Stanstead down to the wire

Stanstead, Quebec is a border town in the Eastern Townships

CBC’s Kraft Hockeyvile competition is down to the top five finalists in the running to be called Canada’s ultimate hockey town. Leave a comment on who is your favorite candidate?  Earlier in the contest, I produced a profile of Stanstead for CBC TV. Here’s a short reflection on my day spent in the town.

Even in HD, there are some things the camera can’t capture.

The faded walls of an arena which speak to breaking barriers and eliminating borders.

The weight of a snow-filled shovel and the familiarity of the Zamboni — two best friends to children chasing dreams alongside frozen pucks.

The pride of an aunt, as she literally grows taller watching her nephew transform with every stride toward the net.

And the aura of mountain peaks that dwarf the International Boundary- subtle reminders to shinny players that differences of language and citizenship fade to insignificance as goalies defend wobbly nets.

Stanstead left these impressions with me during my visit earlier this month. Impressions that can be challenging to capture in a two-minute video report, but I believe say a lot about this town of three-thousand people, which straddles the Quebec-Vermont border.

I arrived early on a Saturday morning, low on energy because I’d just wrapped a month-long assignment covering the Vancouver Olympics.

I got a boost, however, as soon as I stepped out of the van.  A grey-haired gentleman grabbed my arm as I made my way toward the the barn called the Stanstead College arena. Built in the 50’s, it looks like a big old airport hangar, and is frankly incongruous with just about everything else in this postcardesque town. Mr. Stanley Holmes, a short and stocky grandfather wearing glasses and a ball cap – and looking every bit the Eastern Townships farming stock that he comes from – proudly told me that his grandfather donated the land where the arena stands. And, he said, I should talk to his daughter who was inside coaching. Funny, I replied, she’s the first on my list of scheduled interviews.

Erin Holmes, changed the face of hockey in the 70’s.

Erin Holmes might be the only person in Stanstead who’s more chatty than her father. She lights up what is an otherwise  dark and cold rink, running a practice for 5- and 6-year-olds. She wastes no time telling me that she broke a gender barrier here in the seventies, becoming the first female to play organized hockey.  There was no problem being the only girl on the team, as she had already spent years chasing after her brothers on the nearby frozen ponds. Now a rosy-cheeked mother of four, she’s got all her kids on skates.

Erin Homes with two of her children.

There are more than a hundred children playing minor hockey in the old ice box, and the home team is called the “Border Jets”.  Half the kids live on the Quebec side, the other half in Vermont. As birth rates dropped with the changing times here, cross-border rivals became cross-border mates.

The rink manager, Marc Parent, recalls those changes as he sits atop the Zamboni. When he’s not perched behind that wheel, the other place you’ll find him is behind the skate sharpening machine. The tireless 40-something has been a fixture here for years, taking on whatever role you can imagine, from president of minor hockey (in his twenties) to dependable garage league player. In fact, he told me that his Dad still shows up at some of the weeknight games, and that makes him try harder than usual. The bond between the two was forged years ago when father coached son on the outdoor rinks.

Raymond Parent is another legendary figure around here. Well into his 60’s, he’s taken care of the community outdoor rink for more than 30 years, which means he’s shoveled enough snow to fill a city skyscraper. Totally worth it, he told me, because kids like nothing more than to skate. It fires their dreams, he said.

Stacey Boomhower with her nephew Michael Doucet.

Back at the rink, Stacey Boomhower stands by the boards, looking anything but a hockey fan. Her coat doesn’t look warm enough, and she’s not wearing a hat. She quickly told me that she was not one of those kids whose imagination was captured by the game, but she now appreciates the transformative power of the sport. That’s thanks to Michael Doucet, her 12-year-old nephew who can’t seem to stop smiling when he’s on the ice. Michael suffers from a number of health issues, including ADD. She told me hockey has had a profound impact on his ability to communicate with other kids. As he dawned his Border Jets jersey for the camera, Michael’s eyes were the widest I’d seen since meeting some of the Olympic medalists in February.

Michael Doucet can’t enough of playing hockey.

The last scene I remember from my Stanstead visit is the group of kids playing street hockey in front of Guy Ouellet’s house (Ouellet is the main organizer of the community’s push to become Kraft Hockeyville). On the heels of the Canada-US Olympic final, it was an easy choice to play a game of Canadians versus Americans. Despite that, this was a game among friends and there was no trace of animosity. What the camera could not pick up was the site of Vermont’s Jay Peak in the distance behind one goal, and Quebec’s Mount Orford behind the other. Two ski stations with their own peculiarities, but very much kindred spirits.

By the end of the day, I had forgotten about my fatigue, energized instead by the people and the place. And while the HD camera may not be able to capture everything, the video report did in the end convey some of the of energy that was transferred on to me.

Here’s what the video looks like:

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