Hockey Day in Canada is a special for day for many Canadians, but for 16 minor hockey kids from Inuvik, NWT, this past weekend created memories that will last a lifetime. In the wee hours of Friday, February 20, I joined Trevor Murphy , Oilers Manager of Fan & Community Development, and Mike Beley, camera operator for Aquila Productions, on a turnaround trip to pick up the giddy crew and fly them to Edmonton to experience Hockey Day in Canada on a whole new level. (VIEW THE PHOTO GALLERY
BREAKFAST WITH LANNY
Our Canadian North flight was right on time and featured something I haven't had on a flight in a long time: food! As I was enjoying my breakfast of sausage, eggs, and hash browns, I was informed that across the aisle sat none other than Flames great Lanny McDonald. Lanny put rivalries aside and introduced himself to our contingent. He was flying to Inuvik for a curling bonspiel and swore that he wasn't on a secret Flames mission to convert the kids to the dark side. Mesmerized by his moustache, we believed him.
Lanny and Trevor enjoyed a lengthy conversation on their side of the plane, while I spent most of the trip attempting to memorize the on-camera stand-up introduction I would have to deliver upon arrival in Inuvik. I knew I'd only have a take or two to nail it, so I wanted to make sure I had something prepared.
After about two hours, we landed in Norman Wells, NWT to pick up some passengers and refuel. Norman Wells is an oil town (pop. 761) located on the majestic Mackenzie river. We were only there for about half an hour, but judging from the view on the airport's upper level, it seems like a stunning place.
One hour (and one mid-air snack) later, we landed in Inuvik. Inuvik is located 3,000km northwest of Edmonton and only 100km from the Arctic Ocean. To my surprise, despite its remote location, Inuvik is below the tree line and was a balmy -13C that afternoon (about the same as it was in Edmonton).
Lanny McDonald greets the minor hockey kids at the Inuvik airport. (MORE PHOTOS)
With Lanny leading the way, we left the plane and entered the tiny airport. The place was packed with kids, parents, and other passengers, and Trevor drew the first “oohs” and “aahs” thanks to his Oilers duffel bag and jacket. But someone in the crowd quickly announced, “Look kids! It's Lanny McDonald!” and attention was briefly diverted to the friendly former NHL-er.
After Lanny left to throw some rocks at houses (haha, curling jokes never get old), Trevor called the kids over and gave them an Oilers hat and a few signed player photos. Mike and I spoke to a few parents and Inuvik Minor Hockey Association President Les Skinner, and then went back outside to tape the video introduction (practice makes perfect, and I did it perfectly . . . twice!). DUE SOUTH
All aboard! The kids say goodbye to Inuvik and board the Canadian North flight to Edmonton. (MORE PHOTOS)
Before we knew it, it was time to get back on the plane. Most the kids sat near the back of the plane, while our Oilers crew – along with the team's coaches, some chaperones, and CBC Sports Reporter Min Dhariwal – were located near the front. I sat beside lifelong Inuvik resident Chad Larocque, one of the team's assistant coaches and older brother of one of the players, and he was eager to tell me about growing up playing hockey in Inuvik. Because other towns are too far away to play regularly, each age group is split in two and the teams play each other. Inuvik also faces teams from towns like Tuktoyaktuk and Fort McPherson in tournaments. Chad says it's a nice place to grow up, but this summer he'll be leaving the North to attend college in Edmonton. This is a common story, and Les adds that trips like this give Inuvik youth a sense of what awaits them after high school.
Somewhere over the NWT/Alberta border, Mike and I visited the back of the plane to interview some of the kids. Thanks to the plane ride, impending hotel stay, and Saturday night NHL game on the horizon, I wasn't surprised to see that they had trouble sitting in their seats. They hammed it up for the camera and couldn't stop talking about how excited they were to meet the Oilers and skate at Rexall Place. EDMONTON DEBUT
At about 3pm, we landed in Edmonton and were greeted by some local media and team photographer Andy Devlin. At this point, I left the group to return to work, but I managed to see them a bit the following day. When I arrived at Rexall Place for the morning skate on Saturday, the kids were greeting the players as they emerged from the dressing room. Sheldon Souray was especially friendly and took time to welcome them to Edmonton. They toured the Oilers Locker Room, watched the Oilers and Flames practice, and then got to put on their very own Oilers jerseys and take to the ice for their own practice in the afternoon.
When I returned to the rink that evening, I warned the Press Box's food and beverage attendant to stock up on popcorn. After being introduced to the roaring crowd prior to the national anthem, the group came up to the press box to watch the game. I wasn't able to spend too much time with them (I am VERY busy working on VERY important things during the game, you know), but during the first intermission, I found the time to walk over and say hi.
After the game, Inuvik minor hockey made it's Hockey Night in Canada debut by appearing on After Hours with Scott Oake, Kelly Hrudy, and special guest Dwayne Roloson. It was an exciting finish to a very exciting few days for those kids and their families.