Stratford the epitome of 'hockey innocence'

Former NHL player Tim Taylor inside William Allman Arena in Stratford where this year's Hockey Day...

Former NHL player Tim Taylor inside William Allman Arena in Stratford where this year's Hockey Day in Canada will be based. (Morris Lamont/QMI)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:03 PM ET

STRATFORD, Ont. - Saturday is the day, Hockey Day in Canada, but on a recent afternoon in Tim Taylorís backyard, the truth is illuminated by the waning winter sunshine.

Every day is Hockey Day in Canada.

The CBCís marathon celebration of our game will be hosted by this town known for its famous Shakespearean festival.

All the world might be a stage, but Stratford is the one that matters in Canada Saturday. Stratford is a mirror, held up for all of us to see ourselves and the way we are connected to the game we consider our own.

While towns like Stratford across our country might be unique for something defining, like its celebration of The Bard, all communities have hockey in common.

Taylor, the retired two-time Stanley Cup champion, is standing in the back door of his garage, at the edge of the black, plastic mat which starts the path down to the outdoor rink. In the late afternoon sunshine, his son, Wyatt, 12, cousin Brandon Taylor, 12, and friend Quinten Haddock, 13, are on the rink, the puck making that hollow sound against the boards, their skates rasping across the immaculate, polished ice.

Taylor chose to come back here, to retire in his hometown, though the option of life after hockey in a city like Tampa, Fla., where he finished his 12-year run in the NHL, sat there in the twilight of his career.

ďIf you had to paint that picture right now, that picture of three boys with the trees and the snow behind them...looking at my childhood, thatís what it was all about,Ē said Taylor.

ďYou can have all the big city hoopla. The innocence of hockey is right there. You get to the NHL level and you understand itís a business and every game is the most important game. Out here it is just the skill and the art of making those moves and the innocence of seeing young girls and boys playing the game...and how us parents get really cold watching the kids and they never do.Ē

Tim and his wife, Jodi (whoís also from Stratford), wanted their kids to share in the experiences they had growing up in this close-knit community of about 30,000 residents.

Itís a moment just like this one, some after-school hockey on a sparkling winter afternoon.

Not too far away in the garage, leaning up against a fridge, just beneath a huge shelf of stored Christmas decorations, sits something called the IceMaster, a contraption that looks like a lawn mower handle, a hose attached in the middle of the handle at the top, a rectangle of tan-coloured cloth trailing off at the bottom. It works like a little, hand-held Zamboni.

Taylor has had it for years, even when he had no use for it, using it a couple of times in New York when he played for the Rangers and then making it one of lifeís healthy scratches for the five years he was in Tampa. It was never really out of sight or out of mind, an encouraging reminder that there would be days like this one, back where it all started.

ďWe wanted to come back and have our kids have the same opportunity we had. I could see the trees and I just loved the spot. I always wanted to have my own rink. Thatís why I bought that thing. I only used that flooder once or twice in New York. I kept it hanging in the garage in Tampa, as funny as that is. I knew when we would come home, it would get used one day,Ē said Taylor.

Taylor is the co-chairman of Hockey Day In Canada here and heís anxious to show off Stratford and the qualities that brought him back here.

ďA small, hometown atmosphere. Everybody knows everybody. Theyíre proud to say where they come from. The special part of a small community is everybody comes together for good and bad,Ē he said.

ďIíve been so proud of this city, whenever anybody asks me where I come from. Itís hard for me to explain my feelings towards it. Itís going to be a great story for all the citizens of Stratford to show everyone throughout the world how proud we are of our city.Ē

The town has come together for the big day, three years in the making, 400 volunteers stepping forward, the wonderful area around old William Allman Memorial Arena on the Avon River ready to embrace as many as 15,000 people out to celebrate our game. Itís not a sight R. Thomas Orr envisioned when he saved the beautiful arena setting from becoming a railyard, getting together a group to buy up the land and create the Stratford Park Board at the turn of the century. Itís probably not what Tom Patterson was thinking about when he had the vision in the 1950s for a theatre and a yearly tribute to Shakespeare.

Stratford is the stage, but we will all see ourselves today, our river rink reflected in the silver ice on the Avon, our local heroes in the stories of a Howie Morenz or local legend Dinny Flanagan, Sr. (1,043 wins? Címon), our team in the story of Flanaganís Cullitons, the local Junior B franchise known for its excellence and named after the brothers, Keith and George Culliton, who saved the team in 1970s.

Saturday is Hockey Day, but it is less a day than a lifetimeís worth of moments, shared and individual. That moment of feeling suspended in the air as your skate slides frictionless across a fresh mirror of natural ice. The clicking sound of a puck sliding and skipping on a newly-frozen patch. That wonderful feeling of warmth inside after playing with your kids on the outdoor rink on a morning too cold for your car to start. The smell that hits you when the door to the hut opens by the rink, a mix of wet, heat and wool.

Itís new tape on your stick, that first step onto the ice, a backdoor tap-in, freshly-sharpened skates, the ride to the rink, a pass off the boards right onto a teammateís stick, overtime, the feeling you share with teammates when youíve beaten an opponent everyone said was better.

A one-timer off the bar, a toe save, your kidís first goal and flexing your toes after taking off your skates.

Itís Tim Taylorís backyard in Stratford, the sun setting, the sound of skates carving ice, the promise of another day of hockey Sunday.


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