Hockey in Sylvan Lake has been a way of life for generations.
For me, it’s been a relationship of 26 years. I moved to Sylvan Lake from Fort Simpson, N.W.T., in 1988 as a 10-year-old kid for my Dad’s work.
Upon arriving in town, I saw the beach, the waterslides, mini golf course, bumper cars, bumper boats, go karts, ice cream shops, etc., etc. — maybe this place wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The one thing I did know about and was looking forward to was the Sylvan Lake Summer Hockey Camp. My parents had signed me up for the camp that summer and I was really looking forward to it, being from a small town in the north where the only rink was an indoor yet natural ice surface. The idea of playing hockey in the summer was so awesome.
I remember walking into the rink and being blown away by how many kids were there. I was scared, nervous and excited. I figured I was going to meet a bunch of new friends and I wondered if I’d be as good as them. For the most part I wasn’t, but I did make friends. To my surprise, though, none of the kids except me were from Sylvan Lake. That was my first glimpse into how popular this camp was. Kids from other provinces and even the United States.
Some of the kids acted like they were from Sylvan Lake and in a way I guess they were. They were summer residents who actually lived in the arena upstairs in the dorm.
The atmosphere at the camp was intoxicating for a little kid. Being at the rink all day with no parents, playing hockey, going to the beach, the waterslides and eating nacho cheese dogs and sloppy joes for lunch. It was hockey heaven.
In the four years I lived in Fort Simpson, my hockey playing experience was limited to one practice a week of about an hour every Tuesday. We played two games in those four years, both against Fort Nelson.
So the idea of being on a real team and having the opportunity to play real games was exciting for me. When the fall came, I tried out for the atom A team. I was the goalie in Fort Simpson so I was obviously going to be the goalie in Sylvan, too. No big deal. Little did I know I’d end up being the goalie turned forward on the Atom D team.
Who cares! I made it! I was on a real team! I even led the team in goals that year with 23. So naturally the following year, I became a goalie again.
As the years went by, the Sylvan Lake Arena became the old cliché; it was “my second home.” I refereed minor hockey on way too many cold mornings, but a nap in the referee room was always only 20 minutes away. I played minor hockey right through until the end of midget.
In high school, I started working at the back door rink. For four years, I spent five hours a night almost every night maintaining the ice, enforcing the rules and making sure it was a fun, safe place for everyone to play. We were getting paid to basically play shinny and when nobody was there, we’d still be shooting pucks (tennis balls after 7 p.m., though). To get to it, you simply walked out the back door of the arena and it was 10 feet away.
I started coaching full time at the Sylvan Lake Summer Hockey Camp in 1997.
All towns in Canada claim to be hockey towns and they’re right. In Sylvan Lake, though, it seems to ring more true. Sylvan Lake is on the map for two things: the lake and the hockey camp. When I tell people I’m from Sylvan Lake, the first topic of conversation is inevitably the hockey camp. Either they’ve been or their kids have been or they know someone who’s been. You begin to realize how many people have come through Sylvan Lake because of the camp.
On Jan. 20, the hearts of many, many Sylvan Lakers sank when we heard the news our beloved arena had collapsed. Our home away from home was gone in the blink of an eye as decades worth of memories came crashing down. Luckily nobody was injured but sadly so many of us were hurt emotionally.
Rinks all across Canada are special places. There’s no denying anyone’s claim that their rink is the best rink because to them to it is.
The Sylvan Lake Arena had a personality all its own. The incredibly small ice surface gave home teams a home ice advantage, as did what seemed like a 10-foot drop from the benches to the ice and the fog that always seemed to linger in the air.
Being Canadian, you tend to get sentimental explaining stuff like this. Hockey is in our blood so how do you explain what can’t be explained? Friendships are made, lessons learned, communities within a community are built.
More than that, though, hockey has contributed so much to Sylvan Lake’s identity. When people think of Sylvan Lake, they think of hockey. And although the game of hockey and our arena mean the world to us Sylvan Lakers, it’s not just for us.
Hockey in Canada is all about relationships. The relationships forged through hockey in Sylvan lake and with the Sylvan Lake Arena expand well beyond the town limits. Our arena meant a lot to people from all over the world, and that is no exaggeration. If I was going to rename the town of Sylvan Lake, it just might be Hockeyville.
Kevin Putnam now lives in Whitehorse, Yukon.