Hockey puts Cole Harbour on the international stage

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COLE HARBOUR, N.S. – The noise from a vacuum cleaner fills the hallway near one of the ice rinks at Cole Harbour Place. Behind a counter, Paul Mason is diligently combing the floor of the small skate shop he has recently purchased.

Skate shop owner is the latest addition to Mason’s resume. His other titles include husband, father, minor hockey coach, high school principal, local auctioneer, parade organizer. And, general pillar of the community.

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No one, including Mason, has any idea how he will find the time to run his new venture. Somehow, it’ll happen. After all, the man practically lives at Cole Harbour Place.

Mason and his wife, Dana, held their wedding reception at the multi-purpose facility. He will tell you – proudly – that he’s slept in the press box at the main rink on more than one occasion.

“We had lost ice in the other rink during a snowstorm,” explains Mason. “Lots of people have done it.”

It’s one of the secrets to Cole Harbour’s hockey success. Coaches and community members like Mason are willing to sleep in press boxes, drive in snowstorms or take time away from work and family to make sure kids in their small town can play the game they all love so dearly.

“We’ve always had exceptionally good coaching,” says former NHL defenceman Cam Russell, a Cole Harbour native. “They’re doing it for the right reasons. They’re not coaching because they have a son on the team. They just coach because they love coaching.

“They’ve given so much and asked for nothing in return.

A true hockey success story

Many have wondered how a town of 30,000 has been able to produce such a disproportionate number of talented hockey players – including Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player in the National Hockey League. Nathan MacKinnon, who was selected first overall in last June’s NHL entry draft by the Colorado Avalanche, has often been called the next Crosby. He, too, calls Cole Harbour home.

MacKinnon says hockey was always popular here. He adds, however, it wasn’t until ‘Sid the Kid’ started tearing up the NHL en route to a Stanley Cup in 2009 that the sport and the town gained an identity outside of the Maritimes.

“Obviously Sid had a lot to do with it,” MacKinnon says. “Cam Russell came from Cole Harbour, Joey DiPenta … and he won a Cup (in 2007 with Anaheim), so there have been players before Sid. But when the best player in the world is from your town, Cole Harbour, I think that obviously adds to the hype.

“It definitely shows that small-town guys can make it. Some of the best players in the world are from small towns. It’s definitely cool to have him from there.”

MacKinnon is coming off a Memorial Cup championship with the Halifax Mooseheads, which featured three other graduates of the Cole Harbour minor hockey system – Russell, the team’s general manager, forward Stephen MacAulay and defenceman Brendan Duke.

When a reporter tells MacKinnon that the place where he grew up is the focus of this story, he asks his own question.

“You talking to Jon? Jon Greenwood?” asks MacKinnon.

Greenwood has served as a mentor for MacKinnon, coaching him for two seasons – in peewee and bantam – and was his teacher at the Maritime Hockey Academy for Grade 7 and 8. The coach’s wife, Lisa, is a teacher at Ross Road Elementary and Junior High where Paul Mason is the school’s principal.

Like every Canadian small town, everyone knows everyone in hockey. It’s a very tight-knit community and Greenwood, who now coaches the Cole Harbour WolfPack major midgets, believes having stability in the coaching ranks is a major reason for the success of the town’s minor hockey program.

All the way up I never had a parent as a coach . At every level – novice, atom, peewee, midget – they were all just volunteers.

— Stephen MacAulay

“A guy like Paul Mason coached a lot of years before he even had kids and he’s coached a lot of years since his kids have grown up, past that age level,” says the 31-year-old, who is a teacher and director of hockey development at the Maritime Hockey Academy. “I think that’s important, in minor hockey especially, and I know it’s not that way in every small town.”

MacAulay, who signed an AHL contract with the Montreal Canadiens in August after playing in three straight Memorial Cup tournaments, says he appreciated the sense of fairness – perceived or not – having a non-parent coach gave him as a player.

“All the way up I never had a parent as a coach,” says the 21-year-old. “At every level – novice, atom, peewee, midget – they were all just volunteers. I’m not saying that parents are bad coaches, but if you have a son on the team it could be a distraction or you could favour them a little bit and that really stuck out for me.”

Many of the coaches in minor hockey were graduates of the program who decided to give something back.  A lot of them started coaching in their teens – as assistants – because they want to help children enjoy playing the game as much as they did.

Cyclical development

Mason started coaching at 14 in Cole Harbour and has been imparting his knowledge to kids for the past 35 years.  He’s now a fixture as the head coach of the peewee AAA team. In addition to coaching DiPenta and Crosby, he’s also coached a number of his peers like Chad Trenholm. The long-term development in Cole Harbour has become cyclical with many students eventually becoming teachers.

“One coach comes up and learns from another,” says the 38-year-old Trenholm, who has been coaching in Cole Harbour since he was 16. “So the players I’m coaching now would have picked up some of the stuff I picked up from Paul and so hopefully you kind of continue that.”

Mason says if there’s someone in the community that shows an interest in coaching, they’ll make room on the bench. This season he’ll have five assistants helping him run the team.

“A lot of them come back – that’s the best part,” Mason says of his former players. “A lot of the guys come back and get involved. You can see their kids coming up. Kids that I used to coach, I’m coaching their kids now and they’re all helping out.”

One of Trenholm’s fellow assistant coaches on the peewee AAA team, Stuart Lenehan, was a player he once coached. Now Lenehan is helping coach Trenholm’s son, Connor, an up-and-coming player in the Cole Harbour system.

“When I was coaching Stuart, (my wife) was pregnant with our twins,” Trenholm says. “It’s a little surreal to think that he’s coaching my kid now and when I coached him, they weren’t even around. It’s great. I love the cycle.”

Cole Harbour proud

It’s one of the oddities that sometimes is created by living in a small town on the outskirts of a larger city. Thanks to amalgamation, none of Cole Harbour’s 30,000 residents live there according to Canada Post. All of their homes and businesses are considered to be part of neighbouring Dartmouth, N.S., whose city centre is some six kilometres to the east.

Put any local address in a GPS and it will magically appear as being located in Dartmouth.

If it weren’t for the signs on either end of Cole Harbour Road welcoming you to the hometown of Crosby, you wouldn’t be able to tell where Dartmouth ends and Cole Harbour begins. The sign was put up after Crosby brought the Stanley Cup to town in 2009 with a parade that some estimate more than tripled the population. The marker has become a tourist destination with visitors pulling into the parking lot of the nearby Walmart to leave their vehicles and snap some photos.

There are a few big box chain stores alongside mom-and-pop establishments, but it’s not particularly picturesque or quaint. It could be a suburb of a large city anywhere in Canada.

“It’s nothing special,” says Cole Harbour native Ryan Fortune. “What you see is what you get.” 

Like any community, Cole Harbour has its problems. There have been brawls – allegedly race related – at Cole Harbour High School, one of the town’s two secondary schools. More recently, Cole Harbour was in the news when 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after allegedly being raped by four teenage boys. Hockey has given the town respite from the negative national headlines.

Still, there is a fierce pride that comes from the people living here. Many of the residents in this working-class community still list Cole Harbour on their mailing addresses and official documents despite the amalgamation.

Playing hockey, MacAulay insists that his birthplace be listed as Cole Harbour, N.S., despite the fact there is no local hospital and he was born in Halifax.

“I grew up in Cole Harbour,” says MacAulay. “I don’t want to be known as  (being) born in Halifax.”

He’s not the only one. Alexis Crossley is one top female hockey players for her age in Canada. When Crossley attended Canada’s women’s under-22 development camp in Calgary this summer, her online player profile listed her hometown as Halifax. She asked Hockey Canada to change it.

“I’m from Cole Harbour,” says Crossley, who is at the University of New Hampshire on a hockey scholarship. “I’m proud to be from Cole Harbour. Now that Sid is so famous and now that Nathan is following in his footsteps, everyone knows where Cole Harbour is. Here in the U.S. I’ll say, ‘I’m from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia’ and someone will say, ‘Oh, I don’t know where that is on a map, but I know that that’s where Sidney Crosby’s from.’ ” 

I’m extremely proud, but I was before (Crosby), I was proud 25 years ago. I always said back then I was from Cole Harbour.

— Former NHL player Cam Russell

Not surprisingly, the residents are proud of their community and enjoy life outside the city.

“I hate to sound like that small town guy saying, ‘I’ll never leave’ but we like it here,” says Greenwood, who was raised in Cole Harbour. “We really like the community and we know so many people now that it’s hard to envision leaving.”

When Russell’s decade-long NHL career was done in 1999, he moved back to Cole Harbour. He’s since moved some 10 minutes outside the boundary, but his father still lives there. Crosby’s parents, Trina and Troy, have also stayed.

“It’s very tough for people to leave that area,” says Russell. “I’m extremely proud, but I was before (Crosby), I was proud 25 years ago. I always said back then I was from Cole Harbour.”

The hub of activity in town is Cole Harbour Place, a multi-purpose facility that was constructed in the 1980s around one of the existing arenas. It features two ice rinks – Scotia One and Scotia Two – a swimming pool, a library, gym, meeting rooms and ample space for activities like dance or karate classes. Even in the summer, when ice time isn’t at a premium, the complex is still busy.

“It’s pretty rare that you’d walk into this place and it’s not buzzing,” Trenholm says during an interview at the Cole Harbour Place canteen.

For families like the MacKinnons, Cole Harbour Place provided a lot of convenience for working parents with busy schedules. In their case, Kathy MacKinnon says the facility made it easier for her and her husband, Graham, to take the kids so Nathan could play hockey while older daughter Sarah would study in the library or swim at the pool.

Through his work at Bell Aliant, Trenholm has had opportunities to leave Cole Harbour. But he and his wife, Debbie, have decided to stay because they believe it’s a good place to raise their 10-year-old twins, Connor and Cassidy. They’ve even gone so far as to eliminate certain houses because they’d fall outside of Cole Harbour’s minor hockey boundaries.

“There are some places not far from here that are over the boundaries where you’d play for the Dartmouth Whalers,” explains Trenholm. “Not that it would be such a bad thing, but growing up in Cole Harbour – we just wouldn’t do it.”

There are many in the hockey community who share the same sentiment. Compared to bigger cities Canada, the hockey fees in Cole Harbour are relatively low. The base registration is $560 for most levels of hockey, which is a steal compared to the thousands of dollars families pay in the Greater Toronto Area.

“It goes back to the middle-class roots,” Greenwood says. “Sometimes in certain parts of Canada there can be a sense of entitlement. … We’re in a community that is very middle class, so you can afford to play hockey but you still kind of have that Maritime pride and work ethic that’s really important.”

The Crosby legacy

Like many children growing up, Ryan Fortune spent countless hours playing ball hockey with friends on the streets in his neighbourhood. Hockey was a huge part of his everyday life.

He played minor hockey with the same kids he went to school with and after school they’d all go to practice. Then, after practice, they’d play some more.

But, growing up as a hockey player in Cole Harbour, N.S., was a little different. On occasion, Fortune and his friends would be joined in a friendly scrimmage or a game of mini-sticks by another neighborhood boy named Sidney Crosby, who was a few years older.

At the time, the kids Crosby was playing with had no idea they had a future NHL superstar in their midst. On Thursdays, a big night for hockey in Cole Harbour, the atom-aged kids would head to the rinks at Cole Harbour Place to play at 7 p.m., and the hang around to watch the peewee AAA game at 8 p.m., followed by the bantam AAA game. It’s the same schedule the Cole Hockey Bel Ayr Minor Hockey Association has kept for years.

“Sidney would be younger than all the other guys and he’d be amazing out there,” says Fortune, who now plays hockey at St. Francis Xavier University. “But when you’re watching him, you don’t really know what else is out there because you’re in Cole Harbour. You think, ‘There’s probably some kid in the States doing this.’ We knew he was good, but once he went to the (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) people realized how good.”

Players now are reminded how good Crosby became the moment they put on their Cole Harbour Wings jerseys. The words “The Home of Sidney Crosby” are emblazoned on the right side just under the shoulder along with Crosby’s No. 87. It’s also a way for the minor hockey association to thank the Penguins star, who has been generous with his donations of both money and equipment to his alma mater. He still comes home for Christmas and trains there in the summer, giving local kids the chance to grab an autograph or picture.

At the skate shop in Cole Harbour Place, kids will come in and ask specifically for the “Crosby cut” so they can have their blades sharpened in the same way, at the same place, as their idol did many years ago.

“They’d give them the ‘Crosby cut’ but it’s the standard cut,” says Mason with a laugh. “But they all want to emulate him.” 

It’s an early Saturday morning and the ice at Scotia One is abuzz with players looking for a summer skate before the start of the season.  There’s nothing regimented, just a scrambled game of shinny with players of various ages along with coach Danny Puma, who guides Cole Harbour’s atom AAA squad.

During one attempted scoring play, Puma loses his balance and falls, prompting lighthearted cheers and clapping from the parents in the stands – all of whom are his friends and neighbours.

“It’s about coaching the community kids,” Mason says. “It’s about hockey in this community. It always has been and will probably always continue to be.

“It’s nothing special, but it’s our life.”

Kids have people to look up to in our small town. With Nathan and Sid, that’s changed our whole mindset. It’s not one in a million anymore, it’s one in 30,000.

— Alexis Crossley

Mason, who helped plan Crosby’s 2009 Stanley Cup parade, admits he uses the Hart Trophy winner as a teaching tool for many of the players he now coaches. At a hockey camp late in the summer, Mason was showing kids a skating drill focusing on the importance of skating heel-to-heel.

“We said just watch Sidney on the ice,” says Mason. “You’ll see him do it more than anyone else when he uses it in games. We do that because it has that teachable factor that relates to the kids.”

Having someone of Crosby’s stature come from their town has also given the local kids the opportunity to dream big.

“Maybe someday I’ll be able to put Cole Harbour on the map even more than it already has,” says Crossley, who scored the game-winning goal to give Canada gold at the 2012 under-18 women’s championship. “That mindset is there that, yes, superstars do come out of Cole Harbour. I may or may not be one, but at least I have a shot at it. That gives a lot of younger kids hope and that extra drive.”

One might think that having less than 900 registered players would put Cole Harbour at a disadvantage.  But don’t get lulled into thinking Cole Harbour was some small-time David going up against the big-city Goliath.

“It wasn’t David versus Goliath at all,” MacAulay says. “Everyone wanted to beat Cole Harbour because we were good.”

What they lacked in quantity, they made up for with quality. Children playing hockey there know their history and every time they catch the NHL highlights they are reminded that if they work hard they, too, might get their name added to the welcome sign on Cole Harbour Road.

“Kids have people to look up to in our small town,” says Crossley.

“With Nathan and Sid, that’s changed our whole mindset. It’s not one in a million anymore, it’s one in 30,000.”

(Photos courtesy Sunaya Sapurji / Yahoo Canada)

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