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Winkler, Manitoba at the heart of Hockey Day in Canada

by John McGourty

Don Cherry and Ron MacLean will anchor CBC Sports' Hockey Day In Canada from Winkler, Manitoba.
You might be tempted to think that the city of Winkler, Manitoba, will never be the same after a visit from Don Cherry, Ron MacLean and the rest of the crew from CBC Sports' Hockey Day In Canada on Feb. 9 for Hockey Day in Canada

But you'd be wrong. The people of Winkler have a strong sense of self, they're industrious and welcoming and they have their feet solidly planted in the deep, deep prairie soil of their productive province. The plaid-clad bombastic broadcaster with the high white collars and eye-blinding ties won't knock Winkler's denizens off their game.

But the Ontario saloon owner might have to exchange his high horse for motorized transportation to find the nearest beer.

For the eighth annual renewal of Canada's unofficial hockey holiday, Hockey Day In Canada, CBC Sports will anchor its broadcast from the small, southern Manitoba city that has produced NHL players Dustin Penner, Eric Fehr and Ray Neufeld. Hall of Famer Black Jack Stewart was raised a few miles up the Pembina Valley in Pilot Mound and future Hall of Famer Ed Belfour grew up in neighboring Carman.

Belfour's son Dayn has followed in his father's footsteps, playing goal for the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

John McGourty

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MacLean, Cherry, Olympic hockey hero Cassie Campbell and veteran broadcaster Dick Irvin will kick off the 13 1/2-hour broadcast from the Winkler Arena at noon ET. The traditional NHL tripleheader will feature the Detroit Red Wings at Toronto Maple Leafs at 2 p.m. ET, followed by the Scotiabank Hockey Tonight pre-game show at 6:30 p.m. ET. There will be regional broadcasts of the Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators or the Edmonton Oilers at Calgary Flames at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the Colorado Avalanche at Vancouver Canucks at 10 p.m. ET.

There will also be a special edition of CBC Sports’ Hockey Night In Canada on Thursday, Feb. 7. The broadcast of the Canadiens hosting the Maple Leafs at 7 p.m. ET also will feature segments from Winkler, including visits to schools by former NHL players, including Wendel Clark and Perry Berezan, and CBC personalities, as well as on-ice clinics.

CBC Sports will return to Winkler Arena Saturday night to highlight the Manitoba Junior Hockey League showdown between the Winkler Flyers and Selkirk Steelers.

"The Steelers and Flyers have a huge rivalry and the atmosphere is electric when we play in the Winkler Arena," said Steelers GM Ken Petrash. "We're nudging closer to the playoffs, so we'll be close to filling that building. It's intimidating because the fans are right on top of you and Flyers' fans are ecstatic about their team.

"There's a very strong moral ethic in Winkler with the old values. It's a great place for a kid to play junior hockey and to grow up. We're very happy to be part of this. It's a great honor for the Selkirk Steelers and we appreciate them making us part of it."

"Winkler is a dynamic, hockey-passionate community and is the ideal backdrop for our eighth annual Hockey Day in Canada broadcast," said Joel Darling, director of production, CBC Sports. "It has experienced tremendous growth and progression over the past few years, which fits perfectly with our theme of ‘The Journey.’ We are very excited about visiting this special community and presenting its intriguing stories with the rest of the country."

"First, we decided that we would feature Manitoba this year because we've featured other provinces in the past, but not Manitoba" - Joel Darling, director of production, CBC Sports

For all his bombast and controversy, Cherry is the voice of mainstream Canadian hockey and Winkler is as mainstream Canada as it gets, hard-working, neighborly, generous, sober and modest.

It is overwhelmingly Mennonite, an endpoint to the diaspora that began in Prussia, saw them escape persecution by immigrating to Ukraine and Russia and finally settling in North America, mostly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and on the Canadian prairies.

"Oh, they're much more conservative in the States," said city official Deb Penner, Dustin's aunt and one of the local organizers of Hockey Day In Canada. "They still drive horse-drawn carts and some don't have electricity."

"Most Canadians would say you're conservative," Penner was told.

"You got that right," Penner agreed.

A local minister was transferred a little while ago from Baltimore to Winkler, shortly after his marriage. His wife created a whimsical website in which she contrasted the two cities.

"Winkler is predominately Mennonite," she wrote. "When they have their “ecumenical” service it literally means that all the different Mennonite churches in town get together. (Proper term: ecu-Mennonite.) People don’t chain their bikes up here in Winkler. After years of being a “dry” town, you can now buy and sell alcohol in Winkler but no one does because you might get shunned (go to Morden for alcohol)."

"Or you could go down the road to Plum Coulee," advised Ed Sunderland, the Winkler Flyers' director of player personnel, who coached the Flyers' team that included Belfour, Edwin Penner and former Michigan State star Don Gibson. "And, Morden's only seven miles away.

"Years ago, we had a sponsorship offer from a brewery to put the company logo on our players' bags," Sunderland said. "A board member asked how much we'd receive and I told him about $2,000-3,000. The board member wrote a check in that amount and said there'd be no beer signs on our boys' bags. We tell all our players that it's that kind of community. Our rules reflect what the community demands. We try to get kids in this program that want to be good citizens.

"I'll give you an example: We have a player on our roster from California, Jared McIntosh, who recently published a children's book, Apan. That's backwards for Napa, his hometown in California. The book deals with racism and growing up. He wrote it so kids could understand what a black athlete experiences. We sell the book here at the arena. Reading Week is coming up and local schools have asked for Jared's book. This is what we're looking for, very sound kids with character and good moral standards."

"First, we decided that we would feature Manitoba this year because we've featured other provinces in the past, but not Manitoba," Darling said. "The theme this year is ‘The Journey,’ the journey that hockey takes people on. In addition to being Dustin Penner's hometown, Ed Belfour played there for the Winkler Flyers before continuing his journey in hockey.

"Winkler is a growing community that has been very progressive with immigration ideas. They've solicited immigration from Eastern Europe and had a lot of people move there. The people of Winkler help the immigrants with doctors, jobs and schools and get involved with helping them settle in. That tied into what we are doing with our theme of ‘The Journey.’

"One day Joel Darling calls and said he's considering using Winkler and wants to come see the arena," Deb Penner said. "It came out of nowhere. Within a week of them coming here and meeting us, they called to award it to Winkler. It's very exciting and it just fell into our laps. It's fortunate how it worked out.

"CBC will be here Tuesday to find places for their equipment and set up production offices, details you can't do until the week of the event. The 'storm' hits next week. Hope we're ready for Thursday."

Penner said she's had no shortage of local volunteers.

Dustin Penner played at Garden Valley Collegiate, the local high school in Winkler.
Watch Dustin Penner highlights

"It's a very good community in which to grow up and raise a family," said Edmonton Oilers star Dustin Penner, who won the Stanley Cup last season with the Anaheim Ducks. "It's close knit and everyone looks after one another's kids in one way or another. The small-town mentality makes us close.

"There is a lot of industry and a lot of good jobs in Winkler. It's really grown in my lifetime. When I grew up, there was nothing but fields past our back fence. Now, it's like we live in the middle of town. It's crazy how big it's gotten."

"We can't keep up with the housing starts," Sunderland noted. "The construction crews are mostly two- and three-man operations and they can't keep up. There's 70 units more than planned-for going up right now."

"We grow mostly wheat and potatoes and some other crops but Winkler is a manufacturing center," said Brendan Neufeld, who coaches Garden Valley Collegiate, the local high school where Dustin Penner played. We have Triple E Canada, the nation's largest maker of recreational vehicles, Elias Woodwork and many other employers. Companies can start small and grow here."

Indeed. The city-owned Incubator Mall was created just for that purpose. About 20-30 new businesses start up each year in Winkler. Over 50 were created in 2002.

That prosperity has created a fertile hockey environment.

"Kids start in the Winkler Minor Hockey Association at age 6 and it goes through age 17," Brendan Neufeld said. "We're part of the Pembina Valley Minor Hockey Association. We've also got the Timbits youth-hockey program and a shinny program at the arena for kids who don't want to travel. We started that about six years ago on Saturday mornings and the kids come from Winkler, Plum Voulee and Roland.

"For high-school-aged players, they can continue minor hockey and we've also got the high-school programs. GVC is a public school with 1,100 enrolled. We compete in Class AAAA and we've been very competitive the past couple of years. The winner of our league moves on to the ‘provincials.’ We made the final the past two years and won two years ago, provincial champions. A team from Brandon won the year before so rural hockey has come along in the last few years."

Neufeld noted that the Triple AAA Midget Pembina Valley Hawks, Brent Krahn's old team, also draws players from the area.

Winkler became a city in 2002, with a population around 9,000. It had been 6,000 less than a decade earlier and is projected to reach 12,000 in a few years.

"We estimate school enrollment will double in 10 years," Neufeld said. "We have about 300 German-speaking students here from Germany and Russia."

The folks in Winkler are preparing for a whirlwind of activity leading up to Hockey Day In Canada but they're ready, partly because they've had good practice in celebrating hockey in recent years.

"Within a 12-month period, Dustin Penner won the Stanley Cup, Eric Fehr won the Calder Cup, my brother Blaine Neufeld was a member of the Vancouver Giants that won the Memorial Cup and GVC won the Provincial Championship," Brendan Neufeld said.


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