Article — From the January 1998 issue

Hockey Nights

The tough skate through junior-league life

In September the streets of Flin Flon, Manitoba, are deserted at twilight. The town has no bookshop, no record store, no movie theater, no pool hall. Main Street is a three-block strip of banks, video shops, and Bargain! outlets. The 825-foot smokestack of the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company rises from one end of the street, and the Precambrian shield stretches out from the other. In the Royal Hotel, gamblers forlornly drop quarters into the video slot machines. Farther up the street at the Flin Flon Hotel, the front door has been broken in a fight, and inside strangers are met by suspicious glances from miners wearing baseball caps with slogans like ya wanna go? and T-shirts that read, with the letters increasingly blurry, drink, drank, drunk. Susie, who works behind the counter at the Donut King, says a major shipment of LSD has arrived in town and half the students at the local high school, Hapnot Collegiate, have been stoned out of their minds for weeks.

Described by Canada: The Rough Guide as an “ugly blotch on a barren rocky landscape,” Flin Flon, population 7,500, straddles the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 90 miles north of its nearest neighbor, The Pas, 500 miles up from Winnipeg, and a thirteen-hour drive due north of Minot, North Dakota. In this part of the world, Flin Flon is literally the end of the line: the two-lane highway that connects it to the rest of North America circles the perimeter of town and then, as if shocked to its senses, rejoins itself and hightails it back south.

But Flin Flon is also the heartland of Canada’s national game. In a country where every settlement of consequence has a hockey arena and a representative team made up of players twenty years old and younger, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is one of the grandest, oldest competitions. And Flin Flon is one of the grandest, oldest hockey towns. I had played hockey in towns like Flin Flon—in a league one level below the juniors—before I went to college. Many of my teammates had gone on to play junior hockey; some became professionals.

One hot day in August, seventeen years after I’d left western Canada, I flew north, arriving from Toronto in a twin-prop plane, to spend the first month of the new season with Flin Flon’s junior hockey team. Hockey, as I remembered it from my own teams, was an untold story. It was also the path I had chosen not to take.

At the airport, I was greeted by the Flin Flon Junior Bombers’ coach and general manager. Razor (like everyone else in hockey, he goes by a nickname) was in his early forties, solidly built, with a deep, raspy voice and the confident, slightly pigeon-toed stride of a former athlete. He had grown up in Flin Flon and had been a defenseman for the Bombers.

He had gone on to playa long career in minor-league professional hockey as well as some games—“a cup of coffee here, a cup of coffee there”—with the Boston Bruins in the National Hockey League. As we drove into town, Razor told me that the previous year, his first full season as coach, the Bombers had finished with the second-worst record in the SJHL’s northern division. This year, he said, was going to be different. He had big tough forwards, speed, and two of the best goalies in the league.

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's "No Canada?"appeared in the April 1996 issue of <em>Harper's Magazine</em>.

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