Hello, hockey fans ...

DAVE BREAKENRIDGE, TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

We celebrated CBC's Hockey Day in Canada yesterday. In fact, every day is hockey day for a huge number of Canadians. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who isn't impacted by the great game in one way or another. We're now also two days into Minor Hockey Week, the annual marathon on ice with bragging rights on the line for kids of all ages. In tribute to the ultimate slice of Canadiana, we bring you The Game Of Our Lives, just a snapshot of what hockey means to Canadians young and old. Please rise and remove your caps before you read The Game Of Our Lives ...

Long before the sun came up, Brad Alfredson rose from bed, left his house in the far north end of town and made the 30-minute drive to Southland Leisure Centre to get ready for a busy day.

The senior attendant and his co-worker, Steve Nolan, started work at 6 a.m., cleaning the arena's dressing rooms, checking the compressors and making sure the ice was ready for the onslaught of games, the first full day of Minor Hockey Week.

Alfredson, who has worked in arenas for nearly two decades, said hockey is his life in the winter, whether it's at games and practices for his three sons, or driving the Olympia ice resurfacer after every game. But what makes the job worthwhile is being a part of Canada's game.

"Dealing with the parents and the kids is just great, especially with having my own kids in hockey, you can relate," Alfredson said.

And while Nolan and Alfredson are the first ones in the building, some parents and kids can't wait to get the day started.

"This morning, one guy was right here two minutes after I walked in the door," Nolan said.

DRIVE TO THE NET EARLY

Mark Johnson's boys are always raring to go.

The father of two hockey players said all he had to do was tap his one son Cooper.

"When I went to wake him up, I gave him a shake and he was up, no problems whatsoever," Johnson said. "He eats, sleeps and breathes this game -- he's loved hockey since he was about two years old."

That love for the game at such a young age makes it easier to justify the early mornings, registration fees and ice-time costs, he said.

"If they can still want to play when they're my age, then it was all worth it," he said.

ALL HEART AND HUSTLE

The kids whirl around the rink like a school of fish, chasing the puck in packs.

At age seven and eight, these Novice 1 boys are beginning to develop strong skating and stickhandling abilities, but playmaking is few and far between.

For the coaches, it's about the drive shown by these little warriors, who dive, skate and block shots as if the Stanley Cup was on the line.

Rick Carron, one of the Spitfires' coaches and father of one player, said the hustle is amazing.

"They always try hard, they go hard at the puck and they always have a lot of energy," said Carron.

GIRLS' CLUB

Chelsea Benson flattened an enemy nearly twice her size with a clean, hard bodycheck at the blueline. So what, if the rules in girls' hockey don't allow for such physicality? It's the part of the game she loves most.

"Hitting helps your team so no opponent can score -- and I like it," said Benson, an 11-year-old defenceman sporting pink skate laces with the Westwood PeeWee Warriors. "My sister inspired me -- I like the way she plays, but she's not as aggressive as me."

It's that kind of effort, says fellow hard-hitter Ali Stewart, that helps put to rest the myth that it's only a boys' game.

"I've heard girls don't play as hard as boys," said 12-year-old Stewart, who helped her Southland Storm win 6-3 over the Warriors.

"Some do, but some boys shouldn't be playing at all."

GOAAAAAALLLLS!

While he and his teammates felt bad for the team they played against, Cole Davis was still relishing his performance.

Davis netted a hat trick in his Crowfoot Thunder's 13-1 win over the Blackfoot Warriors in Novice 1 play, and the centre was smiling.

"I like scoring -- I feel proud of myself when I score goals," he said, but he added they likely wouldn't have been possible without solid teamwork.

That was something that put a smile on his coach's face.

"You always try to teach them something different, like passing," Paul Labbe said. "But they get off the ice and they can't even remember the score -- I coach midget as well and I wish some of those guys had the same attitude the younger ones do."

FANS FOR LIFE

It's not just about being a fan of the Flaming 'C'.

Danielle Baxter admits to being a Maple Leafs fan in the heart of Flames country, but that didn't stop her from taking in the first of three games televised yesterday -- the Senators against the Canadiens -- on Hockey Day In Canada.

"I'm watching this game because it's Hockey Day in Canada," said Baxter, 36. "I find this day so important because hockey is part of our culture."

Baxter was introduced to the game by the wife of former NHL goalie Mike Palmateer, who used to babysit her in Toronto.

"That's how I learned about hockey, and now I'm addicted."

So is another true puck fan, Tracy Walker, who was exposed to the game by her hockey-playing brother.

"You've gotta watch it -- it's the Canadian way," said Walker, 33.

GOOD COMPANY

Spencer Tapley knows the value of the game, especially when it hits TVs for 12 hours a day.

The owner of popular sports pub Bottoms Up gets customers all day long, reflecting the love of the game no matter which Canadian teams are playing.

"People earmark this day on their calendars -- it's become part of Canadiana," said Tapley, taking time out from his buzzing business during the Habs-Sens game.

It's even busier later in the day with the Oilers and Leafs facing off followed by the Canucks and hometown Flames.

"The fans are coming in huge amounts when the Flames, Canucks, Oilers and Leafs play.

"They come with friends out to the bar and make it a party."

BRIGADE OF MOMS

Mothers have always attended their kids' games, but the hockey moms are gaining more equal footing with all the dads, and in some cases, drowning them out.

During the Spitfires-Blackhawks game, mothers rang out with every pass, save and goal, cheering their kids on with more than enough enthusiasm.

The Blackhawk mothers were particularly into the game.

Trina Dumba, who has two sons playing hockey, said it's only natural for the moms to be so vocal.

"We're just more awake than the dads are at 8 a.m., and women are a little bit more excited," she said. "It's nice to see how many moms and dads come out to support their kids."

HOME IN THE HEARTLAND

Every day is hockey day for Don Phelps, longtime hockey coach of the Calgary Canucks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

"I don't know if there's life after hockey," said Phelps, who has coached in this city for 34 years.

The legendary bench boss is one of many who make the hockey scene tick in Calgary.

"This city, in my mind, is a Mecca of hockey because there's every level possible here," he said.

"I don't think there's another city where hockey is so dear to the hearts of people.

"Every day, kids are learning so many values -- they learn responsibility and respect for peers, coaches and parents."

BEHIND THE MIKE

He's been a legend of Canadian hockey for 28 years and counting.

And Peter Maher, the Voice of the Calgary Flames, figures Hockey Day in Canada is one of the best ways to celebrate the revered sport.

"It's a religion in Canada, so it should have its own day," Maher said. "It's a great way to honour those people up through the ranks -- the volunteers, the players, the coaches ..."

Just like Maher himself.

"Hockey's been a huge chunk of my life," he said.

"When I started out in Toronto, that's when I realized how big hockey is. After coming from little Campbelltown, N.B., -- a town of 7,000 where hockey was big -- I realized how massive it was in the big city. It got all this attention, when I figured there'd be other things in the big city to talk about.

"That tells you how it rallies people -- how much it grips Canadians."

PLACE YOUR BETS ...

Like many Calgarians, Kato Tomiyama considers gambling part of today's hockey culture.

It heightens the excitement of watching the action, as long as bets stay within the limits of sanity.

"If you're interested in the game, it just helps to have a little bit of money put on it," Tomiyama said. "I've got a very large group of friends, and we like to have something at stake -- and we try not to bet against each other."

More and more, drafts and fantasy pools have inched their way into our lives, with hockey -- of course -- at the forefront.

VIEW FROM THE TOP

Hockey is a game for all ages, and nobody knows that better than the city's top minor hockey man, Ken Moore.

The president of the Calgary Minor Hockey Association has learned from his career and feels those he supervises are gaining from the values of the game, too.

"I think it's the greatest game on Earth," said Moore, who played senior men's hockey in High River and Lloydminster.

"To me, it teaches more life skills than any other sport -- sportsmanship, working as a team, understanding the values of winning and losing and overcoming adversity to become a better person.

"You've got to have fun, be true to your heart by trying your best and pass it on to your children while continuing to play like I do now, even though I'm 40."

PITY THE WIDOWS

They're not hockey haters, but they do lose their husbands to the game on this day every year.

Rani Wiedemann and Jasmine Antonick are the self-proclaimed Hockey Widows Association -- a group of women gathering while the men in their lives partake in Hockey Day in Canada.

"Going on five or six years, I'm actually getting used to it," said Wiedemann, whose husband Rob is an avid sports fan.

"But it gives us an excuse to get together and do our own thing."

And while a movie was on the agenda, hosting a widows' party means watching the game -- like last night's Flames-Canucks contest -- on their own terms.

"Hockey is a true piece of Canadian culture -- men and women of all ages love the sport -- but 10-plus hours straight of televised hockey can be a bit gruelling for some hockey wives and girlfriends, so we do our own thing," Antonick said.

ESCAPE FROM REALITY

For Darren Haynes, a Calgary beer leaguer, hockey represents a chance to escape life.

He gets out twice a week with friends in an organized league and enjoys the exercise and cameraderie with guys he's played with for 10 years.

"It's like a life time-out -- a brief two-hour escape from the stresses of work and the pressures of parenthood," Haynes said.

"It's a chance to leave the cellphone behind and get out on the ice and chase the puck around as if I was 10 years old again and playing pick-up on the Shaganappi community outdoor ice where I spent so many evenings and weekends as a kid."

He's also teaching the value of the game to his son Riley by coaching a novice team in Midnapore.

"He'll learn some basic hockey skills that will serve him well the rest of his life and get to experience all the bonding and satisfaction and intangible things that come from being a member of a team sport," Haynes said.

THAT'S THE REAL DEAL

A form of the game some would call more pure is taking over in many communities.

At the outdoor rink in Haysboro, sticks lay in the middle of the ice as a group of die-hard fans and players got set to engage in a friendly on-ice battle.

Greg Dercach, 22, said he is on the ice about five or six times a week, getting in games with friends and perfect strangers.

"You meet a lot of people out here -- it's all in good fun," said Dercach. "It is the Canadian fabric."

While some play for competition or exercise, Chris Shurville said he loves the peace of mind.

WHISTLING ALONG

The love of the game extends even further for some, to the point where they make it their job.

Like the facility attendants who love their time at the rink, so do the young referees, many of them players themselves.

Aaron Tackaberry, 14, a bantam player, refs novice games for extra cash and to hone his skills.

But it's a joy to be on the ice with the younger kids.

"It was a high-scoring game, not that rough, not that many penalties," said Tackaberry, looking less the authoritarian off the ice than the black-and-whites showed earlier.

LINE OF FIRE

When firefighters aren't dousing the flames, they're cheering on the Flames at the local fire hall.

"If there's a game on, then the TV's on -- especially if it's a big game," said senior nozzleman Mike Parker at Calgary's fire headquarters building in the southeast.

And they don't just watch the sport, either.

Participating in a good game of floor or ice hockey is often part of the daily routine, says senior firefighter Terry Hammond.

"Fortunately, we have the luxury of a gymnasium here, so we play floor hockey -- it's good for our fitness."

'IT'S OUR SPORT'

Down along the Red Mile, Tyler Sunquist figures this is the one regular season game his beloved Flames can ill-afford to lose. After all, it is Hockey Day in Canada.

"This is a big day, a big game," said Sunquist, 21, cheering on the Flames at Melrose Cafe & Bar on 17 Ave. S.W. "There is no losing -- it means quite a lot because it's our sport."

He'll get no argument from fellow Flames faithful, including fanatic Cody Reuser. "I can't stand Vancouver, because they're not the Flames."

AND LIGHTS OUT

The rink feels a touch lonely once a long, busy Saturday has come and gone.

By the time the fanfare died, it was nearly midnight, but there was still work for Bryan Jack at Southland Leisure Centre.

Bleachers, dressing rooms and floors still had to be cleaned, and the ice needed to be resurfaced. But Jack was still reflecting on the busy day at a job he loves doing.

"It's a high public-relations job and it's really rewarding and it's kind of neat making sure the place is in great shape," he said. "But once everyone's gone, there's a feeling of emptiness to it."

But he works away, making sure the rink is as it should be for another busy day.

And by 12:30 a.m., it was lights out.


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