The regular hockey season all over North America is coming to an end – and in many places, it’s already over.
Here in Saguenay, my son’s Bantam “A” team is still alive, for one more weekend. This week, at Le Foyer in Arvida, we had our final practice of the year, a last-chance-refresher for the weekend ahead where the team will battle the Aiglons of Alma in the Tournament of Champions, a tournament to determine the overall best teams in the region.
As we were sitting in the stands, I went looking for the banner with Robin Bouchard‘s number on it. Bouchard was a local boy who had an extraordinary professional hockey career but never made it into the NHL, and it rather breaks my heart that someone with so much talent and skill was never called up, and I love to tell the story. He scored an unbelievable 684 goals in his 16 years as a professional player, which ended with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in 2010. Le Foyer has had new lights installed and since then, the flags are no longer hanging over the ice as they used to be, but are now hanging on the front wall. I told the story about him to another of the hockey moms watching the practice, showed her the display that’s been dedicated to him, a plaque commemorating an incredible 17 game scoring streak. It made me think about the proud history of hockey in the region, the handful of hockey heroes that can be found from La Baie to Lac-St-Jean and beyond.
There are probably a dozen towns in the region that sport hockey teams, from Novice to Midget over a range of skill levels. Those towns extend from La Baie, a port town on the Saguenay River, where freighter ships bring bauxite from Africa, a key ingredient for the aluminum factories that help sustain the area. Those ships have been travelling across the Atlantic Ocean to the St. Laurence and then up the amazing Saguenay Fjord to unload at the docs of La Baie since the Arvida plant was opened in 1927. Today, the city of Saguenay includes La Baie, Bagotville (where the Canadian Forces Base is located, Chicoutimi, Arvida, Kenogami and Jonquiere, but La Baie, Chicoutimi and Jonquiere all sport local hockey teams and the competition between them is as intense now as it was for their parents, or their parents’ parents.
Nearly each of the local rinks is either named after someone who became a famous player or has a dedication to a local player somewhere inside the rink. La Baie, for example, has an arena with two NHL-sized ice surfaces; a walking tunnel connects the rinks, situated across a street from each other. Both rinks are named after a local hockey player who made it big, Jean-Claude Tremblay, a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960’s and 70’s who won five Stanley Cups.
As you move up the river, you’ll get to Chicoutimi, where Montreal Canadiens famed long time goaltender, Georges Vézina, has an Olympic-sized rink named in his honour: the best goaltenders in the NHL still receive an award named after the man who may always be Chicoutimi’s favourite son.
In Alma, the gateway to Lac-St-Jean there’s a brand new facility named after another famous Montreal Canadien player, Mario Tremblay. Tremblay, a right-winger who played and later coached the Habs — and is still a commentator for professional games — is one of the most recognizable hockey men in sports. He was nicknamed “Le Blueuet Bionic” – The Bionic Blueberry after his skills and the region he came from, the blueberry region of Quebec.
Around the lake, which sports several frozen outdoor rinks, some even painted with proper lines once the lake freezes, there are arenas with displays to other favourite sons, including referees and linesman.
This weekend, St. Bruno will welcome the parents, grandparents aunts and uncles to watch the players compete, with a 2-game format. The 50-50 tickets cost $5 for $15 and can give you as much as $220 for a win; entry fee is $4 for anyone over 17.
The last weekend of hockey is about to begin.