It's one of the warmest evenings of winter and recent drizzle has turned to slush at the Larose Park outdoor rink in St. Albert. An attempt has been made to chip the ice smooth but it's soft and far from perfect. That's OK because it doesn't have to be.
Spectators have assembled beneath the lights, waiting for the puck drop so they can unleash a hearty cheer. But there is no whistle, nor a hockey player in sight — just scores of kids playing hockey. It's an important distinction.
"You have coffee, you're chatting with your neighbours or whatever and watching your kids play for an hour, and then away you go. That's the end of it," says George Huls, president of St. Albert Wonderfun Hockey.
Wondefun Hockey started in St. Albert some 15 years ago, a grassroots effort to allow kids six to 13 years old to play hockey in a non-competitive — and pressure-free — environment. It exposes kids to the sport without having to make big money or time commitments to a formal minor hockey program.
"We're not competing. We don't keep track of stats, nothing like that, so there's very little pressure," says Huls, who became involved with Wonderfun four years ago when his son Taylor, then seven, first took to the ice.
"My son wasn't sure if he was into hockey or not," Huls says, but aside from a brief flirtation with minor hockey — he went to evaluations and didn't like the pressure — "He's been playing ever since."
Play is at the heart of non-competitive hockey leagues like Wonderfun, which offers three age categories (six to eight, eight to 10 and 10 to 13), all of which play outdoors between January and early March. The younger group is by far the largest — and most crowded.
Unlike the minor hockey, which involve tryouts, positional play and shift changes, Wonderfun is wide open. For the younger group, up to 32 kids are on the ice at once, split into four teams as the ice is divided into two. The older groups have smaller numbers and use the full ice sheet, but even then the goalie nets are positioned well forward of the end boards.
With 16 kids facing off at once, the game becomes a free for all with everyone skating furiously — not necessarily quickly — while chasing down that ever-elusive puck. One youngster collects the puck, skates a stride and then spills to the ice, knocking into a neighbour, who in turn, knocks into another and the game becomes more dominos than hockey.
Once in a while a child scores and raises his or her arms in the most familiar of Canadian poses, stick in hand. Just don't expect a Tiger Williams-style celebration or shouts or jeers from the crowd.
Nine-year-old Drew Olsen is like many kids on the ice. He fancies himself as a scoring threat like his heroes Sidney Crosby and Henrik Sedin.
"I play a lot of hockey and well, I have a lot of fun. I like to score goals and get assists," says Olsen, who despite being born three years after Wayne Gretzky's retirement from Broadway, also idolizes No. 99.
After conquering the six- to eight-year-old category, Drew one day believes he'll have the mojo for the NHL. Despite the long, long odds, mother Kirsten isn't about to quash the dream.
"He was telling me today he was wearing his jersey tucked in his pants because that's how Wayne Gretzky did it," she laughs. "I don't have the heart to tell him."
While Wonderfun emphasizes the enjoyment factor of the sport there is some structure to the program, says Huls. Each game night starts with 15 to 20 minutes of instruction, mostly skating, passing and shooting drills. Then they break into actual games.
Huls started coaching two years ago, and on this evening is tutoring kids in the eight- to 10-year-old group. Several other parents help out with on-ice instruction for each category, however no one could be confused for the next Scotty Bowman or Toe Blake. A little knowledge goes a long way.
"Instruction is there but it's not the primary thing," Huls says. "Obviously you want your kids to get better and learn a little bit so we try and do some instruction, but primarily it's just to get out and play."
An outdoor game
Win or lose might not matter, but the weather does. Games are cancelled if it's colder than -15 C or there's a huge dump of snow, both of which led to the loss of about a week from Wonderfun's already short schedule. It's one of the drawbacks of outdoor play, but few seem to mind.
"I'm older. I grew up playing outdoor hockey," says Huls, sporting a Chicago Blackhawks jersey with Bobby Hull's No. 9. "Grassroots hockey, that's what it's all about."
But more than the fun, the sport isn't as expensive or time consuming as full-fledged league play. The equipment is the major cost and there's no fundraising.
"You don't have to sign over your life to play Wonderfun," Kirsten says. "It's nice that it's a short season. It's nice that the kids can just get out and play. There's no high expectations."
Nor are there painfully early trips to the rink, which is a plus for parents and kids alike.
"It's perfect, for me, yeah. I'm not running to Plamondon for a Tuesday night game at 8 o'clock at night," says parent Barry Wygle who heard about the program through friends. "We like it because there's no pressure. You just let them go and play. You don't have a coach screaming at them or whistles."
Fellow spectator and parent-in-arms Gilles Johnson says it's possible his son Ryan will want to enter minor hockey one day, but at this point they're enjoying the moment.
"It's a good take-off point," he says, recognizing how many kids in the younger group do eventually join the ranks of St. Albert Minor Hockey. "Whatever he likes, whatever his interests are, he'll give it a shot. [It's his] first shot at hockey and he's loving it."
"We're all here for the same reason," he adds. "I love to just watch him play and watch his skills. Every game he improves."
After an hour on the ice without shift changes, the kids get pretty tired but still seem to have energy to dream about another day, even on cold Canadian nights.
"Even my little guy, it's freezing outside and he'll come off and say, 'I love hockey,'" says Kirsten. "What better reason is there than that?"