Hockey Night to Remember

A story of dedication, charity, community, sport, nature and a weekend of memories I will never forget

by Mark Roberts - Jan. 23, 2014

There's nothing better on a cold, winter, Saturday morning, than waking to the smell of a fresh cracked egg in the frying pan, and an English muffin in the toaster. To start this day so perfectly turned out to be a sort of foreshadowing, on the morning of the second day of CFB Trenton's 3rd Annual Pond Hockey Classic.

With a delicious meal in us, and the thin coating of fresh snow crunching under the car tires, we made the drive down the 401 from Brighton, Ontario to the outskirts of Trenton and the village of Batawa.

The Canadian flags lined the road into Batawa Community Centre, and the site of something truly patriotic. For the third straight year, the members of the 436 Squadron of 8-Wing Trenton held an outdoor pond hockey tournament and banquet in support of the Trenton Memorial Hospital Foundation and the Military Families Fund. This event, as a whole, combines everything truly Canadian; community, charity, the great outdoors, and of course, hockey.

A truly Canadian tradition, the post-game handshake line, was alive and well all weekend.

Taking in the action on the main rink between title sponsor Scotiabank's entry and the 436 Squadron, it was clear to see this game was unlike the hockey I'm used to watching. This was special. Every play, every slap of the stick on the frozen puck, the skate blades cutting the crisp ice, the sites and sounds of any hockey game, seemed to coincide with the laughter and smiles of the participants and audience. Fouls lead to apologies rather than penalties. Goal celebrations were subdued and respectful. And when the game ended, it seemed two winning teams were left shaking hands at center ice.

With a quick scrape of the rink, the Zamboni driver prepared the ice for the next game, as these teams made their way indoors for a bite to eat, or to check the standings. A crowd gathered around the merchandise table, where t-shirts, toques, official game pucks, jerseys and more helped raise money for the great cause. It was in this space that the atmosphere reflected the purpose, rivals interacted as if they were teammates, military members and civilians conversed, and the hardworking volunteers took a moment to stop and enjoy the stories making their way inside.

The tournament would go on, with playoffs turning to semi-finals and a nail-biting final, but we had moved on. Down the highway a little further to the base in Trenton, we found ourselves waiting in front of the Officer's Mess for our VIP tour to begin. Waiting for the guest of honour. It's hard to wipe a smile off your face when the most famous hockey father of all time is around you. This I learned very quickly as Mr. Walter Gretzky arrived right on time to board the bus with his assistants, the Chief of 436 Squadron, a couple helpful military personnel and ourselves. We made our way onto the airfield where two huge aircraft were prepared for us to tour.

The CC-130J Super Hercules sits on the snowy, frozen airstrip, patiently awaiting our arrival.

We first boarded the CC-130J Super Hercules, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft. Climbing up the ladder and into the cockpit, we were informed of the ins and outs of this complicated, high-tech system and just a few of the things it's capable of. Looking back into the cargo area of the plane, it's hard to image how something so huge can even get off the ground, let alone haul people, vehicles, and supplies all over the world. There is no aircraft in aviation history that can match the flexibility, versatility and relevance of the Super Herc.

Across the frozen airstrip, we treaded carefully to the C-17 Globemaster III. A high-wing, four-engine, T-tailed aircraft with a rear-loading ramp, the C-17 can carry large combat equipment and troops or humanitarian aid across international distances directly to small airfields anywhere in the world. It's truly humbling to stand at the back of this plane, with the cargo ramp open and look forward towards the cockpit. A cockpit crew of two pilots and one loadmaster operate the C-17, which can be refueled in flight. The pilots and loadmasters on both aircraft were extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and helped to reinforce our appreciation of military personnel and the things they can accomplish.

The end of our VIP tour coincided with two of the 17 CC-130J Super Hercs taking off and, in formation, performing a pass of the tournament grounds in Batawa just in time for the beginning of the semi-finals. Walter and his assistants would make their way back to the main rink for the ceremonial puck drop before the final game, while we went home to warm up and clean up prior to the "Roots of Hockey" dinner and reception.

The fully restored World War II Halifax Bomber serves as the centerpiece for the reception.

For the first time in the three years of the CFB Trenton Pond Hockey Classic, the dinner and reception would be held at the National Air Force Museum of Canada. This amazing building within the base in Trenton is home to nearly two-dozen historical aircraft, and countless artifacts. With two active restoration projects on the go, the museum is extremely proud of its flagship project; a completely restored World War II Halifax Bomber, which is on permanent display in the museum. This beautiful plane served as the centerpiece for the night, with the merchandise and refreshment booths located under the starboard wing, and an 11-piece band at it's side to entertain the VIP guests and tournament participants throughout the night.

Three-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee Dave Hemstad, the Master of Ceremonies for the evening kicked off the night with some laughs before dinner was served. Then the guest of honour, Mr. Walter Gretzky took the stage for a speech that those in attendance won't soon forget. The Canadian legend seems in his glory days with a microphone in his hand, and a room full of people eagerly awaiting his next story. With tales of his parents immigration to Canada, his childhood and of course that of his son Wayne, Mr. Gretzky had the crowd sitting silently on the edges of their seats. For a man who's memories of 30 years of his life were lost to the side-effects of a serious brain aneurism in 1991, he certainly has some stories to share. You could tell he felt very comfortable on stage making us laugh, and when he opened the room to questions from the crowd, almost everyone jumped at the opportunity to interact with the man who eagerly refers to himself as "Wally".

Once Walter had been presented with his custom #99 Pond Hockey Classic jersey and enjoyed his standing ovation from the very appreciative crowd, our hilarious MC came back on stage to start off the live auction portion of the night. Combined with the silent auction, merchandise sales, and other fundraising associated with the tournament, the organizers of the event were ecstatic to finish off the night with the announcement that over $60,000 were raised in the two days of this year's tournament. What a way to end a flawless Saturday.

There's nothing better on a cold, Sunday morning in January, than planning a weekend 363 days away. To start this year so perfectly took a lot of care and preparation by some very hardworking people who decided to include us in their big weekend, and make us feel like VIPs. We had an amazing time and can't wait to do it again next year. As long as we get to wake up to the smell of a fresh cracked egg in the frying pan, and an English muffin in the toaster on Saturday morning.

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