Mountie a symbol of what minor hockey’s all about

(This is a story about Calgary Division member #17371 C.W. "Joe" Nolan)

(Daryl Slade, Calgary Herald, February 17th, 2004)

Looking back, the obstacles I faced as farm-grown kid wanting to play minor hockey in a small, northern Saskatchewan village in the 1960’s might now be more than enough to dissuade me.

All too often, my teammates and I were dismissed from school and then walked over to the nearby outdoor skating rink, where we might shovel snow for three hours just to play a game under the lights.

Occasionally, we would drive to a neighboring town to lace up the blades in poorly heated shacks to play in -40 C on dreadfully rough ice.

Yet, in spite of these impediments, one of my most memorable sporting moments comes from that winter o f1966-67.

It is because one man made all the difference. He’s a testament to what minor hockey coaching and volunteering should be all about.

Cpl. Joe Nolan, a young Mountie recently transferred to my hometown (Smeaton, then population 300) to head up a two-man detachment to keep law and order in the towns along Highway 55 between Prince Albert and Nipawin, turned around a struggling minor hockey program.

Little did Nolan know at the time the impact he would make with a particular group of 13 boys aged 13 and 14 who would ultimately go from a group of misfits to scrape into the playoffs, and win their bantam hockey league championship.

Nearly 37 years later, I still treasure that experience.

The seeds were sewn the previous year when Nolan arrived to find a dilapidated outdoor rink and a disorganized minor hockey program.

He helped organize the first ever league among neighboring towns and eventually sparked parent’s interest.

Nobody showed up to the first organizational meeting, except Nolan and the school principal. But, after a warning by the principal that if no parents showed up at the next gathering, there would be no minor hockey that year, it was packed.

Nolan then discovered the province was dismantling an outdoor rink at a nearby jail camp and purchased the rink and overhead lighting for $1.

A dedicated group of parents helped transport the materials, built the rink and instill community pride that probably cannot be understood by those who today are used to driving in warm mini-vans to heated, indoor, artificial ice rinks.

"One thing that stands out in my mind is the hours we spent flooding that rink, shoveling snow and changing uniforms in a shack where the temperature wasn’t much better than it was outside," says Nolan, 70, a 25 year veteran RCMP officer now retired in Calgary.

"Many great hockey players, including Gordie Howe, grew up and played in that environment. But I think the majority of kids today wouldn’t play under those conditions, because they’re not tough enough."

Nolan knew early in life the sacrifices that had to be made to practice and play on outdoor rinks in howling winds and frigid temperatures.

He grew up in Bruce, a northern Alberta town 20 kilometers west of Viking – home of six Sutter brothers who had stellar National Hockey League careers – where indoor rinks were only a dream.

"I didn’t have much talent, but I had a lot of desire," recalls Nolan. "You had to have it to play outdoor hockey, where kids would sometimes be crying with frozen feet before games even started.

"I had a great mentor in Selkirk, Man., when I first started coaching. He stressed everybody playing and lots of skating."

That’s just what Nolan adopted as a philosophy in more than two decades of coaching.

"We had four or five players on that Smeaton team that had never before played any hockey, except a little bit on the sloughs," recalls Nolan. "Every one developed through desire and hard work and ended up as league champions.

"They were typical of most small towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan back then. Kids loved hockey and would do a lot of things just to play."

Being involved in hockey was also a great community builder for Nolan’s job.

The youth, he said, saw him more than as a police officer and he very seldom had any problems with youth. "Every where I went, hockey helped me deal with people," he says. "It was a great advantage.."

His wife Inez often wondered what he was doing flooding ice at 11 p.m., but was nevertheless his top supporter.

In previous seasons, we began skating in late November on thinly iced farm dugouts and practices were little more than intra-squad games.

With Nolan, there was plenty of skating and when the whistle blew you had to account for your positioning on the ice.

In the end, it was worth it.