Publish date:

The Only Game in Town

Without hockey, the saying goes, the community of Dauphin, Manitoba would freeze to death in winter and nobody would notice until spring. Citizens young and old have the game in their very bones

It is a night when the Dauphin Kings are playing at home. It is 5° below zero and it is dark and there is a howling prairie wind thrashing the snow about, whipping it up in violent billows off the parking lot, erasing all clear vision and biting a man's cheeks like steel filings. The weather is fit for no man this night, yet here come the cars, headlights bobbing through the whirling gray screen; first one pair of dim globes advances, then another, growing brighter as they move silently through the thick storm. Quite a long string of twin lights comes into sight and eventually there are hundreds of pairs, all drifting to a stop in the lot before they are snapped off. In the snowy darkness crouched black shapes leave the cars and, struggling against the wind as if plodding uphill, finally reach this big building, the hockey arena in this Canadian town. Inside, they stamp their feet as they lurch out of the storm and they grin as if they are surprised that they have found a safe haven, a well-lighted, warm place in Dauphin, Manitoba.

There are hundreds of people in the lobby, familiar faces almost every one. They have all fought the blizzard to be present for the hockey game. Ray Allard, the Ford dealer; Harold McCallum, manager of The Dauphin Herald and president of the Kings; Steve Hawrysh, who runs the Blue Belle Lunch and is the Kings' general manager; Staff Sergeant Cliff Kool of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police contingent stationed in Dauphin; Bob Szewczyk, a barrister and solicitor in town; Clarence (Coot) Riehl, who runs the town's recreation program; Bernie Basaraba, the sportscaster for station CKDM ("Voice of Kings—the Radio Station in the Heart of the Nation"). They mill about and talk, sipping at steaming coffee in paper cups. On one gray, peeling wall of the lobby are shelves with the old trophies, tarnished and dimmed, more of copper than of silver, oddly enough. And next to them are the photographs, framed nicely enough but a bit askew now on the wall. They date way back, to 1903 when a hockey team from Dauphin first won the Baker Cup, awarded to the champion team in the province. People in Dauphin still talk of that Ought Three team, the strong young men in the picture looking terribly stern and utterly confident of their immortality. They are all dead now, of course.

The people in the lobby don't look at the small old trophies or the fading photographs. They do pay out 25¢, though, to get the Hockey Programme for the night. They scarcely need it because they've seen what it contains—the photographs and the captions of their Dauphin Kings—many times before during other contests in the Manitoba Junior 'A' League. But they want the Hockey Programme because in each one there is a number, and if theirs coincides with the number announced between the periods of the game they will have a chance to play Score-O. That means they can clump out on the ice in their galoshes and, in front of all the folks from Dauphin, try from center ice to send a puck through a small slot in the Score-O board set up in front of the net. It's a tiny slot, and a winner receives a large cash prize. No one won it last season, but the people don't mind because the money spent for the Programme helps pay the Kings' expenses.

Through the crowd Orville Heschuk, a Dauphin dentist, moves easily, chatting with most everyone as he sells $1 chances on a game pool that awards winners $40 and sends $60 into the coffers of the Kings; everyone knows the Kings need money, so Orville Heschuk has almost no trouble selling all of the chances.

Eventually, nearly 2,500 people arrive for the game at the Dauphin Memorial Community Center Livestock and Skating Arena. They leave the lobby and go into the arena, where they sit shoulder to shoulder on wooden tiers rising around the rink. Above them mammoth laminated beams arch beneath the wooden roof. The sound of the prairie wind can be heard outside. Then the lights go out and the teams line up across the ice and a small floodlight comes on high up in the thick rainbows of the darkened rafters. The spotlight shines on a locally painted portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Someone turns on a recording of God Save the Queen and everyone sings. The anthem drowns out the howl of the blizzard. There is scarcely an empty length of board seat in the arena, and the faces in row after row around the rink make a Canadian mosaic: weathered or wrinkled or plain or pretty or young or grim, they display the hardy, wholesome features of people at home in a demanding environment. And once the first face-off has started the game they are intent, expert in their attention to the nuances of the play and generally quite unashamed of their enthusiasms. Orville Heschuk the dentist bellows, "Skate! skate! skate!" And a white-haired, grandmotherly lady croons quietly to herself, "Go, go, go, go, go, Kings! Go, go, go!"

Such is the way of hockey in Canada: a life force of winter, an addictive nourishment that simply cannot be forgone. It has sent millions of men and women into innumerable storms to witness the game. And it has sent millions of boys of all ages out into 10,000 deep-gray afternoons, shivering as they clatter along a street on skate blades, headed for a frozen river or a front-yard rink where their blades will strike sparks when they clash against random stones embedded in the ice.

Hockey in Canada is inescapable. Certainly, with bowling alleys and television and curling and snowmobiles and skiing and jet-propelled dashes for the affluent to the Algarve or the Caribbean, life is neither quite so remote nor quite so dismal in winter as it was. But hockey is reborn each year of cruel necessity, a product of ice and boredom—just as it was 100 years ago when it was invented by winter-locked British troops of Queen Victoria in the subarctic light of Kingston, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The latter-day brilliance of the Bobby Hulls and the Gordie Howes is basically a product of that same dark confinement, of being imprisoned for months in snowbound towns like Kirkland Lake or The Pas or Gravelbourg.

It is the way an old man in Dauphin put it one afternoon, sitting in the Royal Billiards pool hall, acting as spokesman for a silent row of kibitzers who seemed hypnotized by the snooker game they were watching. The Spokesman said authoritatively, "By God, if we didn't have hockey in Dauphin this whole blamed place could freeze to death in winter and nobody'd notice till spring. This ain't exactly Paris France, you know." The row of kibitzers snorted approvingly at the Spokesman's words, and he sat silent for a moment watching the players. Then he wagged his head at one shooter, a bald old man with skin like parchment and watery eyes blinking from behind an extraordinarily thick pair of spectacles. "That's Mr. Langford," said the Spokesman. "He don't look it, but he's the best goddam pool shooter in town. Seventy-nine years old and no one shoots better'n Mr. Langford, ay?" He gazed at Mr. Langford for a moment and added, "But if we didn't have hockey here in Dauphin, I don't think even Mr. Langford would stay here in the winter. This place ain't exactly Rome Italy, you know."

This place is called Dauphin because in 1741 one Fran√ßois La Vérendrye (probably the first white man to see the Canadian Rockies) named a lake Dauphin after the crown prince of France. The region was not settled until 1883 and Dauphin was not incorporated until 1898, after the settlement had snuggled up against the tracks of the Canadian National Railways and had begun to prosper a bit. It exists on the grand prairie flats of Manitoba, in the central part of the country, 210 miles northwest of Winnipeg; 8,766 people live there.

One of the proud things that has happened in Dauphin over the years is that every single street has been paved. "Not even the back roads have gravel," said Ray Dicks, secretary-treasurer of the town council. "Not many towns in western Canada can say that, ay?" The people of Dauphin are also proud of the rich, black earth of the region. They call it "that good old Dauphin gumbo." The town has no manufacturing and no major tourist industry, so its economy is based entirely on the farms around it; the wealth of its taxpayers and the health of its children depend on the annual bounty of grain produced by that good old gumbo. If the crop should go sour from too much rain or turn brittle as broomstraws in a drought, Dauphin would have trouble. The used cars on the lots of Murdoch Chevrolet would sit with motors mute and tires unkicked; diamond rings in the glass cases at Snodgrass Jewellers would sparkle for naught; and even the value of business at George Brayshaw's Riverside Funeral Chapel would decline (although, of course, the volume would not diminish).

But nature has done well by Dauphin in recent years. After the chill rains of April and the brassy skies of July and the dry harvest days of August, the Septembers of Dauphin have almost unvaryingly brought golden oceans of wheat, barley, oats, flax and rye into the bins of the town's 10 huge grain elevators. Ah, those wooden elevators—ugly, clumsy, massive—they rise in ranks like primitive cathedrals, Dauphin's only real skyline above the prairie sweep. Once they are filled, once the tons of grain are inside in preparation for shipment to the ports of the world (including, as Dauphin's citizens rather pointedly tell Americans, Red China), then Dauphin can relax, knowing that it has succeeded for another year. But, of course, by the time that has happened it is winter again.

The bitter season is never far gone from Dauphin. There is ice along the banks of the Vermilion River in September and sometimes the year's first snow falls early in October—a biting white dust that swirls across the prairie and drifts along with the dried leaves down Main Street to settle in the doorways of the stores: Marshall-Wells hardware, the Mary-Jayne Shoppe, the Dauphin Meat Market, the Grange Cafe & Chocolate Shoppe. There may be snowbanks by Halloween and winter may not end until one final wet blizzard is flung over the flower beds of May. In between, the days are pale and brief and frozen white. Dauphin, Manitoba is not Paris, France.

"I suppose you could call us stoics," said Helen Marsh, a handsome, graying spinster who publishes the weekly Dauphin Herald. "We don't fight the hardships of winter; we don't resign to them, either. We can't do much about it, you know, so we try to go along. There isn't anything to do here in the winter, so we play hockey. After all, we do have all this ice."

The game is all-encompassing. Girls' hockey, for example, was once the rage in Dauphin (Helen Marsh was an agile left wing in the '30s), and it is now making a comeback in town. Middle-aged men play hockey in an organization called the Commercial League; one night each week they huff and puff in pained facsimile of the quick and rugged skaters they were before—before prosperity's demands transformed an average hard-checking defense-man into an average hard-working bank clerk. For those not given to playing the game, there is constant talk about it. At 10 o'clock sharp each morning in the Kings Hotel Coffee Shoppe when many merchants from Main Street come in and shed their greatcoats and stamp the snow from their overshoes and sit down with their thick crockery cups of hot coffee; in the Buffalo Cocktail Lounge in the late afternoon when the stores and offices are shut down and a few men gather for neat shots of Seagram's Seven chased by ginger ale; at late-night suppers in the living rooms of Dauphin's sophisticated set when the college-educated professional men and merchants and their wives gather and in stocking feet sit on the carpet and sip good whisky highballs.

At one time or another during all social gatherings hockey will prevail as the subject of conversation. It is not as if the people of Dauphin are blind to events beyond the hockey rinks of the world. Not at all. But at times hockey does seem rather an overwhelming influence. The young wife of a doctor new to town was heard to remark last winter, "Well, of course I love the game, but isn't there some gossip!"

Saturday night is a dead spot socially in Dauphin. No hostess would think of scheduling a dinner, a dance or even a lengthy phone call, for it would be a catastrophe of manners. Saturday is NHL Hockey Night on television, and all of Dauphin (indeed, all of Canada) falls into an electronic trance that will not be disturbed. Of course, it is also folly to plan events of significance on nights that the Dauphin Kings are playing at home. The Rotary Club once tried to hold its annual Cheese-and Wine-Tasting Banquet ($1 a head, open to the public) on the evening of a home game, and it drew a very disappointing crowd.

The commitment to hockey in Dauphin is by no means a matter of hysteria, nor is it a matter of fashion. It has a far sounder, more historical base. "This town has been for hockey ever since this town began," said Bill Cruise, a retired farmer of some 70 years who has lived all his life in Dauphin. "Listen, back when they played seven men on a team—with a rover, you know—people from Dauphin, hundreds of us, would pile into cars, Model Ts and those kind, and we'd drive to other towns for games. We were doing that when the game was still being played on river ice in some places. Dauphin has always been known as a hockey town. We never let our boys down."

Hockey, as celebrated in Dauphin, is as much a kind of ceremonial tradition as it is contemporary entertainment and physical exercise. It is handed down generation to generation; it is even a form of ritual symbolizing initiation to early manhood. "When your boy is getting to be 6 or 7, you kind of start watching him closer," said Vic Berke, an employee of the railroad and an occasional hockey referee. "And they're watching themselves, too, because they know the time for them to start playing hockey is coming. Since they know that you played hockey and probably that their grandfather played hockey and their older brothers are playing hockey, they know their turn's coming up. It's more like a universal thing in Canada even than baseball is in the States. Or even than soccer in England. It's a national tradition."

For the kids, hockey has no season. Barefoot boys in shorts are seen often, the summer dust of the school playground rising about them while sweat streams down their faces, banging away with hockey sticks at a rubber ball in mid-July. In midwinter, with a blue twilight falling and a cold weak gleam barely reaching the ground from the streetlight, they will be out on the road again, clumping about in their overshoes, sticks clacking and soprano shouts ringing across the dark snow as they try to send a ball into the cardboard box goals they have put on the street.

Such was the scene in Dauphin one bitter evening last winter. Ray Allard, once a good goalie for Dauphin and now a mid-40ish dealer in Ford cars, recognized his boy out in the street and he said, "Now, I know those kids have spent this afternoon playing hockey at the rink. And I know they're all going to the Kings' game tonight. And here they are playing shinny—road hockey. We did it the same way, exactly." He paused, then chuckled. "Well, not exactly. They're using a ball for a puck now, but in my day there were still lots of horses. You couldn't beat a frozen road apple for a readymade shinny puck."

The hockey children of Dauphin have not had to depend entirely on road apples or on roads for a long, long time. In one form or another, they have had organized hockey leagues in that small prairie town for more than 30 years. The program has expanded until now it begins with rosy little 7-year-olds—tykes who squirm in the penalty box as impatiently as if they had been plunked down in a church pew. The leagues include the PeeWee division (ages 7-8), Little NHL (9-10), Tom Thumb (10-12), Bantam A and Bantam B (13-15), and Midgets and Juvenile (for older boys not quite up to the demanding standard of Junior 'A' play). More than 400 kids are involved. This program is orchestrated by Coot Riehl, a friendly and unflappable fellow who is able to carry on a normal, low-tension conversation even while raucous youngsters clamor at his knees about "Who do we play next week?" and anxious mothers create a barrage of questions on the phone about whether teams will play if it is snowing in the morning and eager teen-agers line up to apply to referee games (at a salary of 75¢ apiece per game). With a grin Riehl says, "Our emphasis here is on quantity, not quality. Period. Everyone gets to play."

To watch a hockey game among the PeeWees of Dauphin is to witness a marvel of miniaturization, for these boys are tiny facsimiles of their own NHL heroes. Their equipment is flawless—as well it should be, since it costs some $75 for a parent to equip his PeeWee and up to $150 for a Juvenile. Like tiny, colorful (but oddly powerful-looking) water bugs, they zip and glide about the ice with skating strokes that are both smooth and swift. Some can stickhandle as if they were toy Gordie Howes and all have memorized the proper ritual movements of the pros for certain situations. When they are dispatched to the penalty box, these children do not rage in tantrums nor do they burst into tears. No, with heads bowed and skates moving in that slow step-along stroke of the big-leaguers, they take their punishment like men; it is considered fitting to slam the box door angrily to dramatize the obvious injustice of the penalty. Occasionally they will rage together to fight on the ice in shrill shoving matches that are quite easily broken up by officials; invariably after such a mass show of temper the rink will be littered with tiny PeeWee-sized gloves—all shed automatically in big-league preparation for bare-knuckle battle. Of course, whenever a goal is scored, the child who made it skates about in stately circles, his arms and his stick raised majestically overhead while his mates tap the ice in tribute.

When you ask a batch of Dauphin children to identify the best hockey player who ever played the game, most call up the obvious—"Hull! Howe! Orr!" Ah, but in a crowd you will also discern a few strange names being praised to the Canadian skies—"Cahoon! Dennis Schick! Buchy! Ronnie Low!"—and, of course, it takes no imagination to realize that these are young men who walk tallest in Dauphin. The Kings! Noble beings.

Junior 'A' hockey is the finest amateur game in Canada, and from its rich lode annually come the top draft choices of the NHL and other pro teams. Some 16,000 boys up to 20 years of age play the game on 80 teams throughout the country. There are eight teams in the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association league and Dauphin is the smallest town represented—a point of enormous local pride that ranks not far behind those completely paved streets. Although it is called "amateur," such high-caliber hockey is subsidized on a realistic semi-professional basis, and the young princes of the Dauphin Kings are, as a rule, imported from other towns. "In Canada we don't fool around with the impossible idea of pure amateurism," said Gordon Juckes, executive director of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. "We pay these boys what they need to get along."

For the Dauphin Kings that can amount to a $50,000 annual operation. Of course, no one gets rich. "My best front line runs me $555 a month," said Frank Murdoch, the Chevrolet-Olds dealer who doubled last year as Kings president. "We pay room and board and that runs $70 a month, and we like to give the boys some spending money—maybe $10, $25 a week, you know. And those who aren't in school, we get them jobs, ay? Maybe in a gas station or sweeping out a store or clerking. Some of them work hard; some of them only go in to get paid."

Most of the Kings are still in high school (despite their high-octane heroism in town, some are so young they do not shave more than once a week). They are supposed to maintain passing grades and regular attendance like any other student. But mere mortals must always allow an extra margin for greatness. And as A.J. Drebnisky says: "The Kings are good lads, ay? Oh, there are days before big games when they should be in school, but we don't expect them on those days."

Obviously, the whole town has a pretty healthy interaction with the team. Although there was some complaint about the steepness of season-ticket prices last year ($15 for 17 games, which averages 89¢ a game), people always come hustling to the aid of the Kings. A local constable was reprimanded once for offering to forgo parking tickets for any motorist who would buy a $1 chance on a TV raffle for the team. There are no copies of schedules to be found on display because, as Frank Murdoch says, "What the hell for? Everyone knows when they play."

Now, there are some communities of North America that are still small enough and still unspoiled by impersonal corporate wealth and a hypertense devotion to progress to provide an old-fashioned opportunity for the existence of a civic soul, a genuine home-town esprit. Not your routine Chamber of Commerce "pride," mind you, that ersatz spirit geared to paint a polished image for profit. No, this would be more a burning commitment to the character of a town, a feeling that the whole damn citizenry would be aroused, by God, if they felt that the honor of their home town was compromised. It would seem that Dauphin is just that: a town with an old-fashioned sense of its own honor.

A perfect example occurred one night early last March, during a high-pitch peak of the playoffs in the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association. Dauphin was playing against a team from Kenora, Ontario—the Muskies—and it had been a vicious, rocky series. Indeed, the citizens of Dauphin had come to be mightily incensed over the behavior of the Muskies and their fans. "That thing in Kenora the other night was absurd, the most savage damned thing I ever saw on ice," said Frank Murdoch. "I tell you, I didn't think we'd leave with our skins that night. It was disgraceful. A disgrace to Dauphin."

Ah, yes, that night in Kenora.... Kenora lies some 300 miles away from Dauphin; about 200 fans had driven down for the game that night. They returned home shocked, shaken by what they had seen and fearful about what was to come. "Oh, I could not believe what I saw," said Dorine Murdoch, wife of the Kings' president. "I left the game in tears. Oh, the language those people used. They were drunk, so many of them. A man in front of me turned around and called me a perfectly filthy name just because I was from Dauphin. I tapped his wife on the shoulder and asked her if she heard what he had said to me. She turned around and said yes she heard it and then she called me an even filthier name. I was so furious I broke out crying."

The game was being broadcast back to Dauphin by Bernie Basaraba over CKDM and, even though Bernie performed heroically despite a volcanic storm of abuse, he was forced at one point to shut off his microphone for a minute or more because a loud and foulmouthed woman was shrieking into it. Bernie, who has played a lot of hockey and broadcast many games, said afterward, "It was something I hope I'll never see again."

Some fans of the Kenora Muskies brought dead fish to the game and sailed them through the air over the players' heads or flipped them across the ice beneath their skates. Some tossed hot dimes onto the rink and, of course, play had to be stopped to dig them out of the holes they melted in the ice. Someone had smuggled in a live chicken and it was dispatched in crazy squawking circles over the ice. "Once might've been all right," said Farley Hammings, a Dauphin defenseman, "but the damned chicken went out half a dozen times. The referee kept handing him back to the same guy who throwed him out."

And then there were the eggs—dozens of them, to hear the appalled Dauphinites tell it. Indeed, the Kings' goalie, Ron Low, said later that he was hit seven times by eggs and that when the eighth one broke against the back of his neck and slipped down inside his uniform he simply skated off the ice even though there was still some time left in the game. The next day, back in Dauphin, Ron went to get his hair cut and the barber laughed as he clipped Low's hair. "Well, Ron m'boy, now we know which came first—the chicken or the egg, ay?"

Well, to add injury to insult, Kenora had won that manic contest 6-2 and now the best-of-seven series was tied 2-2. People were worried about the next game, at Dauphin, partly because they didn't know if the Kings would win but mostly because they were deeply concerned that enraged Dauphinites might retaliate in kind. Perhaps there would even be blood spilled. On game day Mayor Hugh Dunlop, who operates the radio station, issued a stern statement in The Dauphin Herald saying that he had already "had discussions with the RCMP [the Mounties] in relation to tonight's hockey game" and there would be plenty of police around. He also alluded to an undercurrent of real alarm around town. Frank Murdoch's office had been besieged with warnings that there had been a run on BB pistols in Dauphin, that grocery stores were selling an uncommon volume of eggs and tomatoes, that a hardware store reported it had been completely sold out of metal washers (presumably to be heated and tossed on the ice). Worried, Frank Murdoch stopped by the RCMP barracks himself and came out a bit reassured by the fact that at least a dozen Mounties would be at the game. Then he went to the high school and asked Principal Norris Aitken to warn the kids over the school intercom system that any obstreperous behavior would only harm the team. "Yes, I'll tell them that throwing eggs or forcing the game to stop will only cause the Kings to lose momentum," said Aitken. "They'll understand that."

That night at the arena the crowd gathered early, and there was an uneasy air about the place; unfamiliar expressions of doubt and suspicion were cast upon the homely rugged features of some of the farmers. No one quite knew for sure whether the town itself could be trusted, although as Dave Smitka, manager of the SAAM department store, said: "We pride ourselves on being a well-behaved town. Dauphin is not a place to go off half-cocked." There were some rather nervous attempts at conversation in the lobby.

"I remember they used to throw hot pennies on the ice in the old days to break up the games," said Bill Cruise, the retired farmer.

"Yeah, those were Depression days," said Ray Dicks.

"Oh, no. That was before the Depression," said Cruise. "In the Depression people never threw pennies—they threw washers. No one could afford to throw pennies."

Ray Dicks laughed. "Yes, and now the worst is hot dimes—you can't see them after they hit the ice. That's a sign of the times—prosperity, ay?—to be throwing dimes."

The people from Dauphin are a good and knowledgeable hockey crowd, and there wasn't a man, woman or child in Dauphin Memorial Community Center Livestock and Skating Arena that night who didn't agree—in principle, at least—with Mrs. Vogt, the lady who runs the Royal Billiards pool hall. That afternoon she had said to Mr. Langford and the Spokesman: "You can't fight and play good hockey. I tell you, it can't be done and we'll do much the better tonight if we all just behave ourselves."

When the Kenora Muskies skated onto the ice, the players' eyes were big as silver dollars and their jaws were clamped tight. Plainly, they were terrified. A furious chorus of boos rose into the arched beams above and many people began to stamp their feet threateningly. A few men rose in their seats and shook their fists. Did this gentle community, which calls itself "The Friendly Town of Beauty and Progress," contain the seeds of riot? As it happened, the Kings were playing like supermen that night and the Muskies were slow and soggy—perhaps semiparalyzed by the atmosphere of intimidation around them. The crowd roared a lot and leaped to its feet often—and ominously, it seemed—at any show of Kenora aggression. But, in the end, not an egg struck the ice and not a chicken squawked and not a BB gun or a washer or a dead fish was to be seen. The few home-scrawled signs that bobbed over the crowd were not very provocative. One said simply: WE HATE FISH. The Kings beat the Muskies that night by a rather humiliating 10-2 score and went on to win the series.

Ed Finch, a soft-spoken constable of the RCMP's Dauphin barracks, said after the game, "Oh, we were ready for most anything, you know. But we knew that this is Dauphin and Dauphin just doesn't come to its hockey games drunk or raise a ruckus when its games are being played. This is not a troublesome town." And, of course, that is the point of honor in a town like Dauphin: not so much that it was roundly offended by the insults in Kenora as that its reaction to those insults was dignified. Constable Finch paused a moment and sucked on his pipe; then, in a very serious tone, as if he were about to reveal the secret of all things good and well-mannered and clean and blessed about Dauphin, he said, "Of course, this is a real good hockey town, ay?"


Right wing of the Pee Wee Class Diggers, Dwayne Yaronski, 8, reflects on his weighty responsibilities.


Youngsters in hockey uniforms ride a pickup truck on Dauphin's snowy main street toward one of the town's innumerable games.


Dauphin fans exhort Kings during playoff with the hated Kenora Muskies.