and chips, Arctic seafood stews and soups, and bison burgers.

There's hockey history here to pair with Deline. Mining has always been a huge part of the economy of the region. In the 1900s, there were several gold, silver and copper mines in the area. Those mines all formed hockey teams and played games so fiercely competitive mines often recruited workers for their hockey skills first and mining know-how second.

Frank Horvat is considered the best and most well-known player of that time. He played for The Giant Mine Grizzlies hockey team from 1952 to 1967 and was so good that an opposing team once sabotaged his car so he couldn't get to a game.

Only five players from the Northwest Territories have played in the NHL and four of them played five games or less. The exception, the single greatest player from the area to play in the NHL is Geoff Sanderson. He was born in 1972 in Hay River, a seven-hour drive around Great Slave Lake from Yellowknife. Sanderson played 1,104 games and totaled 700 points as a left-winger for several teams. He scored more than 30 goals in seven different NHL seasons, including four with the Hartford Whalers (briefly a teammate of NHL Seattle GM Ron Francis), one with the Buffalo Sabres and two with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Yellowknife NHL list might hit six soon enough. Ronan Seeley is a defenseman for the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips. His dad Patrick played in junior and minor leagues in the 1980s and then became a pilot. For a short time, he was based in Yellowknife where his first two sons, including Ronan, were born.

"There's an edge of the frontier feel to Yellowknife," said Patrick Seeley during a recent phone interview, "because that's what it is. The edge of the frontier. There's one road in and one road out. The climate is conducive to ice hockey but the problem is the lack of competition."

Seeley was transferred to Alberta before Ronan's first birthday: "Ronan considers himself an Albertan," said his dad, "but he knows he was born in Yellowknife and that makes him different from his peers."

Ronan Seeley is projected to be selected somewhere between the third and sixth round in this year's NHL draft. "His dream is to play in the NHL like so many other Canadian children," Patrick Seeley said of his son. "I think it would be really neat if a kid born in Yellowknife got to play hockey in the greatest league in the world."

The weekend included youth games and clinics at the Multiplex Arena and a game Friday night between NHL legends and local hockey players. In addition to McDonald and Clark, the NHL legends in town included Brian Trottier, Paul Coffey, Darcy Tucker and Colin Patterson plus former Canadian Women's National Team member Cassie Campbell-Pascal.

The 2,000 town indoor rink was packed for Friday night's game. While the list of players born here who have played in the NHL may be small, the impact of the league on Yellowknife is large and obvious. All seven Canadian NHL team logos can be spotted in the crowd as fans show support for their favorite team. "Everybody there follows hockey," Patrick Seeley said.

The small town proved its heart for hockey and community as so many locals pitch in to help when big events come to town. By mid-December, local organizers had enough volunteers to fill all the jobs necessary for the four-day celebration of Hockey Day in Yellowknife.

"That's part of the reason we love being in a community of this size," McDonald said. "You see how many people are involved in it, how many volunteers we have to help put this on, and they all love being a part of it."

It all feels very familiar to Clark. "We come here and we get to celebrate the game we've played forever in a community similar to where a lot of us came from. Every community is hockey."

That spirit, the special community that builds around the sport is part of Canadian culture. But it is exported to every American city and region with an NHL franchise.

Seattle is next and McDonald said he is excited: "I think it will be fabulous. Look at our rivalries in the NHL. Toronto and Montreal. Montreal and Boston. Calgary and Edmonton. How great is the rivalry going to be between Seattle and Vancouver? It's an absolute natural, it will be so much fun."

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