SUN Hockey Pool

Belles like team spirit

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

It's more than just a gathering place.

It's where life's joys are shared. Where life's frustrations are solved. Where lifelong bonds are made.

It's the family room.

In the bowels of the Pengrowth Saddledome, before, during and after every game, the Calgary Flames' better halves gather in a spot all for them.

It's their home away from home.

A place to relax while the Flames are doing battle on the ice.

A place to be together for chats.

A room to take care of their youngsters.

"After Andrew was traded from Pittsburgh, I came here and felt really welcome," said Krista Ference, whose husband Andrew is a Flames defenceman.

"I'm an outgoing person anyway but I know how difficult it is to walk into the wives' room for the first time and not know anybody."

Every NHL building has a home for the players' wives, girlfriends and family. It's where the fraternity meets.

Jessica Conroy, wife of Los Angeles Kings centre Craig Conroy, explains:

"That's where you go at the first game to meet everyone and then get dragged around the building and shown everything so you don't get lost," she said.

Being part of the fraternity has its benefits.

Players' wives know what it's like to suddenly pick up and move around the continent. They understand the stresses and strains of having a husband in the NHL.

Don't for a moment think it's all cherries and whipped cream -- the ups and downs aren't always left at the rink, with frustrations over their play, the team losing and worries over the possibility of being traded among the difficulties.

"There is stress but the only people who can really relate are other wives," Conroy said.

"Most people, and it's easy to do it, think, 'Oh, poor you. Your husband's on TV. He makes a lot of money,' but there can be very stressful times.

"There are those days when things aren't going well and, as good as they are about not bringing it home, they do."

Susan Yelle, who's married to Flames centre Stephane Yelle, says the wife fraternity "becomes your second family.

"That's who you go to when you have a bad day and you know will have your back," she said.

And those friends, old, newly-found or through mutual acquaintances, are always full of information.

They'll suggest schools for kids to attend and where to go for activities, shopping and city information.

Said Conroy: "They're the people you can rely on at first to get the ins and outs of the city."

Stephanie Ferguson, the wife of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson, helps organize a welcome event for wives at the start of every season to "make sure everyone is comfortable.

"The idea is you don't have to be alone, that you can pick up the phone and talk, whether it be a medical issue," she said.

NICE IS ENOUGH

It doesn't matter whether their husband or boyfriend is a first-line star or a fourth-line grinder, a star defenceman or a backup netminder.

"We don't care where you were or how much money your husband makes," said Ference. "If you're a nice person, we're easy to get along with."

But the family room is more than a place for coffee talk.

It's where they meet to plan events, including charitable, such as cookbooks, fashion shows, Christmas decorations and raffles.

Proceeds go to charities near and dear to their hearts, usually shelters for battered women, children's hospitals or the Humane Society.

Such community service is common throughout the NHL.

In Toronto, for instance, the wives of Maple Leafs, in conjunction with the team's community development department, are actively involved in fundraising efforts to support the Leafs Fund, which last year raised more than $1 million for a variety of charities.

"It's just great to be able to give back," said Shannon Tucker, wife of Leafs forward Darcy. "The majority of us realize how fortunate we are to be in the positions we are in because of our husbands.

"And the Leafs have been unbelievable in supporting those causes."

Whether it be working at the Air Canada Centre on Pink Ribbon Night in support of breast cancer or the Have A Heart Dinner, the women get together to help.

It's also a chance to learn more about each other, show off some creativity and lend a hand.

"It gets you to feel more like it's home," Conroy said.

"You get more at home and that's a big thing."

And though it may seem wives aren't as active in the community as they were in decades past, it's not due to a lack of caring.

Many wives willingly volunteer their time and efforts, sometimes as a group and sometimes on their own.

The increased player movement of the free-agency era has put a crimp on events, ruining the continuity of the sisterhood.

The increased salaries, said Sherrie Patterson, isn't a factor.

"I don't think it is that different," said Patterson, whose husband Colin spent eight seasons in Calgary during the 1980s and another two in Buffalo.

"It doesn't have anything to do with money. It's just about being there and supporting each other."

Supporting during those days their husbands play in the NHL and beyond.

More than a decade after her husband retired, Patterson remains close friends with Karen Macoun (Jamie Macoun), Kary Otto (Joel Otto), Kim Murzyn (Dana Murzyn), Marie Berezan (Perry Berezan) and Ardell McDonald (Lanny McDonald) just to name a few.

But the ties, no matter how loose, stay bound over the years.

"Even if I don't talk to one of the girls for two or three years, when you see them it's like you talked to them yesterday," she said.

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SO, HOW DID YOU MEET?

- Detroit's Kris Draper and wife Julie: "We were high school sweethearts," said Kris. "I was 18 and she was 17. I was friends with her brother. We just kind of had a big group hanging out and I met her and ended up asking her brother if I could take her out on a date. The rest is history. We were married in 1998."

- Calgary's Jarome Iginla and wife Kara: They met when they were both 13 and eventually became high-school sweethearts. "When I was in junior (hockey), it was tough," Jarome said. "She got rid of me once or twice there."

- Ottawa's Chris Phillips and wife Erin: They met during the 1998-99 season when he sprained his ankle. He watched the games from a suite and she was the hostess.

- Los Angeles' Craig Conroy and wife Jessica: They met while taking summer classes, even though they went to different colleges in Potsdam, N.Y. She was studying psychology; Craig business.

- Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and wife Gina: Gina's father owned an Italian restaurant near his townhome in Florida. Roberto would visit regularly eat at the restaurant, speak Italian with her father and become friends with the family before dating her.

- Phoenix's Shane Doan and wife Andrea: They met while he played junior hockey in Kamloops, B.C. "My teammate, Jason Strudwick, had a girlfriend who was friends with Andrea. I was interested right away but she wouldn't give me the time of day and it was a few months before we eventually got together."

- Minnesota's Wes Walz and wife Kerry-Anne: They attended the same schools in Calgary but didn't date until running into each other as adults. "I always had a huge crush on her," said Wes. "I chased her around for a few days. It's funny but a year later we were looking at baby photos of each other and found out we stood beside each other in our kindergarten photo. She was there with no teeth, I had no teeth -- just like now."


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