PENHOLD – A group of 71 Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees had the opportunity to set aside their worries at Thrive Hockey Development’s 2016 Spring Challenge tournament at the Penhold Multiplex on the weekend.
Shannon Smith-Gagne, manager of Fort McMurray Mountaineers, said parents didn’t hesitate. Almost everyone was able to attend the all-star minor hockey spring tournament for 10-year-old boys.
The team also plays during the winter season so the parents, players and their siblings have merged into one big family that members can turn to for support.
Smith-Gagne said it was a quite a reunion on Friday after escaping the wildfire.
“It’s good to have everyone talk about it, share experiences with people who have gone through it, not just with people who want to know,” Smith-Gagne said.
The stay-at-home mom said she cried all day Wednesday when her family fled north with five other families to seek shelter at an oilfield camp. Her husband Peter Gagne stayed behind in Fort McMurray, but has since rejoined them.
She said even though friends and family were safe, the trauma of fleeing the wildfire and the uncertainty of what lies ahead continued to haunt them.
“It hits in waves. Looking at us, we look okay. But inside our heads we’re going a thousand miles an hour.”
She was just trying to “roll with the punches” and deal with the important stuff when she could.
Donations coming in for evacuees brought her to tears at times.
“The overwhelming support, not just from Red Deer, but every team in this place has contacted me in some way or shape wanting to help. It’s amazing. I can’t even fit it into words.”
Hampton Inn and Suites in Gasoline Alley provided the families with accommodations and meals. Play It Again Sports loaned hockey gear. United Cycle gave the team jerseys. Proceeds from silent auctions and a 50-50 draw at the tournament was going to the Fort McMurray team.
“It’s hard to take what has been given. You have to put your pride in your back pocket and I don’t think any of us are used to doing that in any way.”
She refused to think about whether their home has survived the blaze or not. The emotional roller coaster would be too much. But she did wonder about the things she left behind like wedding pictures and family photos.
Born and raised in Fort McMurray, Smith-Gagne said even with all the wildfires that have happened in the region through the years, she never thought it would happen to them.
“I feel like life will be completely different for all of us when we get home. I think we’ll always have that bag packed whether we’re in Fort Mac or somewhere else. We’re forever changed.”
But this weekend, the focus was getting the children back together to participate in a familiar activity in the midst of continuous news reports about the wildfire.
“(Children) are hearing it. They’re aware. I just don’t think they understand what they may potentially be faced with in the near future.
“I would like to get my kids into school and get them back to normalcy because I feel that will help them deal with it. They could talk to a friend, or meet new people and build a relationship, and know that they’re not alone.”
Smith-Gagne was unsure where her family will end up, but wants her 10-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter to be part of a new community, even if it’s short-lived.
Fort McMurray evacuee Jody Seymour said she didn’t look forward to Sunday.
“It’s going to be a hard day for everyone, going their separate ways, not knowing when we’ll see each other again,” said Seymour who has lived in Fort McMurray for 20 years.
“We spend our lives together.”
Before each game, the team cheers, “Brothers, brothers, brothers, three, two, one — Mountaineers.”
And they are like brothers, she said.
“When we were evacuating, the first thing I packed were the three hockey bags. I don’t have socks. But I have their hockey equipment,” Seymour said about her three sons.
“I’m a die-hard hockey mom. They need to be active. They need to be on the ice. They need to be in a field. They need to be with people their own age playing.”
Seymour, an administrator with Fort McMurray Catholic Schools, said the adults needed this tournament too.
“It was tough. We were altogether talking about our experiences. But it was good to be together. It really was,” she said blinking back tears.
Her family was one of the six families that went north with Smith-Gagne. But first they had to get out of Fort McMurray.
“There were people driving down the sidewalks and people on quads and people walking with their bags. Every scene in a movie you’ve ever seen about a disaster, that’s exactly what it’s like.”
Her husband Brad Seymour flew back to Suncor on Saturday morning where he works and will operate equipment to build a fire line to protect the facilities.
“He’s been antsy ever since they left because he wants to be there. If anything happens to Suncor, there’s nothing,” she said about the major employer in the area.”
She also felt drawn back to the city to help, maybe clean schools.
“Everywhere I go and people are kind to me over the last couple of days, I start to cry. I’m not used to getting something for nothing. I’m not used to having to take a handout.”
She said it may also be a reminder of her family’s new reality or feeling overwhelmed by God working through others.
“Even though it’s scary, you just need to have faith he will provide, even though you feel like there’s nothing left. You have to find some good in it I guess.”