There are two indispensable men in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.
One is ready to declare Saskatchewan an outpost of Leafs Nation.
The other, Mayor Rob Saunders, has to be a bit more diplomatic.
“I’m a Leafs fan, always was” said Wes Ringland, the Zamboni driver at the Centennial Civic Centre Arena that will be the centerpiece of Hockey Day in Canada, Saturday.
“They’re a good Canadian team and my favourite player is Wendel Clark. It’ll be an honour to shake his hand.”
Former Leaf Colby Armstrong, one of the favourite hockey sons of the Saskatchewan side of Lloydminster, used to laugh when the Leafs’ charter was stuck in a white out or ploughing through snow.
“You play in the Western League, with all the travel, it’s like you spend half your life on the bus,” Armstrong once said. “When you’re a hockey player from the west, you get used to a lot.”
“I played Junior B hockey,” said Mayor Saunders, ”and we had a couple of guys on the team were from Victoria. When we got stuck in the snow, they stayed on the bus. It was the Saskatchewan boys who were out there pushing and shoveling.”
Lloydminster, divided by the borders of Saskatchewan and Alberta is united by a fierce love of hockey.
You get used to a lot when you’re a hockey player from Saskatchewan, always have and the template was set by Gordie Howe, born in a farmhouse in what was Floral, Saskatchewan three hours east of Lloydminster. One day, Mayor Saunders’ dad took him to meet Gordie who was shaking hands and meeting people for the Bay. “Meeting Gordie,” said the Mayor, “was a life changing experience.”
No Western province has more WHL teams than the five that operate in Saskatchewan, home of hockey foundries in Moose Jaw, Regina, Swift Current, Prince Albert and Saskatoon. WHL road trips can span three weeks. Yes, when you’re a hockey player from the West, from Saskatchewan, you get used to a lot.
Saskatchewan hockey players are long on grit and, with the giddy exception of Armstrong, short on talk. Wendel Clark, the greatest of the 65 Saskatchewan natives to play for the Leafs (only Ontario, with 465 has more) still has a belt buckle he bought somewhere back home. It says “Just a Farmer.”
The prairie work ethic infuses players from Saskatchewan. Johnny Bower, a product of Prince Albert, stuck out 13 seasons in the minors and played until they finally pulled the pads off him when was 45. His signature move, a poke check that exposed his uncovered face to flying skates and sticks, was pure Saskatchewan.
So was Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams of Weyburn, number two in Leafs’ all-time penalty minutes, one spot ahead of Clark.
Bert Olmstead of the aptly-named Scepter, Saskatchewan brought a fiery leadership that infused the 1962 Stanley Cup champion Leafs and set the stage for three more Cups. The 1964 title run included a game-wining overtime goal from Bobby Baun of Lanigan, Saskatchewan. Baun was playing on a broken leg.
Leafs founder Conn Smythe once traded six players to the Chicago Blackhawks for one Saskatchewan boy and Max Bentley rewarded him with a key role in 1948, 1949 and 1951 Stanley Cup-runs.
The Mayor grew up a Leafs fan but when the Edmonton Oilers arrived he changed allegiances and has yet to change back. The reason the Leafs have favored so many Saskatchewan boys, he said, is no mystery and it hasn’t changed.
“In Saskatchewan you still have cold old barns with hard, fast ice,” he said. “You’re used to putting up with a little pain for the love of the sport. That’s what being a Saskatchewan hockey player is all about.”
And being a hockey player, a Maple Leaf, is what being a Saskatchewan player has meant over and over again. Leafs Nation, it turns, out extends to a glorious prairie province that is one million strong whose colors are green and gold but whose heart for the people like Wes Ringland and countless like him, is coloured Maple Leaf blue.