There was a buzz in the arctic air at Sandy Lake First Nation last Tuesday that not even the -34C polar chill could numb – word had it that Lord Stanley was about to land in town.
On the local radio station, Chief Bart Meekis issued an urgent plea for all 3,500 residents of the remote northern Ontario reserve to “Let’s all get to the airport now and show our happiness!”
At Thomas Fiddler Memorial Elementary School, students put the last-minute touches on a colourful banner written in their native Oji-Cree, welcoming the Stanley Cup and its contingent of carriers from Etobicoke.
And at the landing site itself, dozens of pick-up trucks and school buses packed with excited hockey fans of all ages ringed the airstrip in anxious anticipation of the Holy Grail of hockey’s arrival.
"Seeing my kids walk out of the gym today with skates in their hands and big smiles on their faces just melted my heart." – Jenn Elwell, Sandy Lake teacher
“The gravity of it all didn’t really hit me until we were landing in Sandy Lake and I looked out the window and saw the whole community out there in the cold waiting for us,” said Etobicoke-Lakeshore Councillor Mark Grimes, who used his connections at the Hockey Hall of Fame to arrange the Cup’s visit to coincide with the delivery of 5,500 pounds of Rotary-donated hockey equipment to Sandy Lake – even successfully outbidding Justin Trudeau for the honour.
As the charter flight carrying Grimes, Rotary representatives, a documentary film crew from Etobicoke-based Fifth Ground Entertainment, and the official “Keeper of the Cup” Howie Borrow touched down, the subzero temperatures seemingly melted away on a wave of enthusiasm that drove a flood of excited bodies from the warmth of their vehicles and onto the airfield – Chief Meekis one of the first among them.
“To actually see it here in Sandy Lake, it brings so much hope and so much joy to my community. That the Stanley Cup would come to a remote place like this, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard of it,” Meekis said shortly after parading the Cup around Sandy Lake on the back of his pick-up truck, trailed by an escort of 16 flag-waving, skidoo-driving members of the Sandy Lake Canadian Rangers.
While Lord Stanley’s 22-hour stay in Sandy Lake was widely celebrated as a “historic first”, Meekis pledged it most certainly won’t mark the Cup’s last long voyage to the remote fly-in community nearly 1,500 kms northwest of Toronto.
“It will be back up here again in 2020, but next time it will be one of our young hockey players bringing it north as a Stanley Cup champion – hopefully with the Canadiens,” the Montreal fan said with a determined grin.
“To us, the Stanley Cup promotes education, it promotes discipline, and it also promotes that you can be all you can be – and that’s something our kids need to see.”
While the Cup’s arrival provided plenty of incentive to young hockey players in Sandy Lake to strive for NHL greatness, the accompanying delivery of 16 skids of gently used hockey gear collected by the Rotary Clubs of Etobicoke and Palgrave – and shipped free-of-charge courtesy Wasaya Airways and the Grimes’ brothers Etobicoke-based logistics company, MGA International – brought with it the means with which to fulfill a hockey dream that, for many, would’ve otherwise been out of reach.
Freight costs to communities like Sandy Lake, which are only accessible by land via ice roads for a few short weeks in the winter, drive the price of even the most basic of goods up at least threefold. In a community where even a 24-case of no-name bottled water sells for $27.79, that means the price of already-costly hockey equipment becomes prohibitively expensive for most families.
“A lot of our youth want to get on the ice, but can’t afford the skates, which is sad because people here go hard for hockey – they absolutely love it,” said Jenn Elwell, the now “super famous” teacher who arranged the hockey donation with Rotary Etobicoke’s Laura Latham after stumbling upon a story about the club’s hockey drive on Facebook.
“So for me, seeing my kids walk out of the gym today with skates in their hands and big smiles on their faces just melted my heart. It was so beautiful, because I know how much it means to them.”
Pittsburgh Penguins superfan Derek Monias, 13, not only walked away from the distribution event at Thomas Fiddler Memorial Elementary School last week with a hockey bag stuffed with new gear, he was also able to cross a key item off his bucket list.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Stanley Cup in person and now I have. It’s every hockey player’s dream to one day achieve winning it,” he said with a shy smile.
“This day, we all feel happy. The people that brought the Cup here have put a smile on everybody’s faces here in Sandy Lake and made them feel good inside.”
Etobicoke Guardian reporter Cynthia Reason was one of a nine-member team from Toronto who participated in the whirlwind, 33-hour, five-flight trip to Sandy Lake First Nation to help deliver 5,500 pounds of Rotary-donated kids hockey equipment.
That group included local Etobicoke-Lakeshore Councillor Mark Grimes, Rotary Etobicoke’s Gerald Lue and Laura Latham (Franklin Horner Community Centre), Susan Hicks of the Rotary Club of Palgrave, Mimico Arena rep Chris Szarka and his Fifth Ground Entertainment documentary crew of Reg Grey and Christian Wallace, and Howie Borrow, the keeper of the Stanley Cup.
Here are some of those members’ reflections on the trip:
“The whole Sandy Lake community was just fantastically awesome from the moment we arrived to the time we left. You’d think we were bringing the Second Coming – it was just that kind of Stanley Cup crazy. I can’t even count the number of people who came up and shook my hand and thanked me. It’s an amazing community.”
- Laura Latham, Rotary Etobicoke/Franklin Horner Community Centre
“The kids have been the highlight for me – they touch my heart. For some of the little ones, it was their very first pair of skates, so it was special. It’s pretty amazing when you can see what a difference it will make in their lives. I would love to be here to see them on the ice that first time. When they start that little, anything’s possible.”
- Susan Hicks, Rotary Club of Palgrave
“One of the highlights for me was getting there before the Cup and being in the truck and listening to the local radio station as the chief was calling out saying ‘Hey everybody, come on down to the airport – the Cup’s going to arrive soon’. Then arriving at the airport and having this huge ring of vehicles all there waiting. As we’ve heard a million times before, the Stanley Cup is something that all of Canada loves – whether you’re in Mimico or in Sandy Lake, 600 kms north of Thunder Bay – and this experience just proved that for me.”
- Chris Szarka, Mimico Canadiens/Fifth Ground Entertainment
“A lot of people don’t realize the opportunities we have in the city, so being able to collect a lot of this hockey and bring it up here and share it has been a great pleasure. We were only able to visit one of the communities we collected equipment for, and we are very glad it was Sandy Lake.”
- Gerald Lue, Rotary Club of Etobicoke
“It was all about the kids. And as the chief said, hopefully this isn’t the Cup’s last trip to Sandy Lake. I hope one of the recipients of this great hockey equipment we brought with us puts it to good use and we see an NHL star come out of Sandy Lake. Hopefully the Cup will be back here many more times in the years to come.”
- Mark Grimes, Etobicoke-Lakeshore Councillor