By Jonathan Spaner
Overtime is the most anxiety-inducing, thrilling part of hockey.
The players, after a full game’s worth of effort, have to find another gear if they want to leave satisfied. The fans don’t want to leave, not only because they’re now getting more than they paid for, but the ice opens up in overtime, and they now are witness to the fastest part of the world’s fastest game. Even the referees seem to ratchet up their focus, knowing a missed call will get more scrutiny now. Put that all in a blender, add in a large helping of youthful exuberance, and you’ll the greatest show money can buy: Hockey Night in Peace River.
The North West Junior Hockey League is a six-team league encompassing the Peace Region of Alberta and towns along the Alaskan Highway in Northeastern British Columbia. Outside of the region’s only gigantic metropolis of Grande Prairie, Alberta (population 75,000), each team is from a town smaller than most neighborhoods in Edmonton. However, the talent level of the league doesn’t suffer because of that fact, as the NWJHL is still the third-highest level of junior hockey in the province.
As good as the hockey is, it doesn’t change the fact that the odds of any of these young lads making to the top professional level is approximately 1 in 2,375 which if you are thinking is oddly specific, that’s because there has only been one (Mr. Paul Walker, born of Beaverlodge, Alberta, playing 200 or so NHL Games over five or so seasons with four or so teams). Importantly though, these boys aren’t just playing for the love of the game at this point. Because on a September Friday night, at the Baytex Energy Centre in Peace River, a lot is riding on the game, even if the season has just begun.
This isn’t just a third of the population of Peace River’s entertainment for the night, and it’s not just a moment of pride for their sons, friends, and neighbors. It’s their culture, and their way of life being authored in real-time. It’s for the younger ones, who line up instinctively in front of the North Peace Navigators dressing room before they come out onto the ice, to bump fists with their heroes who live around the corner. It’s their expression as a rural center to exclaim to the world that they are just like any other place on earth, or at least, anywhere else in my country. To the people of Peace River, these are their Oilers, Flames or Canucks.
It’s also almost certainly the cheapest bar in town, and so unlike those pesky city laws, liquor is sold right until the last whistle of the game (if we’re being honest, is that not the better way to go about things?)
The food kiosk workers, almost certainly moms and grandmas of the team, grill up dirt-cheap hot dogs and poutine, with proceeds going to fund the team’s long bus travels for away games.
The 50/50 ticket sellers, almost certainly the girlfriends and sisters of the team, sell a surprising $1 000+ to the raucous crowd.
The building itself is a classic old barn, complete with wooden benches and a distinct smell of stale cigarettes and cold air, no doubt due to half the crowd leaving during the intermission to hack a dart.
The Fort St John Huskies are giving the North Peace Navigators a whale of a game, and we make our way into overtime following a tight, back and forth third period, where the team’s traded hard-working greasy goals.
The Navs P.A. announcer, who literally blows his own horn when goals are scored, reminds the crowd to stop throwing coins onto the ice, something I get the sense is more of a home-ice advantage than a frowned upon act of poor sportsmanship, mostly due to the way the P.A. announcer jokes “if you are going to throw money, make sure you throw twenties.”
The Navs are all over the puck, but their nerves are getting the best of them, and why wouldn’t they be? Not only is this the start of a new campaign, but it’s also the most fun the town has had had all week, after another hardworking seven days in Northern Alberta.
To leave without a victory would be quite the disappointment. But alas, overtime is the cruelest part of the game, and the Huskies have had a decent cycle in the Navs end going for an entire shift. The puck works it’s way out to a Husky with his stick already cocked back, ready to fire from the low circle. An amazing shot, hard and high, rockets it’s way to the top of the net, and the Huskies mob the ice.
Although the crowd of 2000+ shuffles out in disappointment, the importance of youth sports has just been revealed to everyone in attendance.
Sport, in general, brings communities closer, but specifically, youth athletes have the power to draw us all in even further. The drama of sport is played out with more passion, the future is on display, and even though millions of dollars aren’t being made tonight by anyone, I don’t think anyone could say they weren’t any richer after witnessing a night in junior hockey.
As someone new to the area, as I have just recently moved from my hometown of Edmonton, the North Peace Navigators can count on one more season ticket holder for the year.