There’s something special about hockey in Welland

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

There were signs all over the city, everyone wore their hockey gear, children ran through the streets clutching posters of their hometown idols. The transit employees shrugged off their usual uniforms in exchange for their hockey sweaters, one unlucky (or perhaps overly optimistic) Buffalo fan was wearing a Connor McDavid Sabres jersey.

For six years Tara Slone and Ron MacLean have traveled the country with hometown hockey telling the stories that the sport has inspired.

“We never run out of stories to tell and people are always excited to share with us. I would say even more as the show goes on and there’s an awareness of it, they entrust us with stories of their community and that’s a really big privilege for us,” said Slone.

Welland has produced more hockey talent than its population of just over 52,000 would seem to warrant.

Players like Nathan Horton, who went third overall in the 2003 NHL entry draft, Yvon Corriveau who played 280 games in the NHL and Amanda Benoit-Wark, a two time IIHF gold medalist with the Canadian women’s national team. Cal Clutterbuck who just scored his first two goals of the season with the New York Islanders, Melanie Desrochers was born in Welland and won the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup with Les Canadiennes de Montreal in 2016-17. The captain of the Brock University men’s hockey team, Connor Walters also grew up in Welland.

“Welland’s a hockey city. Everybody plays hockey, it was easy for me to get into it growing up there,” said Walters.

His teammate, Brayden Stortz, also grew up playing in town.

Welland is a small city in the centre of the Niagara region. The Welland Canal divides the east side of the city from the west side. The east side is largely francophone and the west side is largely anglophone. There are economic and geographic features that split the city as well, but one thing brings everyone together. A collective love of a sometimes ridiculous, but nonetheless wonderful sport.

Dom Aiello loves hockey more than most; his family moved to Welland from Italy when he was a toddler, and growing up next to the arena, it was only natural that he’d play hockey. He and his brother opened CC’s Dugout. The restaurant has had two locations for nearly 40 years.

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

The place was packed. It usually was on a Saturday night so it wasn’t too out of the ordinary for the Italian restaurant. People were crowded around tables, someone went into the back to grab an extra chair. It’s the kind of place where the owner remembers your name and the servers ask about your day as if you’re old friends. It’s also packed with sports memorabilia. Hockey and other sports memorabilia lines the walls of CC’s: a signed picture of an 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky, a poster of Doug Gilmour addressed to the owner, Aiello. There are five jerseys above a row of booths, every single one of them is signed. Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Ellis, Dan Paille, Dan Girardi and Paul Bissonette.

“We call them the Welland five,” said Aiello.

Ellis was the first of the five to crack a NHL lineup after making his debut in 2006 for the Detroit Red Wings. Paille was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres but spent a solid portion of his career in Boston. Bissonette played for the Phoenix Coyotes (now the Arizona Coyotes) before retiring in 2017, he is most well known as the host of the hockey podcast, Spittin’ Chiclets. Girardi played the majority of his games with the New York Rangers but retired earlier this year as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Clutterbuck is the only active NHL player of the five, drafted by the Minnesota Wild, and a current alternate captain of the New York Islanders.

“It’s good for the town and it’s good for the young kids looking up to these guys saying that one day they want to be like them. They say I want to play like Girardi, I want to play like Dan Paille, like Bisonette, like Clutterbuck,” said Aiello.

Of the five, Ellis, Paille and Girardi were set to return to CC’s on that Saturday night.

“The saying is all players at one time or another go through CC’s Dugout, it’s where they grew up, and not only where they grew up, now they bring their kids here,” said Aiello.

Family members arrived first, a small camera crew from Sportsnet tagged along. Cal Clutterbuck’s dad stood by a table wearing an Islanders jacket, Matt Ellis’ brother-in-law found the reserved table at the back of the restaurant.

The players arrived, they took pictures, they signed autographs, but mostly they were welcomed home.

“They all wanted very much to be a part of this, that’s what makes it special. We didn’t have to twist anybody’s arm to come home, they all wanted to be a part of it,” said Slone.

On the broadcast the next night, Matt Ellis defined Welland as “a town built on grit, tenacity, hard-work.”

The Welland five exemplify those characteristics, Girardi was undrafted but made a 13 year career for himself regardless. He was known for blocking shots, repeatedly taking pucks to his ankles. Bissonette played all over the American Hockey League before finally finding a home in Phoenix.

“Every kid who comes out of Welland has good work ethic. They start very young. I think hockey is one of the best games in the world,” said Aiello.

The festival lasted for three days, starting on Friday and closing on Sunday with a national broadcast of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks game.

Two local minor hockey players were selected to appear on the broadcast, Mikayla Guarasci from the St. Catharines-Brock Junior Badgers and Jacob Tessier from the Welland Tigers. For them, hometown hockey felt personal.

“For me it’s huge. Nothing this big has come to Welland in the past couple years. I’ve never seen that many people fill the arena on a Friday night for our game,” said Tessier.

Guarasci plays in St. Catharines, since the Junior Badgers are the nearest high level female minor hockey program, but growing up in Welland, she looked up to the players who had come before her.

“Somebody like that can come from a city like Welland, a small city. If that many players can come from here, why can’t you?” she said.

Welland is nothing special from the outside looking in. It has many of the same characteristics as any southern Ontario town but from the inside, there is something special.

“There’s just something weird that’s happened in Welland that sort of cultivated really high level athletes,” said Slone.

“It’s a really strong minor hockey association. You can feel that everybody’s bought in and it’s usually the beginning of it, when you have a good minor hockey association and good volunteers the rest takes care of itself,” said MacLean.

Members of the Brock women’s hockey team were in attendance on Sunday. They were accompanying members of the Junior Badgers in the parade that was intended to celebrate minor hockey in the area and kick off the broadcast.

“I think it’s really big for us to give back to kids growing up because we were at this point at one point in our lives, and especially to girls as well and giving them confidence and showing them they have places to go and play hockey,” said Badgers starting goaltender Jensen Murphy.

MacLean echoed Murphy’s sentiments.

“I think they say 400 per cent growth in the last two decades,” he said, “I really think it’s important for the young minor hockey associations to see a league, it’s bound to happen. They need to have the belief that they can have a great college opportunity and a great pro career.”

“We had people we looked up to and it’s good to be the people they can look up to,” said Badgers backup goaltender, Emma Balazsi.

“I can honestly say I had a lot of female hockey players as role models growing up, Jayna Hefford was a big one, so it’s really cool to be able to be that for someone else,” said Murphy.

It was all about celebrating the players as role models and as people who had paved the way for those who would come after them. Dan Girardi, Matt Ellis, Nathan Horton and Dan Paille all played for the same AAA OMHA Welland Tigers team. The community was already invested in the Tigers, but for that many players to find so much success at the same time was something truly extraordinary.

“I think usually, when somebody succeeds that gives you the belief. That one atom AAA team that’s a very special thing, to have three players from an OMHA championship team produce three National Hockey League players is something special. That’s usually how it starts. Once somebody does it the rest start to believe,” said MacLean.

Welland is a town with a thriving minor hockey association. It’s a town that loves it’s hometown heroes. It’s a town that finds it’s community at the rink, and so, it’s a town like so many others.

“We’re all rink rats at heart,” said MacLean,.“We all have a little bit of that in our DNA. We have the commonality of that whether you’re in Atlantic Canada and surrounded by fisheries or on the prairies surrounded by grain elevators, you always have that rink in town. That’s one thing that we have in common.”

“Everybody loves their hometown, everybody’s proud of where they’ve come from, everybody likes to root for the home team and hockey rinks serve so many purposes and I think the biggest one is just creating a sense of community where people can gather and feel safe and supported,” said Slone.

Hockey is just a sport but the communities that form around it can grow into so much more.

“It’s unfortunate, we see a lot of bad things as we cross the country too. There are tragedies that happen and stories that don’t have happy endings but the biggest thing we hear is that people are grateful for their hockey communities because hockey communities tend to rally around people who need help. It’s absolutely a unifying force,” said Slone.

There’s value in this game and in the lessons that it teaches. There’s hard work, there’s resilience. There’s the physical aspect of keeping kids active and physically literate, but the most important thing this game has to give doesn’t happen on the ice. It happens around it. It happens in the concourse at the Seymour-Hannah Centre, where young children play mini-sticks between practices and Badgers pose for photos with them. It happens at the Meridian Centre when someone sees their first hockey game and falls in love with the IceDogs. 

It happens when a coach recognizes something special in a player and finds a way to get them extra ice time or equipment they couldn’t otherwise afford. It happens when new Canadian immigrants embrace the game so wholeheartedly that the CBC fills the demand for a Punjabi language Hockey Night in Canada Broadcast. It even happens when 16 people are killed and 13 are injured when a bus carrying a junior hockey team crashes outside of Armley, Saskatchewan on its way back to Humboldt.

“When I think of the tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos, no good comes out of that,” said MacLean. “The president Kevin Garinger, the coach Darcy Haugan and what his legacy is, and the captain of that team, Logan Schatz, the 13 survivors of 29, all of them are such impressive individuals. You recognize that hockey has value when you see an organization in little rural Saskatchewan, that in my mind is as impressive as the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

The value of hockey is what we create around it and the city of Welland has created something truly special.

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