Editor’s Note: On Feb. 8, Oliver Parks and Recreation will begin a year-long celebration of the Oliver & District Arena, which at age 50 is one of the oldest facilities in the province. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the grand opening back in 1969, the arena will be the site of a charity hockey game involving members of the Montreal Canadiens. That announcement brought back a memory for me of another game involving NHL alumni — this one played 30 years ago.
Over a career that now spans more than 30 years, I’ve had the opportunity to do some fun stuff.
A feature I did for the Calgary Sun earned me a national luge ranking. I once bungie-jumped for charity. And I got to bring home to our Fort McMurray backyard the band Theory of a Deadman for smokies and beers.
As a fan of “old-time hockey,” the biggest deals for me involved interviewing former National Hockey League greats like Maurice Richard, Billy Harris and Reggie Leach.
But the biggest thrill of all — one perhaps that I’m lucky to still be around to write about — was an encounter in the late 1980s with Frank Mahovlich — the Big M.
To those who don’t remember The Big M, he was a legendary player with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens and WHA’s Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls, playing a professional career that started in 1957 and ended in 1979.
In all, Mahovlich amassed 622 goals and 1,335 points, including 533 goals in the NHL. He won six Stanley Cups and was a member of the 1972 Canada-Russia Super Series team.
Growing up on the Canadiens in the early 70s, The Big M was among my favourite players — perhaps the favourite.
And so I was tickled pink when in 1989, a lineup announcement for an NHL charity game to be played in the Crowsnest Pass included Frank Mahovlich.
At the time, I was the editor of a small-town newspaper called the Promoter. It was owned by another legend — this one a giant in the journalism world by the name of Ted Moser. The work was extensive — I wrote as much as I edited and spent 60 hours a week in the office — but it was a great newspaper gig and i loved it.
I did a lot of photography, as well — which was why on a winter night I took my camera to the community’s ice arena.
This was in the days before digital cameras, which means you shot a lot of film, took it back to the darkroom and developed it.
It was also before mesh screens went up at each end of the rink.
The Crowsnest facility had seating on one side of the ice surface — much like the Sun Bowl — and a utility side that didn’t have glass inserts above the boards. That made it perfect for shooting hockey. You could just crouch down and shoot away to your heart’s content.
Which is what I was doing during the NHL charity game when The Big M came from behind the net with the puck on his stick and his sights set up ice. With my boyhood hero not 30 feet away, I started snapping like crazy.
And I continued snapping until i heard the whistle.
When I finally came up for air, The Big M was skating in my direction with a concerned look on his face.
Puzzled, I could only look back at him as he approached and finally had enough sense to utter the immortal words, “How you doing, Big M?”
He skated over and leaned on the boards, not two feet away.
“You OK?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m having a great time. Why?”
“Oh, nothing.” And then he pointed one of his gloves at the area behind me.
“Would you mind fetching the puck?”
And then it all made sense: that whooshing sensation I had just above my head as the shutter closed on a shot and temporarily rendered me blind behind my camera wasn’t the air cooler kicking in.
No, it was from the black disc still bouncing around in the narrow alley behind me — the one that had come off The Big M’s stick just a little too high for the boards — and just high enough not to render me unconscious.
In retrospect, the puck was probably one I should have shoved into my pocket as a career memento or something. Instead, as coolly as i could, I fetched the puck and tossed it back on to the ice in front of the former Canadiens star.
I got another single word from the conversation.
And then he was gone.
The Canadiens — a younger crop — are in Oliver in early February. The players attending may not have the cachet of more legendary troops, but they were all once professional hockey players.
They’re coming to the South Okanagan and they’ll be bringing the magic of boyhood dreams realized.
For ticket info, visit oliverrecreation.ca.
You can attend knowing you’ll be perfectly safe. The Big M won’t be looking up ice as he rips a pass off the boards and the protective mesh will be in place.
But if a puck does end up bouncing around behind you, forget about fetching it and returning it to the ice surface.
Instead stuff it in your pocket and keep it.
I’ve got my NHL charity classic story to tell; you never know, this might be your chance to get yours.