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The Only Game in Town
William Johnson
February 16, 1970
Without hockey, the saying goes, the community of Dauphin, Manitoba would freeze to death in winter and nobody would notice until spring. Citizens young and old have the game in their very bones
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February 16, 1970

The Only Game In Town

Without hockey, the saying goes, the community of Dauphin, Manitoba would freeze to death in winter and nobody would notice until spring. Citizens young and old have the game in their very bones

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It is a night when the Dauphin Kings are playing at home. It is 5° below zero and it is dark and there is a howling prairie wind thrashing the snow about, whipping it up in violent billows off the parking lot, erasing all clear vision and biting a man's cheeks like steel filings. The weather is fit for no man this night, yet here come the cars, headlights bobbing through the whirling gray screen; first one pair of dim globes advances, then another, growing brighter as they move silently through the thick storm. Quite a long string of twin lights comes into sight and eventually there are hundreds of pairs, all drifting to a stop in the lot before they are snapped off. In the snowy darkness crouched black shapes leave the cars and, struggling against the wind as if plodding uphill, finally reach this big building, the hockey arena in this Canadian town. Inside, they stamp their feet as they lurch out of the storm and they grin as if they are surprised that they have found a safe haven, a well-lighted, warm place in Dauphin, Manitoba.

There are hundreds of people in the lobby, familiar faces almost every one. They have all fought the blizzard to be present for the hockey game. Ray Allard, the Ford dealer; Harold McCallum, manager of The Dauphin Herald and president of the Kings; Steve Hawrysh, who runs the Blue Belle Lunch and is the Kings' general manager; Staff Sergeant Cliff Kool of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police contingent stationed in Dauphin; Bob Szewczyk, a barrister and solicitor in town; Clarence (Coot) Riehl, who runs the town's recreation program; Bernie Basaraba, the sportscaster for station CKDM ("Voice of Kings—the Radio Station in the Heart of the Nation"). They mill about and talk, sipping at steaming coffee in paper cups. On one gray, peeling wall of the lobby are shelves with the old trophies, tarnished and dimmed, more of copper than of silver, oddly enough. And next to them are the photographs, framed nicely enough but a bit askew now on the wall. They date way back, to 1903 when a hockey team from Dauphin first won the Baker Cup, awarded to the champion team in the province. People in Dauphin still talk of that Ought Three team, the strong young men in the picture looking terribly stern and utterly confident of their immortality. They are all dead now, of course.

The people in the lobby don't look at the small old trophies or the fading photographs. They do pay out 25¢, though, to get the Hockey Programme for the night. They scarcely need it because they've seen what it contains—the photographs and the captions of their Dauphin Kings—many times before during other contests in the Manitoba Junior 'A' League. But they want the Hockey Programme because in each one there is a number, and if theirs coincides with the number announced between the periods of the game they will have a chance to play Score-O. That means they can clump out on the ice in their galoshes and, in front of all the folks from Dauphin, try from center ice to send a puck through a small slot in the Score-O board set up in front of the net. It's a tiny slot, and a winner receives a large cash prize. No one won it last season, but the people don't mind because the money spent for the Programme helps pay the Kings' expenses.

Through the crowd Orville Heschuk, a Dauphin dentist, moves easily, chatting with most everyone as he sells $1 chances on a game pool that awards winners $40 and sends $60 into the coffers of the Kings; everyone knows the Kings need money, so Orville Heschuk has almost no trouble selling all of the chances.

Eventually, nearly 2,500 people arrive for the game at the Dauphin Memorial Community Center Livestock and Skating Arena. They leave the lobby and go into the arena, where they sit shoulder to shoulder on wooden tiers rising around the rink. Above them mammoth laminated beams arch beneath the wooden roof. The sound of the prairie wind can be heard outside. Then the lights go out and the teams line up across the ice and a small floodlight comes on high up in the thick rainbows of the darkened rafters. The spotlight shines on a locally painted portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Someone turns on a recording of God Save the Queen and everyone sings. The anthem drowns out the howl of the blizzard. There is scarcely an empty length of board seat in the arena, and the faces in row after row around the rink make a Canadian mosaic: weathered or wrinkled or plain or pretty or young or grim, they display the hardy, wholesome features of people at home in a demanding environment. And once the first face-off has started the game they are intent, expert in their attention to the nuances of the play and generally quite unashamed of their enthusiasms. Orville Heschuk the dentist bellows, "Skate! skate! skate!" And a white-haired, grandmotherly lady croons quietly to herself, "Go, go, go, go, go, Kings! Go, go, go!"

Such is the way of hockey in Canada: a life force of winter, an addictive nourishment that simply cannot be forgone. It has sent millions of men and women into innumerable storms to witness the game. And it has sent millions of boys of all ages out into 10,000 deep-gray afternoons, shivering as they clatter along a street on skate blades, headed for a frozen river or a front-yard rink where their blades will strike sparks when they clash against random stones embedded in the ice.

Hockey in Canada is inescapable. Certainly, with bowling alleys and television and curling and snowmobiles and skiing and jet-propelled dashes for the affluent to the Algarve or the Caribbean, life is neither quite so remote nor quite so dismal in winter as it was. But hockey is reborn each year of cruel necessity, a product of ice and boredom—just as it was 100 years ago when it was invented by winter-locked British troops of Queen Victoria in the subarctic light of Kingston, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The latter-day brilliance of the Bobby Hulls and the Gordie Howes is basically a product of that same dark confinement, of being imprisoned for months in snowbound towns like Kirkland Lake or The Pas or Gravelbourg.

It is the way an old man in Dauphin put it one afternoon, sitting in the Royal Billiards pool hall, acting as spokesman for a silent row of kibitzers who seemed hypnotized by the snooker game they were watching. The Spokesman said authoritatively, "By God, if we didn't have hockey in Dauphin this whole blamed place could freeze to death in winter and nobody'd notice till spring. This ain't exactly Paris France, you know." The row of kibitzers snorted approvingly at the Spokesman's words, and he sat silent for a moment watching the players. Then he wagged his head at one shooter, a bald old man with skin like parchment and watery eyes blinking from behind an extraordinarily thick pair of spectacles. "That's Mr. Langford," said the Spokesman. "He don't look it, but he's the best goddam pool shooter in town. Seventy-nine years old and no one shoots better'n Mr. Langford, ay?" He gazed at Mr. Langford for a moment and added, "But if we didn't have hockey here in Dauphin, I don't think even Mr. Langford would stay here in the winter. This place ain't exactly Rome Italy, you know."

This place is called Dauphin because in 1741 one François La Vérendrye (probably the first white man to see the Canadian Rockies) named a lake Dauphin after the crown prince of France. The region was not settled until 1883 and Dauphin was not incorporated until 1898, after the settlement had snuggled up against the tracks of the Canadian National Railways and had begun to prosper a bit. It exists on the grand prairie flats of Manitoba, in the central part of the country, 210 miles northwest of Winnipeg; 8,766 people live there.

One of the proud things that has happened in Dauphin over the years is that every single street has been paved. "Not even the back roads have gravel," said Ray Dicks, secretary-treasurer of the town council. "Not many towns in western Canada can say that, ay?" The people of Dauphin are also proud of the rich, black earth of the region. They call it "that good old Dauphin gumbo." The town has no manufacturing and no major tourist industry, so its economy is based entirely on the farms around it; the wealth of its taxpayers and the health of its children depend on the annual bounty of grain produced by that good old gumbo. If the crop should go sour from too much rain or turn brittle as broomstraws in a drought, Dauphin would have trouble. The used cars on the lots of Murdoch Chevrolet would sit with motors mute and tires unkicked; diamond rings in the glass cases at Snodgrass Jewellers would sparkle for naught; and even the value of business at George Brayshaw's Riverside Funeral Chapel would decline (although, of course, the volume would not diminish).

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