My Hometown: Growing Up With Hockey in Durham, Ontario

Hitting the ice was much more than a figure of speech for this young hockey player!

In the 1950s like most Canadian boys, winter weekends for me meant hockey—on the street, the rinks (both indoor and neighbourhood ponds) or one of those Eagle brand table-hockey games on the rare days when the weather kept us indoors. Our small Grey County, Ont., town was no different.

For me, the added emphasis about the importance of being a good-on-the-ice Canuck kid was the fact that my father was a community leader who helped organize weekly games at the local rink. In my mind, there was a feeling of added concern to be rather good at our national game, although my parents never stated anything of the sort directly. I was, however, still filled with apprehension…wondering if I could bring my respectable road hockey game to real ice inside the spanking new Durham Arena. We received a new rink thanks to the local service clubs—including dad’s Kinsmen Club colleagues—who raised enough money through dozens of bingo nights and other local fund raisers to help build a better arena for our small community.

Hometown Durham Ontario Hockey StickPhoto: John Dickson
John as a young boy, holding a hockey stick.

For the youngest residents, the town’s hockey organizers even divided the town of Durham (population of about 2,000…both then and now) into four quadrants. The northern quarter was designated as the Chicago Blackhawks, the west and east neighbourhoods were the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs respectively, while the streets in the south, where we lived, were the Montreal Canadiens. Obviously, jersey sizes for these four pre-peewee team members were very small, befitting the six-to-eight-year olds who played in this “squirt” hockey league. The teams were comprised of only boys, as not many girls aspired to hockey glory in that era.

In the fall of 1950, a few months after my sixth birthday, it was time to join the south-end team—the Montreal Canadiens wannabees—who had some veteran players aged seven or eight. Several new tryouts were six, like me. I say try- out, but of course everyone made the team simply by showing up. My dad watched silently on the sidelines on that November morning as I skated up and down the left wing. I say skated but more accurately, it would be best described as scraping along with both ankles angled dramatically inwards, close to the ice surface—often fully touching the bottom at times! The memory of that very first on-ice experience is still fresh. As is my honest response to the innocent question my wonderful mother asked after I returned home. That same straightforward reply from a six-year-old in the winter of 1950 has been repeated many times at family gatherings, especially during the hockey season. Mom voiced what every caring parent would ask a son, or daughter, then or now:

“So, John, how did you do today on your first day on the team?”

“Okay, Mom, I know I could have done better wearing my rubber boots, but they made me wear skates!”

To my surprise, her question and my response both made the front page of our local weekly newspaper, the Durham Chronicle. Reporting local sports “news” was obviously important to my parents! Just like many other weekly papers in small-town Ontario, however, the Chronicle is a thing of the past. Today,
that two-line exchange would be shared in an email or Tweet.

Meeting a Legend

If you wanted further evidence of a child’s inherent honest reply to questions from adults of any status, you’ll be getting it soon! Just before my third week as a struggling squirt player, the town’s hockey organizers promoted their new arena by having the famous announcer—and Toronto Maple Leafs star—Howie Meeker speak at a pre-Christmas fundraising dinner.

Early the next morning, Howie visited players in the dressing room to encourage sportsman-like chats and to ask a few awestruck young kids a question or two. Sitting beside me was my proud father, the then president of the Kinsmen’s Club, as the man who introduced Howie the night before at their dinner event. Moving around the room, Mr. Meeker finally reached me, stopped and helped lace up one skate, before asking two perfect questions.
“Well young fellow, I sure know your dad, but what’s your name and what is your favourite NHL team?”

Hometown Durham Howie MeekerPhoto: John Dickson
A signed photo of Howie Meeker.

“I’m John Dickson, Mr. Meeker, and my favourite team is Montreal. They’re the best!”

My father chuckled quietly and Howie moved on rather quickly to the next nervous player on the bench. Dad finished lacing up my skates and, before I hit the ice (literally), he said, “Being honest is important son, keep doing that and have fun out there!”

I did, but my ankles never held me up, no matter how hard I tried. It was also embarrassing when I discovered the only way I could come to a complete stop on the ice was to cruise into the boards! Painful, even at my low speed.

The following summer, I moved on to the game of golf, a challenging sport that I still play to this day with our two grown sons. Odd…ice proved too slippery for them, too!

Next, check out these love letters to communities across Canada.