Discovering Our Sport of Hockey in the Tropics – Ronn Hartviksen

NHL Action

THUNDER BAY – SPORTS –  This winter at Fort Lauderdale airport on a late yet sunny 75F afternoon my wife and I had landed neatly from our Toronto flight with a cluster of Newfoundlanders. They were going on to see their favoured Leafs playing in Tampa. While we awaited a connection to Pompano Beach.

They were keen. Their humour and stories made up a good portion of our day. They had sat in front of us occupying both sides of our plane during the lengthy five hours airtime. That nestled us in the grandeur of palms and such lovely tropical flowers.

They wore caps and sweaters with impressions of the famous ‘veined’ Maple Leaf logo that harped back to Johnny Bower and Tim Horton of the sixties.

Though they occasionally acknowledged our presence, in being adjacent to their entourage, they were like ones entering a kind of Disneyland. Pockets buoyed by cash they had saved and we sensed every hour of the days they had coming would be precious as platinum to them.

However, throughout these Stanley Cup Playoffs those travelling Maritimers have come back to us. For their hockey conversations mentioned Tampa Bay Lightning’s ingredients that have forged such a sterling component in Lord Stanley’s best of seven Championship Final thus far.

They talked of a coach born on the other side of Canada. For them Tampa’s Jon Cooper, born in Prince George, B.C., has quickly moulded the Lighting into a marquee franchise. Their line-up features stalwart stars like Steven Stamkos and Brian Boyle mixed with towering defenders like Victor Hedman on defense, and, goalie Ben Bishop becoming pillars (at 6 ‘ 6″ and 6’ 6″) opposing attackers have to find a way to battle through. The reach of Hedman on skates reminded them of Montreal’s former lanky defenseman Leon Rochefort one of the first in the NHL whose hockey stick was compared to being as long as a rake.

Jeremy Roenick, an NBC analyst, has often called attention to Hedman’s exceptional reach foiling others in Tampa’s zone of the rink. Besides, Roenick has repeated his observation that Hedman along with Bishop have played so beautifully either of them would be a supreme nomination for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Given to the best MVP in these games.

Another Tampa player who has come through with terrific scoring credentials is the American born Tyler Johnson. A feisty, gritty winger who now holds Tampa’s franchise record for most goals a Stanley Cup runs. Johnson has been white-hot notching 14 goals. An interesting story regarding Johnson’s formative years playing in Spokane his parents would look to high calibre Canadian tournaments to bolster their son’s athletic skills. Usually that kind of networking took them into Vancouver. But, in a singularly unique odyssey one winter they set off into Alberta. They somehow became lost on a vacant country road not knowing where to turn. Eventually they came to a farmhouse. Got re-located and made the goal of their intent arriving in good time for one of his best hockey experiences to come in Calgary. Tyler’s parents tell the tale in good wit in retrospection of where he plays now.

But writers of Jon Cooper’s route to coaching, in what has to rank as one of the most incredibly fast paced, whirling dervish, Stanley Cups in recent years, also look back to another Canadian province. Cooper once attended Pere Atholl, Murray’s athletic program at Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. Though Cooper’s forte was lacrosse which brought him an American scholarship at Hofstra. From there Cooper went on to becoming a lawyer, a junior hockey coach. A championship amateur coach in Green Bay. An instructional American Hockey Coach at Lake Placid. And finally Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s General Manager, became the ultimate protege in Cooper’s rise–having come from so many roadless travelled by–welcoming Cooper to Tampa as their head coach along with Rick Bowness as assistant.

Here, a note on how this franchise got its name might inform others. It came about when Phil Esposito was at the reins of Tampa’s initial transplanting in Florida. One day, even as hundreds of entries had been received from fans as the team searched for their hockey moniker, it was an epiphany Esposito had while being in a boat with his management staff. Seems out of nowhere one if the most dramatic rain and lightning storms developed in a scary mass weather front. Esposito was in awe of storm. Particularly the advancing lightning bolts. He threw up his hands and declared he had the name for Florida’s team. They would be the Tampa Bay Lightning!

And while our Newfoundlanders, in the airport terminal, were becoming a fine and jovial persuasion about Florida’s current team. The boys from St. John’s also shared their knowledge of other Lightning skaters. Or, the Bolts as the media refer to them.

They knew Cooper had once left his mark in going to Notre Dame. However, they must have known skaters from their Eastern Province who played in Wilcox. Because it has become a rather on-going cradle of future NHL players as well. One of its foremost grads is of course Wendell Clark. Yet in this Tampa vs. Chicago series others who’ve skated for the Hounds include the Bolts defenseman Braydon Colburn and the Blackhawks Brad Richards and Scott Darling.

Though our loyalties must reside with the Blackhawks. Where our town’s Patrick Sharp has shone nicely on the wing notching hey assists on goals. Kenora’s Brad Richards scored a sparkling goal this past week. While Duncan Keith (of Winnipeg) continues his prolific portrait of endurance as a defenseman. Often logging well over 24 minutes. And in a mind boggling triple overtime win, against the LA Kings, Keith was on the ice well over 40 minutes. Beyond awesome.

Well, as our budding colleagues from the Atlantic were last accounted for as we soon separated for different paths from Fort Lauderdale.

One called out, “soon…we’ll be in sandals and heading to an indoor rink for hockey.”

“To be sure,” grinned another. “Just think. We’ve left –surely– a skiff of snow on the glib frozen ice in our harbour… back home…on the Rock.”

Ronn Hartviksen